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Crash Explorers Pt 25 By Robb Hill

Crash Explorers Pt 25 By Robb Hill

A-12 serial number 60-6928 sitting on the runway at Groom Lake. Test Pilot Walter L. Ray would lose his life in this aircraft. He would be lost as the result of a series of malfunctions which will be described in this article. He would be the first pilot to die in the program which would bring vital photographic intelligence to the United States and contribute mightily to keeping the peace when the threat of nuclear attack was ever present.

 

The year was 1962, and theCold War was in full swing. Aerial espionage flights over Russia or any other country where it was deemed necessary were carried out routinely by the U.S. government. The prime agency responsible for these flights was the C.I.A., or Central Intelligence Agency. The primary vehicle employed by them to gain that intelligence was Lockheeds futuristic A-12 spy plane which was an early version of the famed SR-71Blackbird. The C.I.A. had procured a bakers dozen of them built at Lockheed Aircraft Corporations Skunk Works facility at Palmdale, California. Many of these aircraft would be home-based at the super-secret base near Rachel, Nevada, known as Groom Lake or Area 5 l. On the fateful day of January 5, 1967, one of the A-l2s was to be test-flown after either repairs or modifications had been made to it. This particular aircraft, serial number 60-6928, was a veteran of many Cold War missions, having completed 202 of them while amassing 3,349 flight hours. It was to be checked out on this date by Lockheed Test Pilot and C.I.A. employee, Walter L. Ray. He was to fly the aircraft known simply as 928 on a short test hop takng off from Groom Lake and returning to it.

The length of his mission is unknown but can be assumed to be relatively short. The aircrafts on-board fuel was apparently going to be sufficient to complete the test-hop, but an aerial tanker was available if needed. Test Pilot Ray took off Without incident and completed the testing of me aircraft and began his descent to Area 51. He apparently deemed his fuel supply to be sufficient to get him back to base although a tanker was standing by to refuel him if required. As his aircraft descended below 50,000 feet and was within minutes of touch-down at Groom Lake, something went terribly wrong and both engines flamed-out. He then attempted a re-start of them without success. The A-12 passed through 45,000 feet and was descending rapidly. Ray had to make an instant decision between staying with his aircraft or departing. He chose the latter and at approximately 1600 hours ejected from the aircraft above 40,000 feet altitude. Ejection at extremely high altitudes and speeds has always been hazardous. It was no less in either the A-12 or SR-71. When the ejection sequence is activated, due canopy is blown off by an explosive charge and the pilot, strapped to his ejection seat, is propelled by a rocket charge above and away from the stricken aircraft. After ejection the pilot remains strapped to his seat and a small drogue parachute is released which both slows and stabilizes the pilots descent. As the pilot reaches a lower pre-determined altitude, the ejection seat part and he, part company. The seat falls away and the pilots parachute opens automatically. Unfortunately, in Walter Rays case this Sequence did not operate as advertised.

The separation sequence did take place at 16,000 feet, but Rays chute became entangled in the seats headrest sending both spinning to earth. Trapped in the seat, he impacted the ground some 10,000 feet later and was killed instantly. At about the same time, his spy~plane, A-12 serial number 60-6928, impacted against a narrow ridge rising from a large Wash area in the Meadow Valley mountains in the vicinity of Leith Railroad siding. Groom Lake Ground Control had been in contact with Test Pilot Ray, prior to his ejection and wanted to order search aircraft into the air, but the daylight hours were fast fading on that January day. The search effort would have to wait until dawn. At daybreak on January 6, 1962, search aircraft from Nell's Air Force Base began combing the area and quickly located the crash Site. What they didn’t find, however, was its pilot who had come to earth some distance from the airframe. The chances of his being alive were slim but his fate still had to be determined. It would not happen on that day. Finally, on Saturday the 7th, alter considerable searching Rays final resting place at the base of a cedar tree was discovered some 8 miles from the crash site. Walter Ray would be die first of a number of A-12 and SR-71 pilots to die in the line of duty.

Both plane and pilot had now been located. All that remained was to determine why the mishap had occurred in the first place and why Rays chute hadn’t opened. Unfortunately, an investigation of the aircrafts remains would reveal little. Several theories were advanced as to its cause but all were speculative. One was that for whatever reason he missed his rendezvous with the aerial tanker but decided that he had sufficient fuel to reach Groom Lake. The second was that the C.I.A. was notorious for choosing the low-bidder to provide vital instrumentation for the A-12 and as a result die fuel gauges were unreliable. It is a somewhat moot point as to which caused the mishap. The bigger issue is why the ejection seat sequence did not function in the prescribed manner. More theories were proposed in an attempt to solve that mystery as well. One of them was that Wafter L. Ray was of short stature and that the headrest of the ejection seat was lowered to accommodate his shorter frame. It was under the headrest that his parachute became lodged and unable to open.

The second was that his chute caught on some incorrectly installed Screws protruding from the seat. If an official conclusion was drawn from the evidence found it was never disclosed to the public. A multi-million-dollar spy plane had been lost and one of Lockheeds leading test pilots was dead. Those were the facts and the public would be privy to no more. The Air Force would carefully clean up the site which was in a fairly remote area and the case would be closed. Since no official crash report existed that would ever be available to the public, the problem of relocating the crash site would be a monumental one. Only through the efforts of some dedicated Crash Explorers would the site be relocated. It was not until April 1997 that it was found after several years of searching. The author and an associate became privy to directions to the site early in 2004 and made plans to make the trek to it. We had a choice of several routes to reach the site. One was a long walk down the wash to the site, and the second and overland route which appeared much shorter. What We didn’t know was how steep that route was going to turn out to be. After about an hour of trekking up and down some very steep terrain, We found ourselves peering across the Wash to the hillside the A-12 impacted upon. Luckily for us, the sun was high and reflected against some reasonably large pieces of crash debris. We were, of course, attracted to them, but found little else.

Those pieces had been cast far and away from the impact site. It took another ten minutes of searching to get to the center of impact. As we got closer the ground was covered with minute bits of titanium. The A-12 had literally disintegrated into thousands of pieces, none bigger than your thumb. None of them were readily identifiable and had I happened onto this site by accident I would never have been able to identify the type of aircraft involved. Such was not the case as positive identification had been made by the original locators of the site. They had done the hard work and my friend and I were the benefactors of their efforts. We were standing amidst the crash wreckage of one of the most secret and unique aircraft ever designed. The great tragedy was that a human being had lost his life as the result of it. The daylight hours were waning on that clear but cold winter day of January 4, 2004, and, although we would have preferred to investigate the crash, further field safety dictated that we head back to civilization.

 

This interesting photo taken at the flight line of Area 51 . It depicts the sleek and stealthy aerodynamics of the SR-71Blackbird. It all started with the A-12 of which the SR-71 was a descendant. Thirteen A-12s were built for the C.IA. Russian defences against them and the advanced SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft were virtually ineffective and none was ever lost to enemy action. Both the A-12 and SR-71 would be employed clandestinely throughout the most perilous years of the Cold War supplying our military with vital information. It was a highly expensive program but worth every cent of it and more.

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