The Real Story Behind Area 51’s ‘UFOs’: Top Secret Experimental Spy Planes

 In China, ASEAN, GDI, Defense, Air

Key Point: The first A‑12s arrived in 1962 along with elite mil­i­tary pilots tem­porar­i­ly dis­charged and placed in the employ of the CIA, a pro­to­col known as “sheep-dip­ping.”

Despite the count­less dubi­ous con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries attrib­uted to the site also known as “Dreamland” or “Groom Lake,” there’s no doubt that for over six decades the base hosted all sorts of “black project” air­craft whose exis­tence was not for­mal­ly dis­closed by the Pentagon. 

Though the CIA only oblique­ly admit­ted to the site’s exis­tence in 2013, we actu­al­ly know a fair bit about how Area 51 came to be — and even how it first became a sub­ject of juicy UFO sto­ries.

A Private Testing Ground for Eisenhower’s Top-Secret Spy Plane

In the early 1950s, the United States was super keen on mon­i­tor­ing the Soviet Union’s rapid­ly devel­op­ing nuclear bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram. As the first spy satel­lites remained a few years away from being launched, the only way to reli­ably spy on these sights was to fly above them and snap pic­tures with giant cam­eras. But by the early 1950s, the Soviet Union’s new air defense system and high-flying jet inter­cep­tors made spy flights exces­sive­ly risky.

To over­come these defens­es, Lockheed engi­neer Kelly Johnson pro­posed a glide-liker spy plane that would simply fly too high to be inter­cept­ed at over 70,000 feet. This still involved ille­gal­ly vio­lat­ing Soviet air­space — but as long as the spy planes couldn’t be shot down, Moscow couldn’t prove the spy flights were hap­pen­ing at all.

In November 1954, Eisenhower approved devel­op­ment of this U‑2 spy plane in a pro­gram known as “Project Aquatone” to be oper­at­ed by the CIA. While the plane would be built at Lockheed’s famous Skunkworks facil­i­ty, an air­craft designed for ille­gal spy over­flights needed to be tested some­where more dis­crete.

Johnson asked Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier to find a suit­ably clan­des­tine air­field. As described in the book Dark Eagles by Curtis Peebles, test pilot Tony LeVier depart­ed from the Skunkworks facil­i­ty in Palmdale, California flying a Beechcraft Bonanza light plane, osten­si­bly on a “hunt­ing trip.” In real­i­ty, they pro­ceed­ed to survey 50 decer­ti­fied sites in Arizona, California and Nevada over two weeks — but none seemed suf­fi­cient­ly remote.

However, Air Force liai­son Col. Osmond Ritland recalled an aban­doned X‑shaped land­ing strip that had served as a gun­nery field during World War II.

CIA offi­cer Richard Bissell, LeVier and Johnson flew down to inspect the strip, which lay next to a dry Nevada salt flat called Groom Lake. Bissell described the site as “…a per­fect nat­ur­al land­ing field… as smooth as a bil­liard table with­out any­thing being done to it.”

Johnson indi­cat­ed “We’ll put it right there. That’s the hangar.”

A fake com­pa­ny called CLJ, cre­at­ed to obscure Lockheed’s involve­ment, recruit­ed con­trac­tors to build up the facil­i­ties in the swel­ter­ing summer of 1955 at a cost of $800,000.

The des­o­late site, decep­tive­ly nick­named “Paradise Ranch,” start­ed out with a nearly mile-long runway, two hangars, a con­trol tower, fuel and water stor­age tanks, an access road, and trail­ers for onsite per­son­nel. LeVier per­son­al­ly road about the lakebed to clear it of debris and spent shell cas­ings to make it safe for land­ing.

Finally, on July 24, 1955, the pro­to­type U‑2, dubbed Article 341, was dis­as­sem­bled and stowed into a hulk­ing C‑124 Globemaster trans­port plane, which trans­port­ed it to the “Ranch” — land­ing with deflat­ed tires so as not to break through the thin runway.

LeVier took the gawky air­craft around on taxi tests, hit­ting 80 miles per hour on the runway — only for the aircraft’s lengthy wings to lift his plane twenty feet into the air during his second run. The U‑2 flew over a quar­ter-mile, before LeVier was able to get the lift-prone air­craft back down on the lakebed on his second attempt — though the hard land­ing caused one of the jet’s tires to burst and catch fire.

The U‑2 went on to see sev­er­al suc­cess­ful flight tests and in a matter of months was deployed on spy flights over the Soviet Union with CIA pilots.

Civilian air­line pilots and air traf­fic con­trollers began spot­ting the sil­very U‑2s flying at sup­pos­ed­ly impos­si­ble heights. Given that the Air Force couldn’t explain the sight­ings by telling the truth, it devised weath­er-relat­ed inci­dents to explain them away. These often uncon­vinc­ing expla­na­tions only fed the fervor of con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists.

