My Trip to the Walt Ray Memorial
A Helicopter Trip to the Walt Ray Memorial
By Ray Nixon
I walked into the unparalleled Hahn’s World of Surplus in North Las Vegas looking for a Nomex flight jacket and some MRE’s for my aviation survival kit. I was hoping to get a deal on a used jacket, but man did I ever score. I got a brand new one for less than you’d pay for used on eBay, and they even had my size! There were quite a few customers walking around in there, talking with each other and the employees. I heard someone mention that Memorial Day was right around the corner. That got me thinking about Walt Ray. I had been interested in the story of Article 125 since the previous summer when I had been doing research on Groom Lake and the SR-71 for a ham radio project I’d been involved with. Up until then, I’d never even heard of the A-12. I fly into Vegas all the time on an arrival path that takes you past Overton. Whenever I come in that way, I always gaze up the Meadow Valley Wash and think to myself, “It’s up there somewhere…”.
My research had of course included reading about Jack Weeks and Walter Ray. I knew where the memorial site was but had never really thought that much about going up there, mainly because I didn’t want to go by myself and I don’t know many people, if any, who would dig it. But for some reason, it just clicked in my head that I needed to go up there and take something along to leave at the site for Walt on Memorial Day. After all, it’s now been 50 years and I was pretty sure no one else would be going up there, so if I didn’t go Walt wasn’t going to have any Memorial Day visitors and that was unacceptable. Going up empty-handed was also unacceptable, but I wasn’t sure what to get. Just then, I came around a corner and there on the floor was a box of little American flags, about 12 by 18 or so, each one on a long wooden stick. That was all it took. It was officially a trip, and Walt was getting one of these flags.
Over the course of the next 10 seconds or so, the whole trip just clicked together in my head. Lars and I would fly up together. It was high elevation up there, so we’d have to plan carefully. It was remote, so we’d need survival gear and lots of water. It was also rough country. The Air Force crews made a landing area for the Huey helicopters operating from Mesquite, but there was no way to know for sure what condition it was in. We’d have to look at it carefully before setting down. I’d take the axe along in case it was unsuitable. Worst case, I’d throw it out and jump down to do some clearing off while Lars loitered in the area. I’d have the handheld radio for emergencies, and we could use that to communicate in case this was required. All I needed to do was pack and do some flight planning to be certain we could hover at the expected density altitude at the weight we’d be at. Then we’d just have to wait out the insufferable winds that had been plaguing Las Vegas for weeks. I placed the jacket, the MRE’s, and the flag on the counter. The lady behind the register studied my purchases for a few seconds, smiling. She looked up at me and said, “Looks like you’re a man on a mission.” I handed her my credit card. “Oh, you’ve no idea.”
I checked the weather forecasts for days. The winds continued to blow. I didn’t get that frustrated though because there was still plenty of time, but I was anxious to get going and make the trip. I had everything packed up in the corner of my motel room. I could walk out of there on a moment’s notice and head for the airport. While we waited out the weather, I emailed Dave Budd at Photorecon to find out all I could about what had been learned by those who had hiked in back before the floods when you could drive to a reasonable distance from the site. Of course, the first thing he told me was, “Don’t go. And if you do go, be very, very careful!” After he found out we were flying in, he relaxed a bit, but still advised caution since the landing area is somewhat overgrown with bushes and strewn about with rocks and other debris. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but we were prepared for that, at least to a point. We made plans to get together the following morning, May 16th. Dave said he had something for me. I couldn’t wait to see what that was, but as it would turn out, I’d have to. The cold front passed that night, and in the morning when I stepped out onto my balcony, the palm tree fronds were hanging straight down without a hint of motion. It was also quite chilly. That would be good for the helicopter’s performance, and it would be doubly good for us because it would reduce our requirement for water should something go wrong while we were up there. I rushed to my phone and pulled up the wind forecast. It would be whipping up a bit late in the afternoon, but it was not yet even 7 o’clock! I fired off a text to Lars and we were on our way. One more text to Dave to postpone our meetup, and into the shower…
I drove quickly out to the airport. It was a very exciting feeling knowing we were actually going out there. I told myself not to get my hopes up, because of the very real possibility that it just wouldn’t be safe to land. Nevermind that. If nothing else, we’d have a nice, scenic flight and a little bit of a story to tell. Then trouble reared its ugly head. As I was pulling my gear out of the trunk, the stick on the flag caught on the edge and snapped off right at the bottom edge of the flag. I sucked in my breath and then let it out slowly, disappointed beyond words. I said to myself, “Sorry buddy. Looks like you’re not getting your flag today.” I’m not a superstitious guy by any stretch, but I’ll admit to hoping that it wasn’t an omen of things to come. We got the bird pre-flighted, loaded and fueled. I programmed the flight plan into the Garmin 430, we had a little briefing about navigating out of the Las Vegas area, and we strapped in. The feeling was surreal. I paused to take a breath, and pressed my thumb down onto the starter button. A minute later, the rotors were swinging through the crisp morning air.
