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X-Hunters Search For Secret History Of Air Force


Peter Merlin, X-Hunter


BY AMY KINGSLEY -- Peter Merlin knows a lot about airplanes. He can describe almost every aircraft that was developed and tested at Area 51.

But that’s not enough for the amateur archaeologist, who also combs the desert to find the places where many of these experimental aircraft went down.

Merlin and his friend, Tony Moore, are X-Hunters who search for the wreckage of experimental aircraft. Merlin once found fragments from the very first U-2 prototype. The U-2 is a spy plane that was created to resist radar detection. Merlin knew he had found the site when he came across some of the anti-radar technology.

“The plane had received a blanket of a treatment called Salisbury screen,” Merlin said. “It was nicknamed 'wallpaper' because the outer skin of it had sort of a grid pattern. It was conductive and it helped absorb some of the radar energy.”

Moore once reunited the widow of a dead pilot with a special keepsake that had vanished more than 50 years ago in the crash that also took her husband’s life. The X-Hunters were searching the site where a bomber called the YB 49 crashed with its crew, and Moore found a star sapphire from a ring.

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“Eventually, he met an engineer at Edwards who had been the last person to see the crew alive.” Merlin said.  “And they got to talking about the YB 49 accident. And all of a sudden this man said, ‘You know, Danny Forbes had only been married a couple of weeks and his wife had given him a star sapphire ring. They found the setting, but they never did find the stone.’”

The most unusual crash site involved a research plane called the X-15. The pilot on that plane was expected to fly and do research at the same time, which might have been too much to ask.

“He accidentally put the aircraft into a hypersonic spin,” Merlin said. “I mean, no one had ever been in a hypersonic spin before. That’s speeds of 4,000 miles per hour — and spinning.”

The pilot pulled the plane out of the spin, but was not able to land it safely and perished in the crash. It was one site where researchers were able to take the evidence, and hopefully make airplanes safer for the next generation of pilots.