The Blackbirds: A‑12, D‑21 and SR-71

When a Soviet S‑75 sur­face-to-air mis­sile blast­ed Gary Powers’s U‑2 in 1960, and he sub­se­quent­ly con­fessed to per­form­ing espi­onage flights) it became clear that alti­tude alone would not pro­vide an ade­quate defense. Kelly Johnson had already antic­i­pat­ed this vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in 1958, when he began explor­ing a new spy plane con­cept: com­bin­ing high alti­tude with sus­tained speeds exceed­ing three times the speed of sound, and radar-stealth — hope­ful­ly making the jet too high and fast to ever inter­cept.

This CIA-Lockheed “black project” — code­named “Project Oxcart” — spawned the futur­is­tic-look­ing A‑12 single-seat spy plane, the prog­en­i­tor of the famous (and unclas­si­fied) two-seat SR-71 Blackbird flown by the U.S. Air Force. 

The Groom Lake facil­i­ty at this time acquired the des­ig­na­tion “Area 51” as it expand­ed and devel­oped spe­cial­ized facil­i­ties for the strik­ing super­son­ic jets: larger addi­tion­al hangars, a longer 10,000 foot runway, safer backup land­ing areas, over 130 hous­ing units for per­son­nel, and enlarged fuel stores for the exotic high-tem­per­a­ture JP‑7 fuel used in the A‑12.

The first A‑12s arrived in 1962 along with elite mil­i­tary pilots tem­porar­i­ly dis­charged and placed in the employ of the CIA, a pro­to­col known as “sheep-dip­ping.” Though the White House never dis­patched A‑12s on over­flights of the Soviet Union, they did fly thirty-two mis­sions over Vietnam and North Korea in Project Blackshield before being retired in favor of the Air Force’s SR-71s, which had side-look­ing cam­eras that didn’t require over­flight of hos­tile air­space.

Lockheed also devised a D‑21 spy drone that resem­bled a minia­ture, single-engined Blackbird, car­ried on top of a Blackbird-derived car­ri­er air­craft called the M‑21.        

Tragically, one of the pig­gy­backed D‑21 drones col­lid­ed with its M‑21 car­ri­er during a test launch. Though both of the M‑21’s crew eject­ed, one drowned before he could be res­cued, and Johnson can­celed M‑21 pro­gram.

However, the CIA did later try to make use of the D‑21s by launch­ing them from B‑52 bombers to snap footage of Chinese nuclear test sites. However, a series of mishaps meant the Air Force was unable to recov­er footage from any of the five drone mis­sions it dis­patched.

Birthplace of the Stealth Jet

While the A‑12 and Blackbird had lim­it­ed stealth char­ac­ter­is­tics, by the 1970s, the Air Force was inter­est­ed in taking anoth­er crack at a low-radar-observ­able jet, this time with combat appli­ca­tion.

In 1977, the Skunk Works used new com­put­er mod­el­ing tech­nol­o­gy to design and build two pale air­craft with dia­mond-like faceted sur­faces coated with radar-absorbent iron ball paint. These “Have Blue” air­craft were dis­as­sem­bled and flown to Area 51 in a giant C‑5 cargo jet November 16, then rebuilt and test flown.

Lo and behold, the Have Blues did exhib­it dras­ti­cal­ly reduced radar cross-sec­tions — but they were also highly aero­dy­nam­i­cal­ly unsta­ble, and both crashed in 1979.

Lockheed evolved Have Blue into the F‑117 Nighthawk attack jet, which used com­put­er fly-by-wire sys­tems to cor­rect the aircraft’s inher­ent insta­bil­i­ty. A YF-117 pro­to­type too made its first flight at Groom Lake on June 17, 1981. Production F‑117s were then sta­tioned at Area 51 before being rede­ployed to the nearby Tonopah Test Range.

Though the Pentagon admit­ted to the exis­tence of a stealth jet in 1983, the secre­cy sur­round­ing the F‑117 was so effec­tive that the public never had any inkling of the Nighthawk’s true appear­ance, nor even its des­ig­na­tion (widely believed to be the “F‑19”) until was final­ly unveiled in 1988.

Meanwhile, Northrop, too, began refin­ing its stealth tech­nol­o­gy with the Tacit Blue demon­stra­tor, dubbed the “whale” or “alien school bus” for its decid­ed­ly unglam­orous appear­ance. This made its first flight at Groom Lake in February 1982 — the first of 135 in all before the demon­stra­tor was retired in 1985.

Conceived as stealthy sur­veil­lance plane with a dis­crete Low Probability of Intercept Radar, Tacit Blue instead pio­neered the use of com­put­er-engi­neered curved-sur­faces in stealth air­craft which heav­i­ly informed Northrop’s forth­com­ing B‑2 stealth bomber.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in con­flict res­o­lu­tion from Georgetown University and served as a uni­ver­si­ty instruc­tor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in edu­ca­tion, edit­ing, and refugee reset­tle­ment in France and the United States. He cur­rent­ly writes on secu­ri­ty and mil­i­tary his­to­ry for War Is Boring.

His arti­cle first appeared in July 2019. It is being repub­lished due to reader inter­est.

Image: YouTube Screenshot. 

Source: National Interest

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