The U-2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird top the list of aircraft that were tested at Area 51. Investigative journalist George Knapp looks at the test pilots, and experts discuss the secrecy around the air base. Aired on May 5, 2005, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.
Buses with blacked out windows. Cameras that scan for any movement. Sensors buried in the dirt. Armed choppers that patrol the skies. Ominous signs that warn of deadly force.
The secrecy that’s long been the trademark of Area 51 is as pronounced today as it’s ever been. Whatever’s going on inside, no one’s going to talk about it.
For decades the government would not admit the existence of Area 51. Its code name disappeared from maps. Employees couldn’t tell their own spouses where they worked.
“No one knew about it. You never heard of Groom Lake in those days, or Area 51,” said T.D. Barnes, Area 51 expert.
Barnes was working for NASA in the ‘60s when he first focused on Area 51. He knew from radar signatures that something very fast was flying around out there. Barnes was recruited by the CIA to join the Groom Lake team, although this kind of teamwork was unusual.
Barnes said, “You never talked about each other’s jobs. There’s some of the guys that I worked with out there, flew up there, stayed all week with them. We played on the Lake all weekend. To this day I don’t know what their what their specialty was. We did not ask.”
If Area 51 had DNA, secrecy would be woven into it.
Lockheed genius Kelly Johnson needed an out-of-the-way place to test his spindly spy plane, the U-2. And the dry bed of Groom Lake seemed perfect. It was far from prying eyes, but still close to the already secure Nevada Test Site.
In 1955, when the first U-2 was rolled out at Groom, the base then known as Watertown consisted of only a few buildings and hangars.
For Francis Gary Powers and the other U-2 pilots and personnel, Area 51 was no garden spot. But the work was vital. The U-2 enabled America to find out what our adversaries were up to. Even before Powers’ U-2 was shot down over Russia, a successor to the plane was in the pipeline at Lockheed Skunk Works, a family of airplanes that would be known as Blackbirds.
Test Pilot Bob Gilliland said, “These things are the greatest airplanes ever built and still are. To think that 40 years ago and it’s still the world’s fastest.”
Gilliland was chosen by Lockheed as the first man to fly the SR-71, one version of the Blackbird and the fastest plane to ever fly.
When the U-2s moved out of Groom Lake, the Blackbirds moved in, they could travel faster than Mach three, but at such speeds, the planes and the pilots got mighty warm. “In round numbers, about an 800-degree Fahrenheit airplane. And so a self-cleaning ovens, as I understand it, is 425 (degrees) and soldering irons about 550. So you can see it’s a lot hotter than that,” said Gilliland.
Another military pilot, Dennis Sullivan was asked to blindly volunteer, “And they said, ‘Well, we want to know if you want to volunteer to do something.’ I said, well, what am I going to do? They said, ‘We can’t tell you.’ I said, okay, I volunteer,” recalled Sullivan.
Sullivan was recruited by the CIA to work at Groom Lake in the early ‘60s and to pilot the A-12 and early Blackbirds. For the spy pilots the Cold War seem pretty hot. Various enemies were constantly trying to shoot them down. And just flying the planes was dangerous enough. “The guy up in the in the CIA headquarters told me one time he said, you know when we looked at this program, when we started we figured we were going to lose about 20% of you guys. And while we didn’t get shot down or anything, that’s just about exactly what we did,” said Sullivan.
There were other dangers. Area 51 was only a few miles from ground zero at the Nevada Test Site. The base was often showered with radioactive fallout from atomic tests. In later years, workers were exposed to toxic chemicals because of regular open pit burning at Groom Lake. Despite the risks those who worked at Area 51 are proud of their roles, proud and tight lipped.
“If something’s going on out there they don’t want anyone to know about it, they’re not gonna know about it. It’s not gonna happen,” said Barnes.