A CIA spyplane crashed outside Area 51 a half-century ago. This explorer found it.

“OXCART” WAS AN ODD NICKNAME for the plane that killed pilot Walter Ray. Oxcarts are slow, cumbersome, and old. Ray’s A-12 jet, meanwhile, was fast, almost invisible, and novel. Among the US’s first attempts at stealth aircraft, it could travel as quickly as a rifle bullet, and fly at altitudes around 90,000 feet. On a radar screen, it appeared as barely a blip—all the better to spy on Soviets with—and had only one seat.

On January 5, 1967, that single space belonged to Ray, a quiet, clean-cut 33-year-old who spent his workdays inside Area 51, then the CIA’s advanced-aviation research facility. Set atop the dried-up bed of Groom Lake in the Nevada desert, the now-infamous spot made for good runways, and was remote enough to keep prying eyes off covert Cold War projects. On the books, Ray was a civilian pilot for Lockheed Martin. In reality, and in secret, he reported to the CIA.

Ray’s last morning on Earth was chilled and windy, with clouds moving in and preparing to drop snow on the nearby mountains. He took off for his four-hour flight to Florida and back a minute ahead of schedule at 11:59 a.m., the sleek curves of the Oxcart’s titanium body triggering sonic shock waves (booms) as it sliced through the atmosphere. He’d done this many times, having already logged 358 hours in these crafts.

At 3:22 p.m., Ray radioed back to base: His gas was low. “I don’t know where my fuel’s gone to,” he said. He lowered the plane out of the speedy headwinds, hoping to save some fuel. But the altitude change couldn’t cut his consumption enough.

Thirty-eight minutes later, Ray radioed in more bad news.

The fuel tank’s low-pressure lights had blinked on. The A-12′s jet engines—so powerful that the director of central intelligence once said they sounded as if “the Devil himself were blasting his way straight from Hell”—began to fail, then sputtered out.

At 4:02, Ray sent his final known transmission: He was going to eject.

Home Plate—as this group of airmen referred to Area 51—began to search. They hoped to hear a transmission from the shortwave radio in his survival kit. For them, this hunt was also personal. Many worked on the same mission as Ray: developing planes that didn’t exist in a place that didn’t exist, sometimes risking an accident like this, which also wouldn’t exist.

Isolated in the desert, the group of about 30 staffers Barnes worked with on the site’s Special Projects felt like family. “We went up on Monday morning, came home Friday night,” recalls former Area 51 crewmember T.D. Barnes. “We couldn’t tell our wives where we were at or what we were doing.”

At 3:25 p.m. the next day, a helicopter found the plane, strewn across three canyons. The crews cut a road through the sand to schlep out the debris before anyone else found it—and found out about the secret flight.

Two days after takeoff, a CIA aircraft finally spotted Ray’s parachute, and men helicoptered in to locate their comrade. His chute formed a shroud around his body, and his ejection seat sat some 50 yards above him on the hillside. The two hadn’t separated, his parachute hadn’t deployed, and so he had slammed straight into the Earth. Blood spattered the ground, but Ray’s boots still had their spurs.

To explain the aerial search going on, the Air Force told the public a cover story: An SR-71 Blackbird—whose existence had recently been revealed—flying out of Edwards Air Force Base, had gone down.

For years, Ray’s crash sites remained largely hidden from the public. But in the late 1990s, an explorer named Jeremy Krans began what would become a decades-long quest to uncover it all, and ultimately to make Ray’s once-classified life public. “I felt that we needed to do something,” he says, “because nobody knows who the hell Walt is.”

Krans had a pastime that gave him the skills to do something about it: urban exploring, sometimes called “urbex” by the initiated. It’s the art of adventuring in and around abandoned or hidden structures, urban and otherwise. Urbexers scavenger-hunt for sites and then crawl through closed tunnels, scour old buildings, flashlight around finished mines, and trek through old military bases. The community—small and loose but dedicated, lurking and sharing on forums and blogs—is populated by photographers and amateur historians. They like to go places that used to be something else, to someone else. They’ve uncovered spots others likely never knew about, like the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane and the rainwater drains under Sydney. Krans, once a frequent poster on the urbex forum UER.ca, has always favored defense sites, beginning with empty missile silos and ghostly military installations in his early 20s.

