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Nevada’s mountains provide a wall around one of the world’s most secret places. (Courtesy KPITV; Map: USGS)

The Truth is Out There

A veteran reporter describes his search for the aircraft of Area 51.

Although the federal government grudgingly acknowledges that the base does exist, Groom’s silence is still intact today, and its reputation for keeping secrets remains unblemished. Other intelligence units, such as the National Security Agency and the CIA, have suffered embarrassing security breaches over the years, but if any of Groom’s secrets have escaped, they didn’t make the news.

Such uncompromising secrecy can breed abuses. In the early 1990s, while I was researching Groom as a journalist, a former engineer from the base encouraged me to look into the amount of money being spent on the programs there. I devoted considerable time and effort to investigating those expenditures, but the black money trail proved almost impossible to follow. I did determine that the programs were then costing U.S. taxpayers between $30 and $36 billion a year—almost $100 million per day.

Far more productive were my interviews with dozens of people who reported seeing and hearing strange aircraft, mostly at night, primarily in the southwestern United States. Based on those and some of my own observations, I wrote about aircraft that produced unusual contrails and a deep, crackling roar described as “the sky ripping.”

Then, in the early 1990s, a CNN reporter faxed my magazine a sketch of an unusually large aircraft he had spotted flying over the Georgia countryside on a Sunday afternoon. Painted white, it closely resembled the retired North American XB-70 supersonic bomber. But there was something different: vertical tails positioned at the aircraft’s wingtips. (The vertical fins of the XB-70 were located inboard, closer to the fuselage centerline.) It couldn’t have been the XB-70 itself: The last one in existence was parked at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Over the next few years, I collected half a dozen similar sketches, and all of them closely resembled the old bomber. Most eyewitness reports and sketches came from credible aerospace and military workers who were familiar with military aircraft. But calls also came from non-aerospace types. One particularly compelling report came from a witness who had seen the XB-70-like aircraft over her Pennsylvania home at very low altitude, less than 200 feet—so low, in fact, that she could tell the right-seat pilot was wearing a white helmet. The woman was an avid birdwatcher, and was pursuing a doctorate in immunology, so I considered her a legitimate witness: a seasoned scientist with good observational skills.

Typically, these sightings were accompanied by a distinctive, deep-throated, sometimes pulsing engine roar and unusual contrails described as “doughnuts on a rope”—spaced, puffy rings surrounding a thick rope of condensed exhaust—or segmented puffs, like a string of sausage links. I was able to obtain good photos of the contrails, and we published them, along with the eyewitness reports. However, proof that all these incidents were linked to a single aircraft or aircraft type continued to elude us.

At one point, an obscure reference to “Aurora” in a Department of Defense budget document fueled speculation in the media that a high-speed replacement for the SR-71 (which would be retired in 1998) was being developed or had already gone operational. We ultimately decided that Aurora was simply a cover name, a budget niche to hide money that the Pentagon was funneling to the Air Force’s classified B-2 Spirit bomber program.

In 1992, a series of intercepted radio transmissions presented an entirely new possibility for the mystery airplane. Around 6 a.m. Pacific time on April 5 and 22, Steve Douglass, an investigative journalist who monitors military aircraft radio chatter and maintains a black-projects blog (www.DeepBlueHorizon.blogspot.com), picked up transmissions between Edwards’ radar control facility and a high-altitude aircraft that was using the call sign “Gaspipe.” Controllers were directing the aircraft to a landing, using advisories that would be familiar to space shuttle astronauts returning from orbit. Edwards told Gaspipe: “You’re at sixty-seven thousand [feet], eighty-one miles out.” Moments later, Edwards radioed, “Seventy miles out, thirty-six thousand. Above glide slope.” During years of flight testing in the Edwards area, I had heard controllers issuing similar clipped directives. The cadence and tone of the one talking to Gaspipe were the same. I concluded that Douglass’ recording was authentic. The mystery aircraft was descending rapidly, dropping from an altitude of more than 12 miles to almost seven in a few seconds, and evidently it lined up to land. Where, we didn’t know. Maybe Groom Lake.

No fighter aircraft operated at such high altitudes, and my AvWeek colleagues and I quickly confirmed through NASA and the Air Force that no U-2s or SR-71s were airborne at those times. In followup calls, I was told the base’s radar approach control facility showed no record of controllers “working” an aircraft with the call sign Gaspipe on those dates.

I started wondering whether the spooks at Groom were flying a new spaceplane: a manned vehicle that could reach orbit, then return to land on a remote runway. My colleagues and I chased this mystery for more than a dozen years. In March 2006, we published a story about what was called the Blackstar two-stage-to-orbit system. We lacked proof, but had first-hand accounts from military pilots, technicians, and engineers of a small spaceplane, code-named the XOV—short for Experimental Orbital Vehicle—that was carried under the belly of an XB-70-like aircraft known as the SR-3. Earlier that year, a Groom insider had told me Blackstar had been shelved, because “it didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped.” Whether the problems were technical or financial, we may never know.

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