The Hunting of the ZEL

Curtis Peebles
Magonia 69, December 1999

Over the past two decades, the “Roswell Incident” has become the most investigated UFO case in history. When viewed as a historical event, however, the result of all this effort is unsatisfactory. There is no agreement between the various books as to the exact date of the crash, the number of aliens, their appearance, the shape of the UFO, or the roles of the various individuals involved.
One does not have the sense that the accounts are differing views of the same historical event, but rather have no connection with each other. The conclusion one reaches is that the Roswell Incident is not a historical event, but belongs instead to the realm of mythology. A real event, the discovery of debris from a Mogul nuclear detection balloon, has been expanded and embellished over the years. [1]

One aspect of this is the multiplication of ‘crash sites.’ There are now six, each with its supporters. [2] In the published accounts, the crash site, wherever it might be located, was sealed off by military guards, and every trace of debris was carefully cleaned up. In Randle and Schmitt’s UFO Crash At Roswell, they say that once the debris field was photographed, troops walked across the area, collecting the largest pieces. They then re-crossed the field from another direction. Finally, they are described as getting down on their hands and knees, removing the tiny bits caught in the yucca plants, the clumps of prairie grass, and in rodent holes. [3]

In Randle’s later book, A History Of UFO Crashes, he describes how the troops dealt with the crashed UFO itself They, “loaded the remains of the crashed ship onto flatbed trucks…” The following day, “they brought experts in camouflage to the area,” in order to “eliminate visible traces of the crash and the recovery operation in the area.” [4] Such extraordinary efforts have become a part of each telling of the Roswell Incident. This too, is mythology.

For a number of years I have been friends with Peter Merlin, a member of the X-Hunters Aerospace Archaeology Team. They have located the crash sites of various experimental aircraft, primarily in the Edwards AFB area. Merlin has participated in the discovery of the crash sites of the N-9M, X-lA, X-2, X-15, and even a MK-17 H-bomb. In each case, there was debris, in spite of the passage of time, such as with the 1943 crash of the N-9M, or the extreme sensitivity of the object, as with the MK-17. During 1994 and 1995, we visited the crash site of the YB-49 flying wing. The crash occurred on June 5, 1948, when the aircraft broke up in flight, killing the five-man crew, which included Capt. Glen Edwards, for whom Edwards AFB is named. Although the crash had occurred more than 46 years be fore our visit, there was still considerable debris at the site. Most of it is small metal fragments, although there are also large amounts of melted aluminium, as well as the odd piece of Plexiglas and hydraulic fittings.

Both seeing the YB-49 crash site, and talking with Merlin, the implications for Roswell were obvious. The Air Force does not clean up every trace, there is always something left, no matter how sensitive the aircraft that has crashed. The obvious example was the MK-17. Here was an H-bomb, the most secret device built by the U.S. in 1957, yet material was still left behind. Debris will be buried, it will be caught in bushes, and it will be caught in branches. Even very large pieces will escape recovery. I began thinking of using the search for an aircraft crash site as a test case for Roswell.

In late 1996, I bought a video called Runways Of Fire on the Zero Length Launcher (ZEL) program. This involved attaching a rocket booster to an F100D fighter bomber and launching it off the back of a flatbed truck, thus eliminating the need for runways, which could be destroyed by a Soviet attack. Despite the risk of launching a jet fighter off the back of a truck, there was only one accident in the course of the F-100 test program. On the second launch, made on April 11, 1958, the rocket booster failed to separate after burnout. This made it impossible to land the aircraft, as the rocket extended down below the landing gear. Al Blackburn, the North American Aviation test pilot for the project, attempted to shake the booster loose, but, with fuel running low, he was forced to bail out. The video also contained three views of the impact site. The first showed an overhead shot which showed the aircraft wreckage and the surrounding area, a second was of firemen spraying the burning debris with foam, and finally, there was a shot of the engineers examining the wreckage, including the rocket booster. [5]

I realised that the ZEL F-100 crash provided the test case for Roswell I had been considering. The ZEL crash site was in a remote area, and it was unlikely that the remaining debris had been disturbed in the nearly forty years since the recovery crew left the site. Also, the circumstances of the ZEL F-100 crash itself resembled the stories told by the different claimed eyewitnesses to the Roswell recovery. These individuals describe a vehicle which is battered but still largely intact. The F-100′s fuselage was burned out by the post-impact fire, but the wings and tail surfaces were intact. The debris would be concentrated in an area about the size of the vehicle.

