A peek inside the US’s secret flight test facility
Dreamland, Watertown, Groom Lake, Homey Airport, The Site, Paradise Ranch or just, The Ranch … these are all names – ironic, nickname, or actual – that have variously been assigned to a secure flight test facility deep within the remote high desert region of southern Nevada, most commonly known as Area 51.
Made famous by the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day, the base – previously really known only to a few aviation diehards and UFO conspiracy theorists – has undergone continuous improvement and expansion since it was founded in the mid-1950s.
Area 51 sits within the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR), an 11,700 km2 parcel of land which sits under 18,130km2 of dedicated military airspace and another 12,950km2 of shared airspace north of Las Vegas. The airspace is most commonly used by aircraft based at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas for Red Flag and other exercises, and by Nellis AFB’s permanently-based USAF weapons school and other units.
Surrounded at the southern end of the NTTR is the 3,496km2 Nevada Test Site (NTS). From 1951 to 1992, the dry lakebed of Yucca Flat in the NTS – about 25km WSW of Area 51 – became the location for 100 above-ground nuclear weapons tests, while the mountains to the north of Yucca were extensively tunnelled for 828 underground nuclear tests. Needless to say, the mines in the area have been abandoned, and there has been extensive contamination remediation of the NTS since testing ceased.
Area 51 is the designation for one of the many parcels of land that the former NTS and the wider NTTR were divided up into in the 1950s. The rugged and inhospitable region experiences extreme heat in summer and snow in winter, and was originally used as a free cattle range and dotted with numerous small claim silver mines before parts of it were used as a bombing range by the then US Army Air Force (USAAF) during and following WW2.
Originally called Watertown strip, the base was founded in early 1955 when the USAF acquired the Area 51 parcel from the NTS. The site was reportedly identified by Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier as an appropriate site to establish the CIA’s ‘Project Aquatone’, the development of which would soon become the Lockheed U-2 which was designed by the legendary Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson and his team from the famed Lockheed Skunk Works.
Today, the base is operated by Detachment 3 of the US Air Force Flight Test Centre (AFFTC) headquartered at Edwards AFB in California and is located adjacent to the mostly-dry Groom Lake salt pan some 170km NNW of downtown Las Vegas. Lying at an elevation of about 4,200 feet, the lakebed is surrounded on its north, west, and southern flanks by the vast NTTR and the NTS, while a line of hills shields its eastern side from public lands.
There are several other major military facilities within the NTTR, including Creech AFB at the southern end of the NTS which is where a large contingent of the USAF MQ-9A Reaper force is based.
In the north-west of the NTTR is the Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airport. Also well hidden from public lands, TTR features a long single runway, several large ramps, and a ‘canyon’ of hangars where the USAF’s fleet of Lockheed F-117 Knighthawks was based in the 1980s. Following a recent runway extension and upgrading, TTR still has a few operational F-117s, and is now rumoured to house several classified operational capabilities.
)To the south-west of TTR on the western end of the range is the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat and Training range (TPECTR), a complex network of electronic threats representative of (or authentic) adversary systems which are designed to test airborne electronic warfare systems and to train aircrews on how best to defeat these threats.
There are also other fixed authentic and simulated threat complexes located throughout the NTTR, while the USAF and contractors operate numerous mobile systems that can be brought in for major exercises or development programs. Spread throughout the range are various target complexes for live and simulated ordnance, including several full-scale airfields graded into the desert floor, with representative hangars and buildings, parked aircraft, and vehicles.
There are also at least three unsealed airstrips in or adjacent to the NTTR capable of handling C-130, C-17A, or other tactical transports that are used for tactical landing practice, and for pilot survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SARE) training, both of which are major elements of most Red Flag exercises.
Red Flag is widely regarded as the highest fidelity, most realistic air combat exercise in the world. Held four times a year (typically two US-only, one Five-Eyes, and one with other allies), Australia usually attends once a year, sending air combat, ISR, and transport aircraft, and a contingent of air combat controllers.
Much of the Red Flag action takes place in the airspace north and west of Area 51. Military and contract ‘Red Air’ elements often depart Nellis before the main waves, and stage near TTR – although they have been based at TTR in past years. The attacking forces fly north from Nellis, often refuel over eastern Nevada, and then ingress westwards towards the threats and ground targets located in the valleys south and east of TTR.