We lifted off the pad and headed for the Las Vegas Speedway, getting permission from Nellis AFB to enter their airspace. We then followed along I-15N past the Valley of Fire, up to Moapa. There’s a solar power installation up that way that would make a great check point for a flight plan except for the fact that it’s not depicted on the sectional chart. I mentioned it to Lars, and he commented that it’s not the only thing that isn’t on the map out here. Big smiles all around. Then we turned up the Meadow Valley Wash. After passing Carp, the terrain starts to rise rapidly and it gets rugged pretty quickly. Heading up the side wash to the mountain, we both remarked at how awful the “road” conditions were down below. We had to circle around the mountains a bit before we found the pass through to the landing site. We made two passes through the valley, one in each direction. There was already a steady 10 – 12 mph breeze blowing up the slope. We’d make the landing to the south. The first approach came in low to check the landing area. It was roomy enough for us we decided, so we did a go-around, and circled back around the mountain to come in again from the north. This time it would be an approach to a hover over the clearing at 5,500 feet. We did a last-minute power check, and turned into the valley. I rolled out onto a short final approach, as near into the wind as possible, and settled into ground effect past the tops of a few little cedar trees poking up from the north side of the saddle. The approach happened pretty quickly due to the higher true airspeed at this altitude. As promised, there were some rocks and debris lying around. After some discussion we got the bird oriented over an area where the skids and tail were well clear. I lowered the collective a bit, and we settled into the dirt with a just a slight slope to the left. I bottomed out the collective and rolled the rpm’s down to idle. We were here! Lars got out to check our clearance and reported that we were perfectly situated. This mountain air was quite brisk. We had the back doors off, and had been using the heater at 6,000 feet while we were circling around the mountain. The air smelled and felt so good as it flowed through the cabin. I finished cooling down the engine and shut it down. As the blades came to a stop, all you could hear were some happy birds in the area out getting their breakfast. I stepped out, and for me it felt like I was stepping out onto the surface of the moon. I mean, I really was that excited to be here. I did, however, resist the urge to utter Neil Armstrong’s famous quote.
Man, talk about quiet! They don’t have any like this in Vegas. But it didn’t last very long – we were in the Desert MOA. Without warning, on the other side of the mountain, two F-16s came thundering up the wash, low and fast, reminding us immediately why we were there. We walked around the area for a few minutes, taking pictures in all directions. I deliberately didn’t look up toward Walt’s mountainside and the memorial for awhile. I’m not sure why. I think I just wanted to get settled first and not try to take it all in at once. This was quickly turning out to be a very trippy experience. We had managed to not land in a large pile of wild horse dung that now was under the tail of the helicopter. There were also several fresh hoof prints around the area. We closed everything up, got our cameras, lunch, and water, and headed off the saddle to the east, curving around up the slope to the rockpile at the base of the treeline. Lars noted two military C ration containers as we walked. We worked our way along slowly, watching out for rattlesnakes. There was a fallen log that we needed to go over that I took a full minute to inspect before stepping over. It was starting to warm up a bit, and we didn’t need any problems with the wildlife. I was definitely breathing harder than normal in the thin air. It wasn’t that strenuous, but it would be much worse come August.
Once we got to the memorial, we didn’t talk for a couple of minutes. Just looking around, thinking about what happened here fifty years ago, paying our respects – it was such an incredible feeling. The A-12 model sits on its mount, pointed on a heading directly for Groom Lake where Walt was desperately trying to guide his stricken craft on that January afternoon so long ago. It’s like he’s still up there trying to get home, and I really love that thought. I saw the perfect place to put the flag and was more than a little irritated with myself over my carelessness with it in the parking lot. But I had already made up my mind that I’d be coming here again. We took many photos from our excellent vantage point. We passed the camera back and forth for poses next to the A-12. For some reason, I had it in my mind that by now it would be just a rusty piece of steel sitting on a pole, but that was far from the case. It is in remarkably good condition. There is only one small area of rust, about the size of a pencil eraser, on the left chine up toward the cockpit. This is going to need some attention with some sandpaper and touch-up paint eventually so it doesn’t turn into a long term problem, but apart from that, it’s perfect.
Lars’ wife had made some potatoes and mushrooms that he brought along for lunch. We shared that and a banana while we talked about the Oxcart program. We talked about the properties of titanium and where they got it from. We talked about the miserable day that Walt had. That he flew alone and he died alone, and about how his wife had to wait so long to find out what happened to her husband. These guys were all incredibly brave. Tremendous pilots to be sure, but more than that, they knew the risks and they accepted them willingly in service to their country. That means in service to all of us. So that America might prevail and so the world might not have to endure a nuclear war. They still make guys like Walt Ray and Jack Weeks and Mel Vojvodich and Frank Murray and Bill Parks and Bob Gilliland and all the rest, but I think they’re a bit harder to find these days. I considered trekking up the side of the hill to look for the tree with the scar on it where the ejection seat hit, but I decided that I just wasn’t ready to deal with that. Maybe next time. As I was looking off in that direction, Lars said from behind me, “Ray, what’s this? Is this part of the plane?” I turned around and my eyes got huge. He was holding what looked like a twisted aluminum Dorito, except that it wasn’t the right color for aluminum… “I thought the plane didn’t come down here.” I answered that it didn’t. “Somebody brought that up here from the crash site specifically to leave at the monument.” We took some photos of us holding it, and then we put it back where it belongs.
Our time on the mountain was winding down, as we needed to have the helicopter back by 2 pm. We walked back down to the saddle, taking a slightly different route. There are lots of blooming cactus up there right now, with beautiful purple flowers on them. Butterflies are all over the place. And so very quiet. I really didn’t want to leave. I wasn’t even close to getting bored. But I’ll be going back, and Walt will get his flag. Guaranteed. I sent Dave Budd the photos I took and we got together to talk about all kinds of cool aviation topics. He gave me a Final Flight commemorative print and showed me his collection of parts from the crash site. “Here, you can keep this one,” he said as he handed me a piece of shredded sheet metal with black paint on one side. “To start your collection.” Guess I’ve got a new project ahead of me now…