In 1995, he and a group of like-minded friends formed an exploratory crew dubbed “Strategic Beer Command” (a riff on the US’s then-recently disbanded Strategic Air Command). It would be a few years before they’d learn of Ray’s site, but the motivation was already there: a desire to remember what the rest of the world had forgotten.

KRANS’ INTEREST IN AVIATION goes back to the 1980s, when his dad, a machinist fascinated by engineering and innovative planes, would sometimes bring home jet models. Krans’s favorite was the SR-71 Blackbird, a Cylon-ship of a craft, and the follow-on to the A-12 he’d one day search out. Meanwhile, Krans devoured films like Indiana Jones and The Goonies—tales of explorers and treasure-hunters.

His own journey into such journeying began just months after his father passed away. Krans’s employer, a General Motors dealership, had sent him to its Automotive Service Educational Program. He felt lost and listless, and spent hours killing time between classes in the school’s computer lab, largely sucked into websites about Area 51, where he had recently made a road trip. He started reading Bluefire, a blog run by a guy named Tom Mahood. In 1997, Mahood spun a tale of searching for—and finding—a long-lost A-12 crash site. It had taken him more than two years, 20 trips, and $6,000 to replace a sunk truck.

Mahood was a veteran prober of Area 51 secrets, having, for instance, dug into the conspiratorial claims of Bob Lazar, whose stories underpin most of the site’s alien lore. (The site’s true Cold War purpose wouldn’t be acknowledged until 2013.) Mahood first read about the A-12 crash in The Oxcart Story, a 1996 CIA history of the plane’s development, which said only that Ray’s craft had gone down about 70 miles from Groom Lake. That’s not a lot to go on. The lack of information appealed to Krans: a quest.

Before Bluefire, Krans hadn’t heard of an A-12, let alone one that had gone down in the desert. The jet, he soon learned, was a marvel in its time. It could fly nearly four miles higher and four times faster (around 2,200 miles per hour, or nearly three times the speed of sound) than its predecessor, the U-2.

At such speeds, friction with the air heated much of its skin up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. In the 1960s, the only metal light and tough enough for such a feat was a titanium alloy, which made up 90 percent of the aircraft. The remainder comprised composite materials—relying heavily on iron ferrite and silicone laminate, swirled with asbestos—that absorbed radar, rather than bouncing the waves back to whoever was watching.

That wasn’t the end of the innovation list. The lubricants also had to work at both the extreme temperatures reached while traveling at three times the speed of sound, and at lower, cooler speeds. The engines needed “spike-shaped cones’’ that could slow down, squish, and then superheat the air coming in for better combustion. According to a CIA history of the plane’s development, without the spikes, the engines would only have gotten 20 percent of the required power. Amidst all this, pilots had to don astronaut-ish suits, with their own temperature and pressure controls and oxygen supplies.

While the A-12 represented a big leap forward, its usefulness would be short-lived. The US decided to stop flying over the USSR in 1960 after a U-2 pilot was shot down; satellites had begun to snap recon pictures from orbit; and the A-12 progeny, the SR-71 had performed its first test flight in 1964. The Oxcart flew only 29 missions, between May 1967 and May 1968, in an operation called Black Shield out of East Asia.

Ray was preparing for Black Shield during his final ride, which went sideways due to several factors: a malfunctioning fuel gauge, electrical mishaps, and perhaps an untested modification he himself had added—a common practice for test pilots. Ray, a short man, had added a 2-by-4 to his seat to make the headrest hit right. When he ejected, the wood kept him from separating from the seat, which stopped the parachute from deploying.

It was in that entrapment that Ray lost his life. And it was in that computer lab that Krans decided he needed to go find out where. At the time, it was just another exploration. “It’s Indiana Jones,” he says. “It’s treasure hunting.”

He liked how his explorations changed his conception of the past. “I’ve had a love-hate relationship with history,” he says. Reading stuff in school? Closer to “hate.” But seeking and finding something physical felt different. “You walk back in time, and you say, ‘Okay, what was happening right here if I was here 40 years ago?’” he says. “It gets you thinking.”

