SR-71 Blackbird’s successor has experts looking for Area 51 clues

Military Technology

The construction of a new building at the secret Area 51 test site in Groom Lake, Nevada, is raising questions about the possibility of another super-secret military aircraft being built or tested in Nevada. Investigative reporter George Knapp reports. Aired on July 18, 2007, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.


The SR-71 Blackbird is widely regarded as the greatest airplane ever built. It sliced through the sky at Mach 3 and still reigns — officially anyway — as the fastest plane in history.

Groom Lake, also known as Area 51, was home to the Blackbird during its early days. Will Area 51 also be the location of choice for developing a successor? And maybe more than one?

A photo of a new building under construction at Area 51 has raised tantalizing possibilities for the civilian researchers who dabble in such topics. No one can say for certain what the building will be used for. But aviation historian Peter Merlin says it’s one big hangar.

Merlin said, “It probably measures about 275 feet by nearly 600 feet. It’s no larger than many hangars at other air bases, but it’s certainly the largest one at Area 51.”

Satellite photos confirm Area 51 already has two dozen hangars, including some less than 2 years old. So, what’s going on out there? The hangar could be a central maintenance facility, machine shop or simulator training center, but aviation writers are thinking more exotic thoughts.

For months, there’s been speculation in aviation circles about a successor to the SR-71, call it the SR-72. Model airplane companies already have their version of the so-called Darkbird, which theoretically could fly twice as fast as the Blackbird.

Aviation historian Peter Merlin. (KLAS-TV)

Merlin says he’s been told by engineers at Lockheed that the SR-72 project was canceled. But new reports in Aviation Media note the Air Force just awarded a new contract to Lockheed for a plane that sounds exactly like the SR-72: a Mach 6 reconnaissance plane that could also carry weapons. And unlike the SR-71, this would be an unmanned aircraft.

It would also make a comfy fit inside that new hangar.

But Merlin thinks there are other possibilities also in the works at Groom Lake.

“There are at least seven and possibly as many as 11 manned classified aircraft that have not yet been unveiled that has been flying at various time since 1985,” Merlin said. “And countless unmanned programs, as well. So, most of those things, the ones I’ve mentioned, have been tested there and I know some of the guys who’ve actually flown some of these airplanes.”

Among the suspects, something called the Black Manta, a stealthy, hypersonic craft that might explain the wispy images captured in a few photos around the world. Various black triangle-type craft have been spotted over American military bases and cities for years, some of them huge in size and big enough to require a big hangar.

Renditions of a rumored “Black Manta” aircraft.

Aviation journalist Bill Sweetman has long argued for the existence of the Aurora, another plane rumored to have been flown at Groom Lake. Sweetman says black budget figures hint at the existence of the plane, which some have dubbed the SR-75 Penetrator.

Whichever of these ambitious projects ends up in full development, it’s abundantly clear that the testing location of choice for top secret planes is still Area 51.

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