Searching for Secrets at Area 51

A guide to snark hunting at Nevada’s secure test-flight base.

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One rule to follow in hunting secret Airplanes: Avoid cows. The highways that border Area 51, the U.S. Air Force’s secure flight-test base in Nevada, are fence-free, and cows are poor judges of distance—and they are stealthy. As locals say, “They got tan ones for the day and black for night.” I’m a cautious driver and never had a close call, but it’s easy to see how you could get in trouble there at 70 mph.

Seeing Area 51 today is more difficult than it was before 1994, when the government annexed a 4,000-acre vantage point that had been named Freedom Ridge by the Minister, the Ayatollah, PsychoSpy, Agent X, and Hand—a loose community of volunteers, about as unconventional as the Bellman’s crew in Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem “Hunting of the Snark.” The closest open vantage point is now a mile more away, and about nine miles from the base. Moreover, the chances of seeing anything are small. In 2002, when the Air Force declassified the Boeing Bird of Prey, a stealth  demonstrator, it was disclosed that in its three-year test career, it flew only 36 times. Lockheed’s F-117 was easier to spot: Almost 50 were built before the stealth fighter was declassified in 1988.

If you are a lucky snark hunter, there is recorded or confirmed evidence to guide you. I am looking at a photo of an unidentified aircraft over the southwestern United States. I know and trust the source, but the photo is taken at a great distance and all I can say is that it isn’t anything we know about.

Dealing with fragmentary evidence is a common problem. Despite dedicated efforts to learn more, the sighting of a slender triangular aircraft over the North Sea in 1989 and a series of mysterious sonic booms over Los Angeles in 1991 and 1992 remain undebunked. But are they both linked to the same project, the high-speed airplane dubbed Aurora? An Air Force study claimed the booms were caused by F-4 Phantoms.

I like both pieces of evidence because they are exactly the kind of thing that would be easily overlooked by an opsec—operational security—team. Would the Air Force expect to encounter an aircraft recognition expert in the middle of the North Sea? Or realize that CalTech geologists had just networked all their seismographs across the Los Angeles basin and thereby inadvertently created a primitive acoustic aircraft-tracker?

If the military clearly needs something but there is no sign of it, the absence could indicate a secret program. Every military has wanted a stealthy drone, since ordinary ones lack the all-round vision system or technology to sense or evade threats. So it was not surprising when in 2009 photos appeared of the RQ-170—a stealthy drone—flying out of Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Reassembling the story of stealthy drones leads the hunter back to a cold war monster code-named Quartz that was cancelled in 1992 when neither the Air Force nor the intelligence community wanted to pay the bill. A mini-Quartz emerged in 1996 as the Lockheed Martin DarkStar. After that was cancelled, a successor was inevitable.

The need for a bigger stealthy spy drone remained unaddressed, which leads to another snark-hunting lesson: During the life cycle of a project, classification levels change. In the early 2000s, Northrop Grumman was positively chatty about the potential versions of the “cranked-kite” shape of its X-47B unmanned aircraft. So when the Air Force announced that money was going into a classified project, and Northrop Grumman announced a spike in restricted earnings, and my colleague at Aviation Week & Space Technology, Amy Butler, heard about a secret project called RQ-180, putting the story together was not hard: The RQ-180 most likely uses an adaptation of the X-47B’s shape, with longer wings.

For the snark hunter, the Internet is invaluable. With Google Earth, you can scan historical imagery with the click of a slider, and measure objects very accurately. Hunters observed that Northrop Grumman had put covers over two little-used engine test pits in Palmdale, California, around 2009, and that each would fit an aircraft with a 130-foot wingspan. So does a new hangar at Area 51. And both the pits and the hangar fit the wingspan of the RQ-180.

It’s not as adventurous as camping out on Freedom Ridge. But it’s cow-free.