But Red Flag participants – especially foreign participants – are briefed that they are not allowed to land at Area 51 under any circumstances, regardless of the condition of their aircraft. Even if a participant cuts the corner of Dreamland airspace, otherwise known as ‘The Container’, the entire unit is usually ordered to return to base immediately, are grounded and debriefed, and can be sent home from the exercise.
The nearest anyone without the necessary clearances can get to Area 51 is a guard shack 21km from the base on a closely-monitored, single unsealed road from the east. The base’s eastern border runs north-south on the other side of the mountain range and, while it isn’t fenced, it is monitored by private security, cameras, and ground sensors. There are just two – barely-accessible – points the base can be seen by the public: the 7,300ft high Tikaboo Peak 42km to the ENE, or the 8,400ft Reveille Peak which is 68km to the NNW.
Workers enter and exit the base via three means – on buses along Groom Lake Rd from the east, through the Mercury Highway which comes up through the NTS from the SW, and via an airline called ‘JANET’ which operates a fleet of six unmarked 737s and a similar number of Beechcraft King Airs from a dedicated terminal at Las Vegas, or from other US DoD test sites such as Edwards AFB, Palmdale, China Lake, Pt Mugu, and TTR. Many of the workers live in Las Vegas, and fly in on a Monday and fly home on Friday.
The base itself is highly-compartmentalised, with some of the US’s major defence companies and a couple of research institutions – reportedly including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory – having widely-dispersed test and development facilities on base. There are few windows in the hangars and other base buildings, and workers reportedly have little awareness of what happens outside of their immediate work areas.
Apart from the security contractors who patrol the base’s border, the base itself has up to six F-16C/Ds attached to it for test chase duties, but ready to intercept aircraft that stray into ‘the Container’. The base also has about four HH-60U Ghost Hawk helicopters which perform search and rescue for flight tests, but also support base security.
Following the base’s founding in 1955, a single runway (32/14), four hangars, a ramp, and some rudimentary barracks accommodation were built on the south-west side of the dry lakebed. The first U-2 ‘article’ was delivered inside a C-124 transport from Burbank Airport in the suburbs of Los Angeles to what was then called the ‘Watertown strip’, and the first flight of the glider-like aircraft was supposedly unintentionally conducted by Tony LeVier during a high-speed taxi test in August 1955.
There were a number of crashes of early test articles, mainly caused by the relatively small difference between the aircraft’s stall and maximum speeds – known to its pilots as ‘coffin corner’. But the program proceeded at pace thanks to almost unlimited Cold War budgets driven by concerns at the Soviets’ rapidly expanding bomber and missile capabilities. As such, the first overflight of Poland and East Germany by a U-2 was conducted from a base in West Germany in June 1956, less than a year after first flight.
But even as the U-2 was still in development, the CIA recognised that it would soon be vulnerable to Soviet surface-to-air missiles – a fact born out with the shootdown of a U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers in 1960 – and a new program was launched to find a higher-flying and much faster successor. To this end, ‘Project Gusto’ saw contracts awarded to Lockheed and Convair in 1958 to develop concepts for an aircraft capable of flying above 80,000 feet and at high supersonic speeds.
In 1959, Lockheed’s ‘Archangel’ concept was selected over Convair’s ‘Kingfish’ design and, under the CIA’s ‘Project Oxcart’, development continued through several iterations which culminated in Lockheed’s 12th concept, appropriately called the ‘A-12’. Lockheed’s design promised speeds above Mach 3, so the base at Groom Lake was significantly expanded and the runway was extended to 5,700m (18,000ft) including a significant precautionary overrun onto the dry lakebed.
Like the U-2, the A-12 was also manufactured at Burbank. Due to the secrecy of the program, the test articles were trucked to Area 51 – which was by then ironically referred to as ‘Paradise Ranch’ because of the harsh elements – inside massive wooden boxes.
Again, highlighting the rapid progress of projects during the Cold War, the Oxcart – as it became commonly known – made its first flight in April 1962, barely three years after Lockheed’s concept was selected, and less than two years after the design was frozen. A total of 13 A-12s were built, while two M-21 derivatives were also built with a second seat under ‘Project Tagboard’ to carry and launch the Lockheed D-21 Mach 3 drone.