Merlin was interested in trying to find the ZEL F-100. He talked with Al Blackburn, and tracked down press accounts. These indicated that the F-100 had crashed about a mile from the north edge of Harper Dry Lake, located east of Edwards AFB. The press accounts gave only the general location. This is where the photos came in. By lining up the features in the photos, such as background hills, it was possible to narrow down the specific area. Features in the vicinity of the crash, both natural and man-made, can further limit the search area. It is, for example, possible to identify a bush in a photo taken four decades ago with one growing today. Then it is a matter of walking across the desert, looking for the photos to line up, and the tell-tale glint of metal fragments. Merlin and Tony Moore made two preliminary searches of the area, looking well north of the lake bed, but were unsuccessful. Despite this, finding the ZEL F-100 did not seem to pose a major problem. Merlin had found crash sites with less information. None of us knew the adventure which awaited us in the desert.

The stage upon which the adventure was played out was Harper Dry Lake. The lake bed is about six miles long and three miles wide, and is shaped like an elongated ‘U’ with the long axis running east to west. At about the midpoint of the lake bed, it is crossed by a dirt road running north to south. Beside it is a barbed-wire fence. The area to the north of the lake bed is a gentle slope, with a surface of sand and small rocks washed down from the surrounding hills. The vegetation is scattered brush. There are a series of flood control channels to the west of the fence, and at the far western end of the lake bed is a solar power station. The only other man-made structures arc an abandoned shed, well, and corral.

The first search attempt I participated in was made on February 22, 1997. Merlin, Moore, and I drove out to the general area. The first problem was to determine the directions of the photos. It was immediately apparent that the shots of the engineers were taken looking almost due east. There were two sets of mountains, and the task became finding a position where the near and far mountains were lined up correctly relative to each other. The photos seemed to show a rolling landscape, with the impact point in a low area, and a rise in the background.

In my initial viewing of the tape, I thought I could see a row of cars parked on this rise, indicating a road or hard surface. The other two photos were more ambiguous. The shots of the firemen seemed to have been taken looking almost due south, towards several low hills on the horizon. When the two lines of sight crossed, we would find the wreckage. There was not a clear view of the lakebed, but rather two long tan areas against darker areas of brush. This seemed to indicate the impact point was back from the lakebed, with the view of the lakebed blocked by the foreground brush. The overhead shot of the wreckage, however. showed an area almost bare of brush, with a light tan surface and only a scattering of darker rocks. This indicated a site on the edge of the lakebed. The problem was that all we had to work with was photos taken off the television screen.

Because of the rolling terrain we saw in the photo of the engineers, we started in the general area of the channels, which was west of the fence. We first walked east, than turned back west. I followed Merlin, while Moore went out ahead, closer to the lakebed. This was more than simply a walk in the desert. We were tiny figures alone amid a vast desert. The only sound was our own footsteps on the sandy ground. The landscape extended for miles in every direction, while the horizon beckoned us onwards with the possibility of discovering the object of our quest. Moore was now somewhere out ahead of us, while Merlin’s Jeep had become a small white dot behind us in the distance. We finally turned north, then back cast, towards the Jeep, and through the flood control channels.

Every now and then, the surrounding desert seemed to match that in the photos, but each time the feeling faded. At no time did we see any indication that the F-100 had crashed in this area. The ground was undisturbed, and there were no small metal fragments which might have come from an aircraft crash. When Moore came back, he said he had found a clue. He had headed farther west, past the old corral. At one point, he found a set of old truck tracks – so old there were bushes grown in them. The overhead shot had shown a fire truck at the crash site, and it was possible that such tracks could remain even after four decades. Moore had found no debris, however. Despite this, the area looked positive, and we decided to look there on our next attempt.

After leaving the area, we went to the crash site of a prototype B-IA which had been lost on August 29, 1984. The aeroplane had been making a low-level test when the four-man crew made an error in transferring fuel from one tank to another. The B- I’s centre of gravity limit was exceeded, the aircraft stalled, and it was too low to recover. The crew fired the escape capsule, but the parachute system did not operate properly. The hard landing killed test pilot Tommie D. Benefield, and injured the other three crewmen. Once most of the debris had been removed, the Air Force had simply bulldozed over the debris. As a result, the crash site now looked like a land fill. There was a large amount of parts and structural components scattered around the area.

The ZEL search adjourned for the summer months, and it was not until November 9, 1997 that the second try was made. We went to a part of the lakebed farther west than the area we had searched on the first try. This was the general area where Moore had found the tyre tracks. We found a flat area close to the edge of the lakebed which seemed to match the overhead shot. The ground and vegetation was similar, and the surrounding terrain was rolling like that in the shot of the engineers. I felt sure this was the crash site. For more than an hour, I walked back and forth across the area, looking for the telltale glint of metal fragments. But they were not there. This was not the place.