So he set out to think about Walt Ray.

KRANS BEGAN COLLECTING information that might lead him to Ray. The accident had left two crash sites, one for the pilot and one for his plane, which rocketed on after Ray ejected. He started with the details Mahood had spilled, which did not include the actual site of the crash. Urbexers don’t like to spoil the ending, or make it too easy for crowds to spoil the site itself, and generally leave what they discover as a mystery for others to keep solving. Maps and satellite images are typically their best tools, supplemented by databases of historical, military, or former industrial sites. UrbexUnderground.com recommends aimlessly following rivers, railroad beds, or rural roads—because those routes usually track development.

Mahood had scoured old newspapers. The Los Angeles Times put reports of the covered-up version of the crash four miles southeast of a Union Pacific Railroad site called Leith; the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun plotted it four miles to Leith’s southwest. Not helpful. He’d searched topographic maps and the land itself, looking for scars on the landscape, or roads that seemed to lead nowhere. Krans gathered all the information he could from Mahood’s descriptions.

Wanting to get more details, Krans told officials a “BS story” and then offered to cover a doughnut bill for the recorder’s office in Pioche, Nevada. Information gathered from the paperwork, which included Ray’s death certificate, revealed that the pilot had died 200 yards east of a particular mining claim, a couple miles from the larger Cherokee mining operation. Krans began to gather his own detailed maps of the area, and negatives of aerial photos. Soon, he knew approximately where Ray had met his end: just off an area called Meadow Valley Wash—a low drainage that flows with water when it storms. The spot was miles from anywhere, on the side of a hill whose poky desert plants scrape anyone who walks by, and over which wild horses keep watch.

Purple map of the A-12 crash site in the Nevada desert

Krans first headed out in the fall of 1998, driving to Cherokee Mine, and searching for plane debris, at a site somewhere farther out than Ray’s landing spot. To try to find that second location, he took pictures, tried to match them to his maps, and marked down the labeled sticks denoting mining claims. Two more subsequent trips, over a few ensuing years, also revealed nothing.

He gave up for a while. But the story kept flying through his mind. Not a good quitter, he ordered more digital photos from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA. The results offered a few (differing) sets of coordinates for Ray’s hard landing and his plane’s.

The next time Krans went out, in 2005, he took eight people and three trucks. At the time, a flood had washed out the area, leaving 30-foot drops off the side of a narrow road. They uncovered nothing that he was sure came from a downed jet.

When he returned next in 2008, Krans brought along two four-wheelers, companions, and his daughter, Mercedes. At four years old, she’d been hearing about Ray much of her life. All they discovered were water bottles from earlier explorers.

“Something just told us that we were close,” Krans wrote at the time in a post on Roadrunners Internationale’s website, run by Area 51 veteran Barnes. The group aims to preserve the history of those who worked on Area 51′s classified aircrafts during the Cold War—and reunite, digitally and physically, the ones who are left, now that they can freely talk. The Roadrunners, about two dozen strong, have inducted Krans as an “associate member.”

On Krans’s next trip in 2009, he brought old hands and newcomers. One first-timer asked Krans if—after so many years of seeing nothing—he expected to just walk up and uncover the crash site. “Yup,” Krans said around the campfire, a cigar in his mouth and a near-empty beer in his hand. “I’ve been here too many times and know too many places that it wasn’t,” he wrote for the Roadrunners. “Like a life-size game of Battleship, it just can’t hide anymore.”

The next morning, the Commanders began their search where the group had halted the year before. It happened right away: As Krans was walking up a wash offshoot, something synthetic-looking caught his eye. Leaning down, he picked it up. It was an artifact from the A-12.

The others fanned out, and soon found their own pieces. They were right in the middle of the field of debris, left scattered by tragedy more than 40 years before.

Recalling this moment, Krans—who, since graduating from GM, has owned his own car-servicing shop and worked as an HVAC specialist—what it was like to find the site after so long, his voice breaks. “I don’t know how to describe it, I really don’t,” he says.

