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

Lessons Learned

A-12 (60-6926/Article 123) was not the first Blackbird crash site I had visited, but it was the most challenging. I have previously located the crash sites of SR-71A (61-7952), SR-71A (61-7953), SR-71A (61-7965), SR-71A (61-7970), and YF-12A (60-6936). I also visited SR-71A (61-7966) thanks to Robb Magley, and A-12 (60-6928/Article125) thanks to Tom Mahood. Both these gentlemen know the frustration and thrill of hunting Blackbirds.

Tom spent more than two years searching for Article 125. He used numerous resources including old newspaper articles, personal interviews, aerial photos, and fieldwork over the course of some 20 expeditions. I participated in several of his expeditions, as did eight other people. On a few occasions we were very close to the site.

Tom made as many visits as possible, over a two-year period, to the search area and covered a lot of ground. I only made five expeditions in 10 years to search for Article 123 and involved two other people. Because Wendover is so far from where I live in southern California, I only visited the search area as a target of opportunity when I was already traveling through eastern Nevada for other reasons.

Tom waited in vain for the CIA to respond to his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the Article 125 accident report. It finally showed up, long after Tom had found the site. It wouldn't have mattered if he received the report earlier. It contained no photos, maps, or other useful information about the crash location. I waited until I had the Article 123 accident report before I made a serious effort to find the site near Wendover. That report also lacked photos or maps. Some of the information it contained was confusing or blatantly misleading regarding the site location. It did narrow my search area from approximately 24 square miles to six square miles.

Tom spent approximately $500 for aerial photographs in the hope of identifying the impact scar. He found three other crash sites this way, but the A-12 impact scar was not readily apparent. I employed the Internet-based Terraserver to study aerial views of the Wendover area. I was unable to identify any likely impact scar or road made by recovery vehicles. I found one other crash site during my search, but neither it nor the A-12 impact were visible in the aerial images. The A-12 impact scar is, in fact, visible in the photos if you already know where it is. However, it looks no different than millions of similar features in the area.

In the course of Tom's search, he wrecked his truck once in an off-road mishap. This resulted in an unexpected $6,000 expense for a replacement vehicle. I got off easy with one flat tire.

Although I made two expeditions by myself, I recommend against journeying into the wilderness alone. I am an experienced desert traveler, having made off-road journeys throughout the western United States, traveled lonely canyons in Mexico on muleback , and trekked over 70 miles through Algeria's central Sahara Desert on foot. While searching for the A-12, I was never more than 14 miles from the town of Wendover and usually less than 10 miles from the nearest highway. Even so, the desert is a dangerous place full of natural hazards. Always bring adequate water supplies, wear proper clothing, and tell someone where you expect to be.

When searching for a crash site, remember: There's always something left! Expect to find debris even if the official documentation says it was all cleaned up.

There are many tools available to help identify any debris you find. These include geographic location, materials and construction methods, paints and coatings, part numbers and inspection stamps, and recognizable components.

Don't trust accounts in newspaper articles or books. The only reasonably accurate piece of information I had was that the airplane crashed 14 miles south of Wendover, but no clue as to where, geographically, the measurement originated. It makes a difference!

When interviewing witnesses, never trust memories more than 30 years old (or more than 30 seconds, for that matter). Memory has a way of becoming distorted over time.

If a crash site hasn't been paved over, then it should be possible to find it. Persistence pays off.

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