Three YF-12A test aircraft were also built under the USAF’s ‘Project Kedlock’ with an AN/ASG-18 fire control radar mounted in a re-profiled nose, a second seat for a weapons systems operator, subtle changes to the cockpit canopy, and weapons bays in deeper fuselage chines to carry four AIM-47 air-to-air missiles (AAM).
As part of the Oxcart program, a radar cross-section range (RCSR) was built at the northern end of the base, where scale models of test aircraft could be mounted on a pole and rotated in pitch, yaw, and roll so reflections from radars of varying types could be accurately measured. ‘Scoot and hide’ shelters were also constructed at each end of the runway and on taxiways so aircraft could be hidden from Soviet satellites while conducting pre-takeoff checks or cooled-down after landing.
All 18 aircraft initially operated out of Area 51, before the YF-12As were moved to Edwards AFB to coincide with a 1964 announcement by then President Lyndon Johnson of the existence of the “A-11” interceptor. The development of the YF-12A would continue in the ‘grey’ world at Edwards, ostensibly so the Oxcart program could remain in the ‘black’.
By the end of 1965, the workforce at Area 51 numbered more than 1,100 people, mostly civilian CIA and contractor personnel and, just three years and seven months after first flight, the A-12 was declared operational at design specifications. This was a remarkable feat for – what remains to this day – the world’s fastest air-breathing aircraft which was designed just 15 years after the end of WW2 with nothing but a slide rule and a lot of dead-reckoning!
The A-12s and M-21s remained at Area 51 for their short-lived service careers, apart from a 13-month deployment of A-12s to Kadena AFB in Japan from May 1967, where five aircraft conducted just 29 missions over North Vietnam and North Korea under Operation Blackshield.
The M-21 program was terminated in 1966 following the break-up of an aircraft and loss of its crew during the launch of a D-21 at Mach 3.
And due to the development of the USAF’s SR-71A Blackbird which was developed from the A-12 under a project called ‘Senior Crown’, the CIA’s Oxcart program ended in 1968 having never conducted a mission for which it was primarily designed – an overflight of the Soviet Union. The remaining airframes were placed into storage at Palmdale until 1996 when the program was finally declassified, and these were eventually allocated to museums.
Meanwhile, despite demonstrating its ability to successfully intercept bombers at ranges beyond 160km, the YF-12A was never developed into the planned F-12B operational interceptor for which the USAF had declared a requirement for 93 aircraft.
Two of the YF-12s subsequently served as high-speed research airframes with NASA at Edwards until 1979, and the aircraft’s radar and AAMs were developed into the AN/AWG-9 and AIM-54 Phoenix AAM combination which was successfully integrated with the US Navy’s F-14 Tomcat interceptor.
As the Oxcart program was winding down, the USAF was able to ‘obtain’ several combat aircraft of Soviet origin – initially via Israel – and programs were established at Area 51 in 1967 to test and exploit the capabilities of these aircraft.
Dubbed ‘Have Drill’ and ‘Have Doughnut’, these programs saw the flight envelopes of the MiG-17 and MiG-21 – redesignated YF-113A and YF-110 respectively in USAF service – explored to their fullest, while USAF and US Navy combat squadrons were later given the opportunity to fly against the MiGs prior to deploying to Vietnam.
Have Drill, Have Doughnut and other programs were expanded in the late 1970s to a program called ‘Constant Peg’ as part of the newly established 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron – later the 6513th Test Squadron – otherwise known as the ‘Red Hats’. Constant Peg initially added a few MiG-23BNs to the growing test force, and the new program was relocated to TTR, 100km NW of Area 51.
The MiG-23 was redesignated YF-113B/C in USAF service, and Constant Peg’s fleet grew through the 1970s and 80s to include additional MiG-21s, Chengdu F-7s (MiG-21), Lim-5Ps (MiG-17), a Shenyang F-6 (MiG-19), an Su-20, and a former East German MiG-29. In total, Constant Peg operated about 30 aircraft of Soviet or Chinese origin. While many were lost in accidents and others were grounded and broken up, a few have found their way into museums.
