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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

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WHILE EMPLOYEES AT THE BASE won’t talk about classified aircraft or technologies, some have offered tidbits about what it’s like to work there. Many of the workers live in the Las Vegas area and are flown to Groom on Boeing 737s. These aircraft, painted white with a nose-to-tail red stripe, ferry people and supplies to and from the base. Typically, workers fly to Groom on a Monday and back to Las Vegas on Thursday or Friday, although daily roundtrip flights are common.

Test pilots, managers, engineers, technicians, mechanics, and support personnel stay in base dormitories, which may have been upgraded in recent years. In the 1980s and 1990s, Groom’s pilots lived in “old wooden World War II barracks with creaky floors,” one told me. Each pilot had his own eight- by eight-foot room, which boasted a single window—painted shut. Test personnel typically worked 14-hour days, almost exclusively at night. The base closely monitored satellite overflights—“both ours and theirs,” one Groom engineer said. Test flights were scheduled to preclude a secret aircraft being photographed from space. As more countries launched military satellites and commercial imaging spacecraft proliferated, it became increasingly difficult to conduct flight tests in secrecy.

“Sometimes we’d barely get airborne, when we’d have to land to avoid a [satellite] overflight,” one pilot told me. “Scoot shelters,” portable carport-like structures, were positioned on the ramp to hide an aircraft until the satellite was out of range. Eventually, shelters were also positioned at remote airfields throughout the Nellis and adjacent Utah test and training ranges, for pilots who couldn’t get back to Groom before a satellite topped the horizon.

Avoiding detection by satellites produced one innovation that also greatly improved flight test efficiency. Rather than land at Groom or another strip, pilots simply flew their aircraft beneath a KC-135 or -10 refueling tanker, shielding them from the satellites. Not only could a tanker serve as an airborne scoot shelter, it could refuel test aircraft as well, enabling more test points on a single sortie.

Groom Lake has also been rumored to hide captured alien spacecraft and their big-eyed, little gray-guy crews. Those convinced that unidentified flying objects come from other worlds are just as convinced that some are hidden in Groom’s hangars. I’ve never seen anything to support that notion.

However, it’s clear to me that the UFO phenomenon is used to protect the base’s deepest secrets. I once was advised that if I wanted clues about real-world classified aircraft projects, I should read the supermarket tabloids. If a hiker spotted a new airplane during a test flight near Groom and talked about it openly, the story might appear in one of the tabloids—although wrapped in a wild tale, complete with grainy photos of flying saucers and alien beings. I once asked a Groom test pilot whether tainting classified-aircraft sightings with the UFO stench was ever done intentionally. He smiled and replied: “It’s worked for 50 years. Why would we change now?” Without question, black-world operators have become masters of such deception to protect their work. As a result, Groom Lake will likely retain its secrets for a very long time.

William B. Scott is co-author of the novel Counterspace: The Next Hours of World War III.

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