There was another disappointment awaiting us when we followed the tire tracks. They were as Moore had described them, a single set of dual wheel tracks that were so old that bushes were growing in them. If they had been made by the fire truck in the overhead view, then they would lead us right to the crash site. But as we followed them into the desert, it became apparent that they actually led to the corral area. They had nothing to do with the crash. We still didn’t know where the ZEL F-100 was, but we did know where it wasn’t. These first two searches indicated that we were looking too far west, and that the next attempt would have to be` made to the east, close to the fence line.

The desert still beckoned us on.

It wasn’t until dusk that we started back. As we were driving, we noticed a pillar of fire in the western sky. This quickly grew into a huge iridescent egg-shaped bubble. As this egg began to fade, a contrail continued towards the south. It was a Delta II booster, carrying a payload of Iridium communications satellites being launched from Vandenberg AFB. The ‘bubble’ was from the first stage as it shut down, while the subsequent contrail was the second stage exhaust. Both were lit by the Sun below the horizon.

After we returned to Merlin’s apartment, we re-ran the Runways of Fire tape. Seeing the video, we noticed several details. I had thought there was a line of cars in the shot of the engineers. On viewing it again, it was apparent that they were only bushes and shadows. This was important because we had assumed that the cars had driven along the banks of the flood channels.

The normal time for searches such as this is between the late fall to the early spring, before the heat of summer begins. The winter of 1997/1998 was a severe one, however, and because of this, the third search was not made until June 27, 1998. Due to work requirements, Tony Moore, who had been on the first attempts, could not join us. Rather, this third search was made by Merlin, Tony Accurso, and myself. As our small band searched the edge of the lakebed, we had to cope with temperatures of over 100 degrees F. The heat made it hard to breath. The sky was a brilliant blue, while the glare from the sand was strong. Even the water in our canteens seemed to be hot.

The small rocks on the desert floor were dark in colour, but when they caught the light, they were highly reflective and glinted. They looked like bits of metal. At one point, we crossed an area which seemed to match the firemen shot. The brush and lakebed pattern seemed right, and there was rolling terrain to the north. I also found a piece of metal, but Merlin said that it did not look like it was from an aircraft. We were in the middle of nowhere, it was really hot, and Merlin’s Jeep was getting smaller and smaller. The Jeep was the only easy way home. At this point, a question occurred to me that should have been asked earlier. I asked Merlin and Accurso if, by any chance, either of them had told anyone where we were going? It turned out that they had.

We finally reached the fence and stopped. It was just too hot to go on. We turned around and went back to the Jeep. Despite the failure to find anything, I still believed that the one area which seemed to match the firemen shot looked promising. I remember thinking at the time that we had probably been within a hundred feet of the crash site. The desert was continuing to beckon us on.

When we got back to the Jeep, the three of us had sodas, with plenty of ice. Merlin then took us on a tour of historical sites of the Mojave desert, both ancient and modern. We went to two sites in the hills north of the lakebed where there were Indian petroglyphs. These are common in the area, and are several thousand years old. One of the sites was a small hill that had been fortified. It could still be seen where rocks had been placed to make walls. From the top of the hill the whole valley floor and Harper Dry Lake stretched out into the distance. It was an impressive sight, but frustrating as well. Somewhere in that expanse of brush was the debris we were seeking. I was looking right at the crash site, but I could not see it.


We also visited four aircraft crash sites. They were of the X-2 and X-31 experimental aircraft, as well as an F-86H flown by Capt. Joseph McConnell, Jr. and finally an F-101. The X-2 crash site had been discovered by Merlin several years before, and had been well picked over in that time. Despite this, there were still a few small fragments left. The story at the X-31 site was similar, although the events were different. The aircraft used carbon composites, and a home owner living nearby had insisted that the site be cleaned up. As with the X-2, there was still debris to be found.

McConnell was the top-scoring U.S. jet ace in the Korean War with 16 kills. In 1954, he came to Edwards AFB to, evaluate a new F-96H. During the flight, the elevators (which controlled the up and down position of the plane’s nose) failed. McConnell had to fly the plane using the elevator trim. Rather than bailing out and losing the aeroplane, he tried to fly it back to a landing at Edwards. Several miles short of the lakebed, the attempt failed. McConnell bailed out, but he was too low for his parachute to open. The plane hit a quarter mile away, digging an elongated crater, and sending debris flying for 830 feet from the point of impact.

