OXCART Down! - Searching for the remains of a secret spy plane
By Peter W. Merlin, October 2003

Accident Response

As Weeks circled above the clouds, he tried in vain to raise Collins on the radio. He switched to Guard frequency and called in a Mayday distress signal to the Salt Lake air traffic control center, but got no answer. After several radio calls, Weeks finally raised the Cedar City, Utah, radar site and asked them to relay a message to BOXER Control that "BOXER 10's wingman was in trouble approximately 70 nautical miles southeast of Elko." Unable to see the crash site through the clouds, Weeks headed back to Area 51. By now, several ground stations were calling him in response to the Mayday, but he told them to disregard his earlier transmissions. As soon as he was in radio range of Groom Lake, he transmitted as much information as he had.

The response was immediate and dramatic. A Top Secret aircraft had apparently gone down on public land in close proximity to a sizable population center. Search aircraft launched from Area 51 included a C-47, T-33, U-3B and two F-101s. A third F-101 took up a position between Groom Lake and Wendover to serve as a radio relay. A Cessna 180 and H-43 helicopter remained on standby alert to transport medical personnel.

As soon as Collins reported in from Wendover, all efforts began to focus on securing the crash scene and recovering the debris. Within a few hours, a C-47 and a Lockheed Constellation had arrived at Wendover with security personnel and crash investigators. A helicopter from Hill AFB near Salt Lake City took A-12 designer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson to the crash scene while a Lockheed JetStar picked up Collins and transported him the Lovelace Clinic at Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a physical examination. The T-33 pilot made a pass over the crash scene to photograph the wreckage. He reported that the front of the airplane was completely destroyed, but that the aft section was still identifiable as a twin-engine, delta-wing configuration. Both tails had separated and were lying some distance away from the fuselage. The engine nacelles had broken free of the wing structure. Ground crews made arrangements to cover any large pieces with tarps.

Brig. Gen. Jay T. Robbins, director of aerospace safety for the U.S. Air Force traveled to Wendover to coordinate the accident investigation. Meanwhile, Hill Air Force Base supplied flatbed trucks, a crane, and other equipment to recover the debris. There was some debate over whether to dynamite the large sections of wreckage to make identification by unauthorized personnel more difficult. The suggestion to use explosives came from Dr. Brockway McMillan, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), who felt that the accident investigation was subordinate to the security of the program. McMillan urged that recovery operations continue throughout the night if at all possible. Johnson felt that such extreme measures were unnecessary since the airplane was sufficiently broken up. He did, however, urge that removal of the wreckage proceed as rapidly as possible despite objections that it might impede accident investigators' ability to determine the cause of the accident. The cause could best be learned through detailed debriefing of the pilot, Johnson said, rather than by "digging around in the wreckage."

Since the A-12 had crashed in rugged, roadless terrain, and no electric lighting was available, work halted after darkness fell. Recovery crews began loading and removing the wreckage early the next morning. The A-12's center section and wings were cut apart with blowtorches and loaded onto the flatbed trucks along with the tails and other large pieces. Smaller debris was packed in boxes. To conceal the final destination of the wreckage, it was decided to that the debris would be transported by air rather than trucked directly to Area 51. Two C-124 cargo planes were flown from Hunter Air Force Base, Georgia, and Travis Air Force Base, California, to pick up the debris at Wendover. By late Saturday afternoon, both airplanes were loaded and secured. On Sunday morning, they delivered their secret cargo to Area 51.

One item was not immediately found. During the bailout, Collins lost his emergency kit containing several official letters and $1,000 cash. Nine people, including the on-scene commander and Security Officer searched the crash area for two full days after the clean-up effort ended. They covered an area four miles long and two miles wide centered on the impact location of the airplane's canopy, without success. A second attempt was made on 28 and 29 May with similar results. Since the letters did not contain any information regarding the airplane, its mission, configuration, or manufacturer, their exposure would not endanger the program. Additionally, it seemed that someone finding the packet would be more likely to keep the money than to publicize the letters. It was decided, however, to continue efforts to find the packet.

Since foot and vehicle searches had failed, a new approach was required. Subsequently, three paramedics and a First Sergeant from the 1129th SAS systematically covered the impact point and surrounding area on horseback in early June with the assistance of wrangler Ray B. Peterson. On the second day, using calculations supplied by Kelly Johnson, they finally located the packet, intact, 1.25 miles northeast of where Collins had landed.

Security concerns necessitated creating a cover story to prevent public exposure of the OXCART program. Brig. Gen. Boyd Hubbard Jr., commander of the 4520th Combat Crew Training Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, announced to the news media that a Republic F-105 operating from Nellis had crashed 14 miles south of Wendover. The pilot was described as a Hughes Aircraft Company employee who was testing electronic equipment. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, was given as the home base for the F-105.

Two factors helped keep the cover story intact. First, since the mission had been flown at low altitude, Collins wore a standard cloth flight suit instead of a full pressure suit. Had Collins been found wearing a space suit, it would have raised unwanted questions about his airplane's performance capabilities. Secondly, the airplane had crashed out of sight of the highway, preventing unauthorized personnel from getting a view of the airplane's configuration. The pilot's name was not initially released, leading the press to speculate that he was involved in the space program or was possibly a famous test pilot. Attempts by reporters to follow up various details of the story led to confusion as personnel at Nellis, Wright-Patterson, and the Pentagon denied knowledge of the aircraft and even the accident. In spite of such glaring inconsistencies, the cover story held up and news coverage was minimal.

The only serious threat came from reporter Art Kent of KUTV television news in Salt Lake City. Since Kent claimed to have pictures of the accident scene and planned to show them on the evening news, OXCART project personnel debated how to approach the reporter in an attempt to suppress the photos. Brig. Gen. Hubbard made arrangements for the Area 51 Security Officer and his deputy, carrying Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) credentials, to contact Kent and request that he not air the pictures. Kent, surprisingly without reluctance, agreed to relinquish the photos which, when developed, proved to be of little consequence.

Col. Charles E. Wimberley headed the accident investigation board. He took sworn statements from Collins and Weeks and coordinated the collection of supporting documentation. Collins submitted to an intensive interrogation while under the influence of sodium amytal - a drug used to enhance memory following a traumatic event - to insure that he remembered all pertinent details. Norm Nelson, a talented Lockheed engineer, determined the primary contributing factor that caused the accident. Inadequate pitot tube heating allowed entrapped moisture to freeze, blocking the pitot tube. The resulting erroneous air data caused a stability augmentation system failure.

Official Documents:

  • Document #1: 
  • This formerly classified official memorandum to James A. Cunningham, Deputy Director of the Office of Special Activities (CIA), gives a highly inaccurate account of the clean-up operation. The site was not, in fact, sanitized.
  • Document #2: 
  • A declassified memorandum describes the use of sodium amytal to enhance the pilot's memories during debriefing.
  • Document #3.1: 
  • Part of the pilot's statement to the accident investigation board gives details of his actions following bailout.
  • Document #3.2: 
  • More of the pilot's statement concerning his actions following bailout.
  • Document #4.1: 
  • Following the A-12 accident, OXCART project personnel kept a close eye on local news coverage. This memorandum concerns an article in the Las Vegas Review Journal.
  • Document #4.2: 
  • Page 2 of the memorandum concerning an article in the Las Vegas review Journal.
  • Document #4.3: 
  • Page 3 of the memorandum concerning an article in the Las Vegas review Journal.

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