January 5, 1967 was not a good day for things flying in the skies of Nevada...
It was a very chilly, breezy Thursday with a cold front in the process of moving through the state bringing snow to the higher elevations. In the southern part of the state, our area of interest, the winds were blowing out of the SW at around 15 knots, with gusts to 25 knots. There was a scattered cloud layer at 5,000' (lower than many mountain peaks) and another scattered cloud layer at 15,000'. Snow had fallen on some of the higher spots.
Shortly before 1:00 PM, a group of four Phantom F-4D's took off from Nellis AFB and headed northeast toward Caliente for a routine training exercise. At 1:09 PM, while in the midst of abrupt maneuvering, one of the Phantoms lost control and crashed 7 miles southwest of Caliente. The occupant of rear seat managed to eject at 500' AGL, and his parachute only fully opened just as he was impacting the ground. He sustained minor injuries as a result. The occupant of the front seat apparently made no attempt to eject (or attempted too late) and was killed on impact. Rescue helicopters were scrambled from Nellis, and the surviving crewmember was recovered around 2:00 PM. Unbeknownst to the participants in this unfortunate drama, an equally unfortunate (and much more interesting) drama was in the process of unfolding not very far away.
Walter L. Ray, an employee of the CIA, but ostensibly civilian pilot for Lockheed, was in the midst of what has been termed "a routine test flight" of the very secret Lockheed A-12, out of its hidden home at Groom Lake. The particular craft Ray was flying was known as "928", a shortening of its official tail number of 60-6928. To its owner, the CIA, with the usual "spook-speak" it was also known mysteriously as "Article 125" (Lockheed's production number). As far as the A-12 fleet went, it was relatively middle-aged, with 335 hours spread over 202 flights.
As for Ray, he was a very experienced pilot, with a long military background. Of his 3,354 hours of flight time, 358 hours were in A-12s. He had joined the OXCART project on November 7, 1962
Ray took off from Groom at 11:59 AM (PST) that day, 1 minute ahead of schedule. It was to be a routine training and test mission to the northeast, executing a test plan labeled "66-12" and using the call sign "Dutch 45". The first aerial refueling, immediately after takeoff, was normal, with 928 taking on 36,000 pounds of fuel. After climbing and executing a Mach 3.1 cruise for a while, Ray descended for his second aerial refueling. He took on another 61,000 pounds of fuel, which was 4 to 5,000 pounds less than he was supposed to get, as the tanker had insufficient fuel. Ray was planning to mitigate this fuel shortage by executing a fuel-saving, reduced power climb on the next outbound leg.
This tactic worked pretty well, and Ray was able to conserve enough fuel on his outbound leg so he was only a manageable 800 to 1000 pounds below what he should have had after completing the turn back to Groom. Then, things began to go sour.
At 3:22 PM, near Farmington, New Mexico, Ray reported he was down to 7,500 pounds of fuel, and said, "I don't know where it's gone." At that point in his flight, he was supposed to have about 13,000 pounds in his tanks, but Ray stated he thought he could still make it.
At 3:52 PM, descending near Hanksville, Utah, Ray reported he was low on fuel, and a minute later declared an official emergency.
At 3:56:27 PM, Ray radioed he was 130 miles out, had 4,000 pounds of fuel left, and was losing it at an excessive rate. Then 5 minutes later, at 4:01:34 PM, he reported that the low pressure lights for his fuel system had come on.....He was running out of fuel. 30 seconds later he called and said his engines were starting to flame out.
Finally, at 4:03 PM, at what under normal circumstances should have been a mere 10 minutes from safe touchdown, Ray made his final radio transmssion to say both engines had flamed out, and was ejecting.
The way the ejection system worked on the A-12 (and likewise in the later SR-71) was not as most people would imagine. After ejection, the pilot remains strapped in his seat, and the seat releases a small drogue parachute to both slow and stabilize itself. Then, upon reaching some much lower, preset altitude, the seat releases the straps and the pilot is forcibly shoved out of the seat by the tightening of what are called "butt-snapper" straps. They are under the pilot's butt and force him up and out of the seat, hence the name. After that, the pilot's parachute opens automatically, and he completes his descent. The system was pretty well thought out, and was designed to safely recover pilots from extremely high altitudes, even if they were injured or unconscious.
As Ray passed through 16,000' the system attempted to work as advertised, but something went very wrong. As the butt-snapper straps tried to force Ray off the seat, his parachute backpack jammed under the seat's headrest. There are two reasons why this may have occurred, or perhaps it was a combination of the two. Ray was a short guy, and to ensure a good fit in his seat, the headrest was modified and extended further down. Another contributor were some screws in the seat installed in a manner that let them protrude a bit.
Why Ray couldn't manually extricate himself is not known. There's no reason he should have been unconscious. Perhaps he was partially out of the seat and that set the whole mess spinning wildly, disorienting him. It may also have been that his release mechanism was jammed by a foriegn object. Sadly, after what must have been a truly wretched ride, Ray and the seat impacted the side of a mountain peak near 6,000' and was killed instantly. Ray and the seat bounced maybe a hundred yards down the steep slope, finally coming to rest against a large cedar tree. At almost the same instant, 928 impacted the ground some distance away. After that, all was silent.
Meanwhile, back at "the ranch" (one of the everpopular nicknames for Groom Lake), the scramble to mount a rescue/recovery effort had begun. Unfortunately, there was only a little over an hour of daylight left by that time, and portions of the area were obscured by low clouds, so there was not much that could be done. This was in the days before night vision and FLIR.
Nevertheless, three vehicles were immediately dispatched from Groom to the crash area. Within 30 minutes of the crash, Nellis AFB launched two T-33's and an F-101 aircraft, as well as two helicopters. At 5:30 PM the T-33's were recalled and a C-130 was sent out in their place to search for signs fruitlessly throughout the night.
The next day, as what should have been a simple search began turning up empty, a U-2 was launched to photograph the entire search area. Finally, at 3:06 PM (PST), on January 6th, 23 hours after the incident occurred, 928's crash site was discovered. The first teams onsite found that the ejection had been sucessful, but where was Ray?
As the search continued for Ray, the problem was this: The recovery teams were obviously looking for a parachute, as they knew he had ejected. But the seat, with only its small drogue chute deployed, nestled under a cedar tree, made for for a very difficult visual. It wasn't until 2:00 PM the following day , Saturday, January 7, that they discovered Ray's body. A recovery team was dropped at the site and they cut a small clearing for a helicopter landing zone. They brought Ray and the seat down the slope and wisked them out of the area.
At the A-12 crash site, a perimeter was established and the site secured. Dirt roads in the vicinity were blocked off by armed guards and heavy equipment was brought in. For over a week, large trucks rolled out of the site, carrying pieces of 928 back to Groom. Then, the spot was evacuated, the guards withdrawn, and silence again settled over the scene. It remained this way for 30 years, quiet and alone, visited only occasionally by misguided range cattle.
Then I got this silly idea.....
Next thrilling installment!