Down to Earth
CLUI Program Explores Airplane Crash Sites

3326 The exhibit Down to Earth at CLUI Los Angeles, in February 2013. A version of the exhibit is on display at the Center’s Desert Research Station near Barstow, and on the CLUI website. CLUI photo

EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT CRASH sites in the Mojave were the subject of a CLUI program consisting of an exhibition, public presentation, and a field trip, in January and February of 2013. Down to Earth: Experimental Aircraft Crash Sites of the Mojave focused on eleven incidents, selected to represent a range of aviation technology over 70 years of jet-powered flight, from a 1948 crash of a flying wing to a 2009 crash of an advanced fighter plane.

The exhibit included historical video and sound recorded by on-board cameras, and flight control communications, as well as video from high-powered tracking cameras, following the airplanes as they fell to the ground after the pilots ejected.

A CLUI team visited each crash site and photographed it from above, using kite and balloon-mounted cameras, in order to show the impact area from an elevated perspective in considerable detail, whether there was anything to see, or not. While these are sites of high drama and damage, they also can be very subtle.

Since the Right Stuff era, Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, has been the principal place for testing experimental aircraft. The other bases in the region make it a busy military training airspace as well. As a result, the region is peppered with crash sites–more than 600 in the western Mojave Desert alone.

While many of them occurred inside restricted military spaces, many more occurred on private and public land outside the reservations. Some crashes occurred next to homes and state highways. Sometimes the pilot ejected safely, sometimes not. These are complicated and often tragic places. In all cases, though, despite having been cleaned up by authorities immediately following the crash, fragments of the planes can still be found on site. These sites are monuments of disintegration, dissolving back into the ground.

3327 CLUI program managers Ben Loescher and Aurora Tang launching a balloon-mounted camera above the crash site of a B1A bomber prototype, near Cuddeback Dry Lake. CLUI photo
The exhibit was based on the work of Peter W. Merlin and the Aviation Archeology Field Research Team. Over the past 25 years, Merlin, often aided by his friend Tony Moore and others, has located and visited more than 100 crash sites of historic aircraft flown out of Area 51 and Edwards Air Force Base. In nearly every case he was told the site was lost and that everything had been removed anyways, so there was no point in trying to find it.

But he persisted, and found them using clues from interviews with pilots, FOIA requests, and research in archives. Mostly though by days of repeated searches in the field, wandering around, lining up historic photos with subtle geographic features, like hills in the distance, or small desert washes, while looking at the ground for incongruous fragments.

There is an established subculture of wreck-finders, some of whom publish books and blog about their discoveries on the web. Pat Macha, for example, has been leading excursions into the mountains and deserts of California to find wreckage, mostly of civilian and old military training aircraft, for decades. Peter Merlin, however, is truly an aviation historian, and was finally recognized for his dogged and pioneering work when he was hired as an archivist at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. His wreck-finding partner Tony Moore also works on base now, at the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum.

As part of the CLUI program, Peter Merlin gave a public presentation to a standing room-only crowd at the CLUI in Los Angeles about his work, and how he and Tony evolved from weekend explorers to the acknowledged experts, founding the Aviation Archeology Field Research Team, now frequently sought out by History Channel-type TV productions. 

3328 Pete Merlin (left) explains to the group what happened to cause an X-15 to crash at this location, in 1967. Merlin helped to have this monument constructed at the crash site. CLUI photo
There was also a public bus trip to crash sites, organized by the CLUI, with Merlin and Moore on board. The bus left from the Center’s office in Culver City, and made a long loop through the Antelope Valley, visiting a number of sites. Due to the arbitrary, back-country location of the crash sites, the tour had to be conducted with a high-clearance bus, capable of traveling on bumpy dirt roads, instead of the usual, more comfortable motor coach used by the CLUI for its tours. This gave the trip more of an expeditionary feel.

After a stop at Edwards Air Force Base to look at the static displays and get an introductory briefing from the crash experts, the bus headed east from Mojave, over dirt roads, to visit the 1948 crash site of the YB 49, a remarkable plane that was the first jet-powered flying wing. All the crew perished in the crash, including the co-pilot, Captain Glen Edwards. The air force base was later renamed in his honor.

The bus then visited the crash site of an X-31, a highly maneuverable prototype plane that crashed here in 1995 on the last flight of its testing period. It was one of only two versions of the plane. The pilot in this case ejected safely, but the plane landed a few hundred feet from a busy highway and a house.

The CLUI group stopped for lunch at Domingo’s, a Mexican restaurant in Boron full of aerospace memorabilia, and then headed north of Johannesburg and visited the only crash site of an X-15, the fastest plane ever made, which crashed here in 1967.

Back down Highway 14, in the dusk, the last stop was at the 1963 crash site of Chuck Yeager’s NF-104A. This flight was romanticized in the movie The Right Stuff, though what is real is that after he ejected from the plane, he went back to the burning wreckage to get his notebook. ♦

Down to Earth: Experimental Aircraft Crash Sites of the Mojave was a co-production of the Center’s Desert Research Station in Hinkley, California, the Aerospace Archeology Field Research Team, based out of Palmdale, and the Center’s Independent Interpreter Series, supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

For more about Peter W. Merlin’s work, see Books published by Merlin include: X-Plane Crashes: Exploring Experimental, Rocket Plane and Spycraft Incidents, Accidents and Crash Sites (Specialty Press, 2008), Breaking the Mishap Chain: Human Factors Lessons Learned from Aerospace Accidents and Incidents in Research, Flight Test, and Development (NASA, 2012), and Crash Course: Lessons Learned from Accidents Involving Remotely Piloted and Autonomous Aircraft (NASA, 2013).