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A ring in the desert

By Tony Moore

The desert has claimed many a great eagle that soared from the runways of Edwards Air Force Base, but from time-to-time, what the desert takes, the desert returns.

I am an aerospace archeologist and along with Pete Merlin, we form a team known as the X-Hunters. We search the desert to reclaim pieces of aviation history from the sands of time to be returned to the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum so others can experience the awe of aviation's past.

Many times the spirits of the desert - those heroes who gave their lives seeking to penetrate new barriers of speed and height, of radical new design - reach out from the past through their achievements. Those records they left behind serve as an aeronautical chart to help future generations reach ever farther to achieve new milestones. The past also serves as a warning to those who dare to fly in research aircraft "Toward the Unexplored," motto of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

Most of these stories are tempered with the fire of tragedy and, a few, seem as if straight from the Twilight Zone. This particular story began October 17, 1997 when we took a couple of friends on "the beginner's tour". It's a trek that includes Chuck Yeager's NF-104A site, lost during a rocket assisted zoom climb to high altitude, and the crash site of the storied YB-49 "Flying Wing", a site we are ever reverent to the fact of the men taken that day. They were civilian engineers Mr. Clare C. Leser and Mr. C. H. LaFountain, flight engineer 1st Lt. Edward L. Swindell, co-pilot Captain Glen W. Edwards and its commander, Major Daniel H. Forbes, Jr.

On this trip was David Perry, a flight engineer for DreamWorks Aviation, and Chris Sanders, a director at Disney Studios. I cautioned them that people had carted away all the big stuff years ago, but there still may be surprises to be found. I showed Chris how to gently scrape the surface of the desert with the edge of a small shovel, revealing tiny rivets, screws, and torn aluminum pieces. Standing over us and observing, David recognized almost everything; the jets that he maintains, remarkably, carry similar parts as the YB-49.

When it was time to leave, David and I packed the car and called to Chris. He did not seem to hear us, busily working in the distance. We decided to let him search on; it was a fateful decision. As we approached, Chris continued to sift through the talc like desert sand oblivious to our presence. As we stood over him Chris lifted a small shovel full of dirt containing something glimmering like a small piece of silver. I instinctively snatched it from the shovel, knowing that treasures can be lost as quickly as they are found. I examined it for a moment, and then said, "stop digging".

What I removed from Chris' shovel was a small polished stone, a star sapphire, perfect except for a tiny bit of damage on its reverse side. My first thought was, how did it come to be there? Could it have belonged to one of the crew? I dismissed that idea almost immediately. It seemed more logical to the three of us that it belonged to someone who had been digging at the site. Then I thought of something, I asked Chris to show me exactly where the shovel full of dirt had come from. He pointed to a black strip of earth approximately 10 inches below the surface. This was the burn layer from the crash, perfectly undisturbed. This strongly suggested that if this stone was lost, it was lost in 1948! Given the impossibly huge scale of the crash, the wingspan of the "Flying Wing" was 172 feet; it suggested something else as well; that after 54 years the stone wanted to be found.

I began to ponder this mystery the desert had revealed to us and tried to piece together how the stone came to be at the site. I pursued the initial thought, could it have belonged to one of the crew? I began the search by interviewing a few of the bases retired personnel, then photos, videos and historical documents in an attempt to see if someone on the crew was wearing it.

The desert is never very forthcoming with answers as it is mysterious and a chance encounter five years later finally provided the clue to solve this puzzle. I am a volunteer at the Blackbird Airpark, a display of A-12 and SR-71 aircraft which is an annex of the Edwards Air Force Base Museum. An "old timer" from the base, Don Thomson, came by to talk a little "airplane" with me one Sunday morning. He had been stationed at Edwards, originally known as Muroc Army Airfield, practically from the beginning. I have a picture of him in the improvised flight engineers position, an open cockpit just ahead of the pilot's windshield in the Bell XP-59, Americas first jet fighter.

As we were outside chatting, he asked me what my affiliation was with the airpark and museum, I told him that I had known the museum's director, Doug Nelson, through my work as an aerospace archeologist. I also told him of my lifetime love of aircraft, especially the X-planes of Edwards and our commitment to returning pieces of historic aircraft to the base. I mentioned to him that we had been to many local crash sites including the YB-49 and that's when it happened. As Thomson recalled a 50 year old memory of that June morning he turned to me and said, "I was there when it crashed. I remember watching a B-17 and then the "Flying Wing" take off just as I went into Ma Green's, an old local eatery near the base, to have breakfast. When I came outside I saw a smoke plume to the north and someone said the B-17 had crashed. We drove to the site as it was close by and upon arrival noticed the six jet engines scattered in the desert. I realized that it was not the B-17, but the "Flying Wing" that had gone down."

It was then, for no apparent reason, Mr. Thomson turned to me and said, "You know, Danny Forbes had only been married two or three weeks when the accident occurred and his wife had given him this big star sapphire ring." I felt a cold chill run over me as he paused and continued, "you know, they found the setting, but they never did find the stone."

Stunned, I stared at him in disbelief, finally blurting out "We found the stone! We found it five years ago right in the middle of the site!!" Now it was his turn to be stunned, I could see it in his eyes and the unreal silence that followed our exchange was finally broken when I looked to him and said" What on earth made you say that?" He just stared into the distance and said simply, "I do not know."

From the research I found that Maj. Forbes was married on March 11, 1948. His wife, Hazel Bartron, has since been remarried and currently resides in Topeka, KS. In an attempt to contact Mrs. Bartron I contacted Capt. Carl Fruendt of the Kansas Air National Guard. He in turn put me in touch with SMS Keith Fulton, who has acted as a liaison between Mrs. (Forbes) Bartron and myself.

I sent a picture of the stone to Sgt. Fulton. He and his commander, Col. Mike O'Toole, visited with Mrs. Bartron to inquire if this was indeed her husband's lost sapphire. At first, hearing them tell the story of the ring, she didn't seem to remember it - until they showed her the pictures. Both Sgt. Fulton and Col. O'Toole noted her reaction as she silently viewed the photographs. Without saying a word she turned, went back to her room and brought out her matching ring, confirming that this was indeed her husband's lost sapphire.

At this writing, arrangements are underway to return the stone to Mrs. Bartron. During the air show at Forbes Field, Kan. September 28, 2002 there will be a brief ceremony commemorating Maj. Forbes and the rest of the crew of the YB-49. Forbes AFB now Forbes Field was named after the former WWII reconnaissance and later test pilot.

As a team we are pleased to have the opportunity to see that the stone is returned to Mrs. Bartron. It's part of why we're aerospace archeologists. X-Hunting is not just the pursuit of history, but also it's preservation and the returning of the past to people who will see that the stories, the legends of aeronautical exploration, those who showed us the way to the future in the skies above Edwards AFB, continue to live on.

(Jay Levine, Chris Sanders, and Keith Fulton assisted in this report)