His limbic system manifests mostly in actions. Such as when, five years later, in 2014, Krans brought a memorial—a model of the A-12, welded to a metal pole—to near Ray’s resting place. He and Mercedes made it. They traced the plane’s edges onto body-shop paper, overlaid it onto a steel plate, and sliced the shape with a plasma cutter. Using a pipe bender from Krans’s old shop, they fabricated the engine housings, which stick out like devilish exhaust pipes.

At one point in their explorations, Mercedes asked her father why they were doing all this.

“Because nobody else did,” Krans told her.

OVER THE 12 YEARS Krans and various Strategic Beer Command adherents had spent seeking, the true goal of their quest had shifted. “As I kept making trips back, I just—” he pauses. “It got to be more about Walt.”

It became about pulling Ray and the other Area 51 workers—like Barnes—out of anonymity and back into existence. “A bunch of these guys, they were ghosts,” he says. “They didn’t exist for that portion of their lives.” A little metal memorial could change that.

On a September day, I attempted to find it. Outside the small town of Caliente in southeast Nevada, the road turned to well-graded dirt, curving around the rocky mountains whose strata mark the tectonics and erosions that led them to their current state.

The much-worse road that winds up to Cherokee Mine doesn’t have a name. At the intersection, Google Maps says only “Turn left.” Deep gravel threatened to strand the tires; cacti aimed to pierce them. At Cherokee Mine, a wild horse watched from the ridge above, still as a monument.

It was hot outside—115 degrees, much different than the morning Ray took off.

In the valley, I stopped following the wash and hiked toward the approximate place where I thought Ray went down, based on a scouring of topographic maps—matched with a picture of the saddle where the recovery helicopter had landed 53 years ago, and a close reading of descriptions from Mahood’s and Krans’s adventures. I scampered up another hill, around its side, back down, up another, and then back to the wash to survey again.

Finally, from the elevation where I started, I saw above me a stick-like object poking up out of a rock just one ridge over. No, I thought. That’s a dead tree. But next to the wood, there it was: a matte black pole poking from the rock, a sculpture at its top. I had been right next to it, just like Krans was when he found the debris field, the remnants of humans past blending within the landscape.

Walter Ray crash plaque
Where Walter Ray crashed, makeshift memorials mark the long-unknown site. Sarah Scoles

When I reached the spot, a low buzzing came from the scaled-down plane. The wind was sliding across the open ends of its engine housings. Krans didn’t intend for that to happen; it’s just how moving air and open pipes work. “It almost brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it?” Krans asks me later.

It did. I started thinking of Ray, falling to Earth. Here. Of a secret death to go with his secret life.

Drilled into the rock next to the memorial is a metal sign: Walter L. Ray, it says, the words welded into the plaque. In service of his country, 5 Jan 1967.

Past the Oxcart, there were no other signs of humans. No evidence of their aerospace achievements, wars cold or hot, lives, or deaths. Only this miniaturized A-12, whose silhouette sits stark against scrubby plants—its nose pointed toward Home Plate.

An Army-green ammo box sits nearby, bolted down and hosting notes from those few who’ve visited. Along with a laminated printout of Ray’s story, there’s a handwritten page from Krans, addressed to Ray. “I will always have a beer for you and the boys,” it says. “You guys earned it. And after the Roadrunners organization is gone, know that the memory will live on.”

The Roadrunners are getting older. The last reunion, which Krans attended, happened in 2015. After that, there weren’t enough of them left. One year at the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame annual banquet, which has become something of a makeshift reunion for Roadrunners and their associates, Frank Murray, an A-12 pilot himself, came up to Krans and shook his hand. “You make us remember,” Murray told him.

Memories of their time inside Area 51 are, in fact, all the Roadrunners have of that ghost-like period of their lives. “None of us has ever got to go back out there,” says Barnes. “Once you leave, you’re gone.”

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Sarah Scoles

Contributing Editor

Sarah Scoles is a freelance science journalist and regular Popular Science contributor, who’s been writing for the publication since 2014. She covers the ways that science and technology interact with societal, corporate, and national security interests. The author of the books Making Contact, They Are Already Here, Astronomical Mindfulness, and the forthcoming Mass Defect, she lives in Denver and escapes to the mountains to search for abandoned mines and ghost towns as often as she can.