The site had been discovered only recently, and we were among the first to see it. Among the earlier visitors to the site was Patricia McConnell. She had been nine years old when the crash occurred. She had asked Merlin to show her the place where her father had died. Despite the passage of 44 years, the impact crater still existed, and there were large quantities of debris on the ground. The debris field was fan shaped. It was easy for me to find the edge as I walked back and forth.

Another particularity was that the debris was not randomly distributed within the field. The parts from the forward section of the plane were closer to the impact point than the engine fragments, which were near the far end of the debris field. The F-101 debris was similar – a round impact crater with the debris spread in a fan shaped pattern across the desert.

This was different from what we expected at the ZEL F-100. Its debris would be concentrated in the immediate area of the crash, with only a minor amount thrown any distance. This made it hard to fINd; while the F86H debris was thrown the distance of three football fields, we would have to come within a few feet of the F- 100 debris to ever find it.

It was fall of 1998 before we tried yet again. In the meantime, higher-quality copies were made from the video. This was done by Tom Tschida, who, like Merlin and Moore, worked at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. From the photos, Moore attempted to pinpoint the crash site. Comparing the overhead photo with a topographic map, he thought he found a spot. It was at the end of one of the channels, where it flared out. Looking at the map location, I thought it was at about the point where I thought I recognised the terrain in the firemen shot.

And so, on October 4, we set out once more on the search that never seemed to end. This time, we brought reinforcements. The search party was composed of Merlin, Moore, myself, Tschida, and J. Lynn Lunsford, a staff writer with the Dallas Morning News. Whatever happened, the press would be there to record it. We drove out to the general area in Merlin’s white Jeep and what Lunsford called “a rattletrap red Ford pickup.” We parked the vehicles, and got out and walked. We headed south towards the lakebed, then turned east, forming a skirmish line. The desert has its own particular beauty. with its endless skies and distant horizons. It was just that this particular part of the desert was getting a little too familiar.

As I said, the area we were searching was very isolated. However, even here the hand of man was apparent. Over the course of the next four hours, we found a Winnie-the-Pooh balloon, three instrument packages from crashed weather balloons (yes, weather balloons are real), a tow target dating from World War II, and numerous .50 calibre machine gun shell casings. We also ran across one of the local inhabitants. It was a rattlesnake about eight inches long, tan with brown stripes, and a really bad temper.

In the course of our wanderings, we had covered the channels where we had thought the crash was located. This included the area where I had thought it was located during the previous attempt. Again, there was nothing. For the first time we crossed the fence line. All three earlier searches had been west of the fence. We continued east, then turned south towards the lakebed, then back west. I think it was Lunsford who observed that the last time anyone had been looking for the crash site they were guided by a plume of black smoke that rose into the desert sky. We had no such help.

At one point, Moore said, “When I get the hills lined up, the lakebed is in the wrong place.” He continued, “And that fireman is standing on a slight rise where the dirt is gray, but there aren’t any rises like that.” Finally, Moore realised we had been misreading the photos. We had always assumed the firemen shot was taken looking nearly due south. With the hills to the east correctly lined up, it was apparent the firemen shot was not looking to the south, but rather almost due west, towards the present location of the solar power station. We had been thinking that the intersection of the two lines of sight would form an ‘X’. Instead, the crash site was somewhere along a line running east to west.

During this period, there was a seemingly minor mishap. Lunsford was carrying a camera, and he discovered that its battery had fallen out. He set off to look for it. At the same time, Moore and I started walking west, using the fireman photo to determine our path. We continued until we reached the fence. Meanwhile, Merlin and Tschida had gone back to the vehicles to drive them to our location. (They were so far away that we could no longer see them.) We were leaning on the fence, looking west. There was a rise past the fence that, to me, looked promising. This was in the same area where I had thought the crash site was on the third attempt. Lunsford was to the south and east of us.

It was now about 1:30 p.m. and we had four hours before it would begin to get dark. The day was warm, but not hot, and there was still plenty of time. Yet, for all the Saturdays and Sundays we had spent out here, all the many miles we had walked, we had not found a single indication we were anywhere close to the ZEL F-100 crash site. The debris field was small, and it was a very big desert. Moore and I were looking towards Lunsford, a small figure in that very big desert. Moore said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if he found it?” It was a minute or two later, as I recall, that Lunsford began waving his arms, and yelling that he had found a piece of metal.

We ran over to Lunsford to see what he had found. The fragment was the size and shape of a thumbnail. The front side was shiny aluminium, while the curved back still showed traces of green primer paint. This was the type of paint used in 1950s aircraft interiors. We were on the ZEL’s trail. Lunsford had marked the point where he had found the fragment with a large ‘X’. The three of us began a circular search pattern. After a few minutes, I found a second piece of metal. It was larger, with smears of gray paint. I later found out that gray paint was used in the cockpit. I thought it might have washed down from farther north, and I searched an area close to a rise. There was nothing there, so I rejoined Moore and Lunsford.

