Area 51’s Black Jets

The highly classified inventions tested at Groom Lake are some of the greatest aircraft ever flown.

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A 1982 graduate of Groom Lake, the YF-117A peeks from a heavily guarded hangar at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada.

When Kelly Johnson, head of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, decided that his company’s beyond-top-secret aircraft were ready for test flight, he sent them to Nevada’s remote Groom Lake, also known as Area 51. Beginning in 1955, when the U-2 made its first flight, the skies above the dry lakebed have become the most hallowed airspace in American aviation history. Working for the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force, Johnson’s team dreamed up the revolutionary A-12, SR-71, Have Blue, and F-117 among others. Author Bill Yenne has assembled 230 color and black-and-white photographs of these innovative aircraft in his book Area 51: Black Jets.

The Editors

In November 1954, Johnson sent Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier and manufacturing foreman Dorsey Kammerer to search the southwestern desert for a remote location where secret aircraft could be tested without being seen. When the Groom Lake, Nevada, site was chosen, construction of a runway, airfield, hangars, office space, and living quarters turned the middle of nowhere into the center of black airplane development in the United States. Several NACA-marked CIA U-2s can be seen in this view of the busy flightline at Groom Lake.
The U-2’s detachable wings were fabricated at a Lockheed factory in Burbank, California, in the 1950s. Kelly Johnson, head of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects division, known as the Skunk Works, knew that the company would need a super-secret site for flight-testing the new spyplane.
The U-2’s glider-type wings gave the airplane the high-altitude capability needed to overfly the Soviet Union on reconnaissance missions. This CIA U-2, parked at Groom Lake in the late 1950s, carries fictitious NACA tail markings, part of the cover story to obscure the CIA’s involvement in the U-2 program.
Known to the CIA as Oxcart and to Lockheed as Archangel, the fastest air-breathing airplane in the world was developed in complete secrecy by Lockheed’s Skunk Works in the 1960s. Here, Article 133, the final Lockheed A-12, takes shape at Plant B-6 in Burbank. The A-12 was the Mach 3-plus successor to the subsonic U-2, which had become vulnerable to being shot down by surface-to-air missiles. Though the A-12 had a stated service ceiling of 90,000 feet, it could fly as high as 96,000 feet.
An A-12 closes on a KC-135 Stratotanker over the Sierra Nevada mountain range. To support long-distance flights by the CIA’s A-12s, the Air Force converted a number of KC-135A aerial refueling aircraft to dispense JP-7 jet fuel rather than the standard JP-4. These special tankers were designated as KC-135Qs. Whenever and wherever A-12s were deployed, they were accompanied by KC-135Qs.
The enigmatic YF-117A peeks from a heavily guarded hangar at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. Early flights were made only at night. The YF-117A, the test aircraft for the F-117 ground-attack aircraft, made its first flight at Groom Lake on June 18, 1981, with Lockheed pilot Hal Farley at the controls. The following year, the fleet of five YF-117As moved to Tonopah.
This late-1963 portrait of A-12s includes two YF-12As parked at the far end. Second in line is Article 124, the Titanium Goose, the only A-12B two-seat trainer. The YF-12A was similar in structure and appearance to the A-12, except for a substantially redesigned forward fuselage, which included a second cockpit for the weapons system operator. The redesigned nose bore distinctively truncated chines, making the YF-12A instantly distinguishable from an A-12.
In the late 1960s, the Skunk Works developed a new generation of U-2s. The U-2R (pictured overflying the Golden Gate Bridge in 1985) was substantially larger and more capable than the earlier U-2A and U-2C. The R version was 63 feet long, compared to just under 50 feet for earlier models, and it had a gross weight of 40,000 pounds, double that of its predecessors. The major difference was in the wing, the feature that had set the U-2 apart in the first place. The U-2R’s wingspan increased from 80 feet to 103 feet, and the wing area nearly doubled to 1,000 square feet. Increased fuel capacity, including new wing tanks, increased the U-2R’s range to more then 5,000 miles. Lockheed reopened U-2R production in 1981, rolling out an improved, structurally identical variant designated as TR-1 (for Tactical Reconnaissance). Later in the decade, U-2Rs were re-engined with General Electric F118 turbofans and redesignated U-2Ss.
F-117As of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia are shown en route to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in August 1990. The F-117s were the first aircraft to bomb downtown Baghdad as Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm. On the night of January 16, 1991, as the air war began, they struck a series of high-value targets across the city. All the F-117s emerged unscathed.
This rear view provides a good look at the titanium inner structure within the wings of the SR-71 Blackbird. Developed under the code name Senior Crown, the SR-71 served for more than three decades, while the A-12 served for barely a year. No other aircraft has ever had the distinction of being the world’s fastest operational aircraft from the day it entered service to the day it retired three decades later. No other aircraft has ever set a world speed record on its retirement flight, which occurred on March 6, 1990: a 68-minute flight from Palmdale, California to Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. This SR-71 is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.