Despite Constant Peg being wound up in 1990, at least one Su-27 Flanker of unknown origin has been spotted in the NTTR airspace near Area 51, including by your writer who witnessed a light blue example flying in company with a modified Gulfstream GII test aircraft in 2004.
THE DAWN OF STEALTH
In the late 1970s the USAF also started to develop combat aircraft designed from the ground up with low observable ‘stealth’ features in order to evade adversary sensors.
The first of the these was Lockheed’s F-117A Nighthawk, the first ‘stealth fighter’. Developed in total secrecy under a project called ‘Have Blue’, three two-thirds scale prototypes were built using as many components as possible from other aircraft, including T-38 engines, the fly-by-wire system from the F-16, and the A-10’s landing gear. The first Have Blue prototype – nicknamed ‘Hopeless Diamond’ due to its faceted shaping – made its maiden flight at Area 51 in December 1977.
Under a project called ‘Senior Trend’, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was awarded a contract in November 1978 to develop the Have Blue into an operational aircraft, and the first YF-117A development aircraft flew at Area 51 in June 1981. The first production aircraft was delivered to Area 51 in 1982, and an initial operational capability (IOC) was declared following a move of all F-117A operations to TTR in October 1983.
The F-117As were assigned to the USAF’s 4450th tactical group (TFG) which also kept a number of LTV A-7E Corsair IIs on strength for training, to provide test chase for F-117A flights, and to provide a cover story for the secret stealth fighter.
The F-117’s existence was finally revealed in a grainy photograph in 1988, and the aircraft conducted its first operational missions over Panama in 1989. But it was the Gulf War where it starred, successfully conducting a large proportion of the initial strike wave against Baghdad’s integrated air defence system (IADS) and other targets early on 17 January 1991.
Despite being officially retired from USAF service in 2011, there are at least half a dozen F-117s still operational at TTR. These aircraft now carry ‘TR’ tail codes and use the ‘Knight’ callsign, and reportedly act as adversary aircraft for units visiting Nellis AFB, and conduct fleet support work during pre-deployment workups of US Navy major fleet assets.
During the development of the F-117, the USAF was thinking of stealth applications on larger platforms, and the USAF’s advanced technology bomber (ATB) program commenced in 1979. Lockheed initially proposed a scaled-up version of its Have Blue demonstrator under a program called ‘Senior Peg’, while Northrop proposed a flying wing design under ‘Senior Ice’.
To prove some of its stealth and flight control system concepts, Northrop developed the Tacit Blue, an ungainly looking aircraft unflatteringly nicknamed ‘The Flying Bathtub’ or ‘The Whale’. Tacit Blue first flew at Area 51 in February 1982 and logged 135 flights over 230 hours in three years before being retired.
Described by legendary Northrop designer John Cashen as “… arguably the most unstable aircraft man had ever flown”, the Tacit Blue demonstrator proved the flight control and low observability concepts for what would become Northrop’s B-2A Spirit ‘stealth bomber’. The sole Tacit Blue aircraft was declassified in 1996 and is today displayed in the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
Another project to be test flown at Area 51 was Boeing’s ‘Bird of Prey’, a sub-scale manned concept demonstrator which developed flight controls and manufacturing techniques for Boeing’s X-45 series of unmanned systems. Resembling a fictional Klingon warship but officially designed the YF-118G, the concepts proven by the Bird of Prey have probably also found their way onto Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker and Boeing Australia’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS).
Area 51 has undergone a large expansion and upgrade in the past two decades, with the original runway decommissioned and a new and wider runway built, new taxiways, a larger passenger ramp and air movements terminal, expanded accommodation, and numerous large new hangars constructed. In order to maintain security, the base has a large cement factory on site and also has a weapons bunker at the southern end of the base site.
There is strong evidence that Northrop Grumman’s so-called designated RQ-180, a large unmanned reconnaissance flying wing was tested there, before being moved to Edwards AFB South Base in recent years, while recent construction of a large shelter attached to a hangar adjacent to a major taxiway suggests smaller unmanned systems, possibly part of The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Skyborg program.
There is also reportedly a remaining foreign exploitation element based at Area 51, reportedly known as Detachment 3, 53rd Test and Evaluation Group.
As to what is really being tested there now, to paraphrase a popular saying – those who don’t know have provided much speculation, while those who do know have said nothing!