We started walking west; I followed Moore, while Lunsford was more towards the lakebed. Our pace was fairly slow, as we looked for any additional fragments. It was now about 2:20 p.m. Finally, Moore found another one. We knew we were close, and we started to walk faster. I began to see a few small metal fragments scattered on the ground.

And then there it was.

The F-100 had hit the ground flat and right side up. No impact crater was visible. The plane’s nose, had been pointed towards the northwest when it hit. There were two main areas of debris, one from the cockpit area, and the other from the aft fuselage and engine. Surrounding these two areas was a circular pattern of fragments extending perhaps 20 to 30 feet away. As we had expected, the main debris field was about the same size as the aeroplane. Contrary to what one might assume, the debris was not simply shredded aluminium. In the cockpit debris were found coloured plastic fragments, a switch cover marked ‘jettison’, a large amount of glass and plastic from the windshield, various pieces of the instruments, and also the remnants of 1950s vintage electronic components. This was not simply a pile of aluminium, but the remnants of a complex, structured object.


The other area of debris was from the aft fuselage and engine. Among the parts found here were a burned Pratt & Whitney engine placard, and an inspection port cover with the words ‘Pylon Ejection Breach Access’ painted on it. Nearby was a section of wire-wrapped hose. Several of the pieces, including the inspection port cover, had part numbers. The amount of debris at the F-100 ZEL was typical. This will vary according to the situation of the crash. There was less debris at the F-100 ZEL than at the F-86H crash site. There was, however, a much greater amount of material left from the F- 100 ZEL compared to debris at the X-31 site.

While we collected the debris, Lunsford photographed us with my camera, and Merlin and Tschida returned with the vehicles. Merlin dug in the area of the engine debris with a gardening tool. The surface of the ground was discoloured, and, as Merlin dug down, he came across burned dirt which still smelled of jet fuel after 40 years. It is probable that we were, in fact, the first to visit the crash site in 40 years. There was no evidence of recent digging, and the surface debris did not seem to have been disturbed. We spent about an hour at the site, then loaded the trophies of the hunt and headed back.

The debris was formally identified by the part numbers. They indicated it was from an F-100D, the same model as that lost in the crash. We also found two pieces of the plane’s skin that were covered with black paint and narrow white stripes. This pattern was unique to the specific F-100D which was lost. It covered the plane’s underside, and the left sides of its fuselage and the vertical tail. (The vertical tail’s right side was painted dayglow orange, and this is visible in the overhead shot.) Lunsford’s account of the ZEL’s discovery was printed in the November 23, 1998 issue of the Dallas Morning News and was subsequently carried by other papers. [6]

The ZEL F-100, like the other crash sites, show the assumption that the Air Force cleans up every trace of debris is false. A ‘parts drag’, as the crash cleanup detail is known, is hard, hot work. Although apparently not an actual punishment detail, it is not sought after by Air Force enlisted personnel. It is not done by an elite group of highly trained personnel, but rather by whoever is available. The airmen do not get down on their hands and knees to remove every tiny bit of debris caught in brush and rodent holes. In some cases, even very large aircraft panels, on the order of 4 by 4 feet square, are left behind. There is no effort to restore the desert to its natural appearance, and the crash site itself is readily apparent four and five decades later. There will also often be truck tracks and trash left by the cleanup crew.

Based on my own experience searching the desert, as well as that of Peter Merlin and the other X-Hunters, I can say with assurance that if an alien spaceship really did crash near Roswell, New Mexico, there will still be debris and other traces of the crash, such as scorched earth and other residue. This debris will include torn pieces of skin, structural components, and mechanical and electronic systems. It will be immediately identifiable as not of human origin. No such debris has ever been reported at any of the six claimed UFO crash sites. This, based on the examples of actual aircraft crash sites, including those which were highly classified at the time of the accident, effectively eliminates them as valid.

  1. For an examination of Roswell as myth, see: Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, Charles B. Moore, UFO Crash at Roswell, the generation of a modern myth, 1997.
  2. William P. Barrett. “Now where was it those aliens crashed?”, Crosswinds, August 1996.
  3. Kevin D. Randle, Donald R. Schmitt, UFO Crash at Roswell, 1991. pp63-64
  4. Kevin D. Randle. A History of UFO Crashes, 1995. p.9.
  5. Runways of Fire, 1995.
  6. J. Lynn Lunsford. “Team scours desert for crashed planes”, Dallas Morning News, November 23, 1998.