The following is a general timeline of events at the Groom Lake, Nevada, test facility. It covers half a century of history involving a unique national asset.
By Peter W. Merlin
A secure test site was needed for the Central Intelligence Agency's Project AQUATONE (Lockheed U-2). U-2 designer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson sent project pilot Tony LeVier and Lockheed Skunk Works chief foreman Dorsey Kammerer on a two-week survey mission to scout locations for a new base in an unmarked Beechcraft V-35 Bonanza.
Richard M. Bissell Jr., "special assistant" to CIA director Allen Dulles, and director of the AQUATONE program reviewed fifty potential sites with his Air Force liaison, Col. Osmond J. "Ozzie" Ritland. None of the sites seemed to meet the stringent security requirements of the program. They rejected Johnson's proposed Site I (possibly Mud Lake) because it was too close to populated areas. Ritland, however, recalled "a little X-shaped field" just off the eastern side of Groom Dry Lake, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada, just outside the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) nuclear proving ground at Yucca Flat.
LeVier, Johnson, Bissell, and Ritland flew out to Nevada on a two-day survey of the most promising lakebeds, including Groom Lake. The abandoned airfield that Ritland had remembered was sandy, overgrown and unusable, but the three-mile-wide dry lakebed was perfect.
Bissell secured a Presidential action adding the Groom Lake area to the AEC proving ground. Ritland wrote three memos to the Air Force, AEC, and the Training Command that administered the gunnery range. Signed by Assistant Air Secretary for Research and Development Trevor Gardner, they insured that range activities would not impinge on the new test site. Security for the project was now assured.
Johnson met with CIA officials in Washington, D.C. and discussed progress on the base and the AQUATONE program. His proposal to name the base "Paradise Ranch" was accepted. It was an ironic choice which, he later admitted was "a dirty trick to lure workers to the program."
LeVier, Kammerer, and Johnson returned to Groom Lake in Lockheed's Bonanza. Using a compass and surveying equipment, they laid out a place for a 5,000-foot, north-south runway on the southwest corner of the lakebed. They also staked out the general layout of the base.
Herb Miller of CIA Development Projects Staff issued $800,000 in contracts for construction of the base. Through the AEC, Miller organized a team of construction crews.
Seth Woodruff Jr., Manager of the AEC Las Vegas Field Office, announced to the news media that he had "instructed the Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Co., Inc. [REECo] to begin preliminary work on a small, satellite Nevada Test Site installation." He noted that work was already underway at the location "a few miles northeast of Yucca Flat and within the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range." Woodruff said that the installation would include "a runway, dormitories, and a few other buildings for housing equipment." The facility was described as "essentially temporary." The press release was distributed to 18 media outlets in Nevada and Utah including a dozen newspapers, four radio stations, and two television stations.
LeVier and fellow Lockheed test pilot Bob Matye spent nearly a month removing surface debris from Groom Lake (the area had been used for gunnery practice during World War II). LeVier also drew up a proposal for four three-mile-long runways to be marked on the hard-packed clay. Johnson, however, refused to approve the $450.00 expense, citing a lack of funds. Drilling resulted in discovery of a limited water supply, but trouble with the well soon developed and water had to be trucked in.
Construction of the base was completed. It consisted of a single paved 5,000-foot runway, three hangars, a control tower, and rudimentary accommodations for test personnel. The base's few amenities included a movie theatre and volleyball court. Additionally, there was a mess hall, and several water wells and fuel storage tanks.
CIA, Air Force, and Lockheed personnel began arriving at the Groom Lake test site.
The test site was officially and legally named Watertown after CIA Director Allen Dulles' birthplace: Watertown, New York. It is still listed as a member of Alamo Township in Lincoln County, Nevada.
Richard Newton of the CIA assigned as base commander.
The first U-2 (Article 341), disassembled, was flown to "The Ranch" in an Air Force C-124 cargo plane. Base commander Richard Newton expressed his doubts to Kelly Johnson that the new asphalt runway would support the weight of the loaded C-124.
Tony LeVier piloted the unofficial maiden flight in Article 341 during a taxi test.
Levier, with the callsign ANGEL 1, made the first real flight in Article 341. Bob Matye flew chase in a C-47 with "Kelly" Johnson on board as an observer.
LeVier completed Phase I (contractor) testing. His accomplishments included taking the U-2 to 50,000 feet, achieving the maximum design speed of Mach 0.84, and making a successful dead-stick landing.
LeVier was replaced by Lockheed test pilots Bob Matye and Ray Goudey, who expanded the altitude envelope to 74,500 feet.
The second U-2 (Article 342) was delivered to Watertown.
Test pilots Robert Sieker and Robert Schumacher joined the U-2 test team.
Pursuant to a request by the Las Vegas Review Journal the previous month, the AEC released a statement regarding progress on the "Watertown Project." It stated that "construction at the Nevada Test Site installation a few miles north of Yucca Flat which was announced last spring is continuing. Data secured to date has indicated a need for limited additional facilities and modifications of the existing installation. The additional work which will not be completed until sometime in 1956 is being done by the Reynolds electrical and Engineering Company, Incorporated under the direction of the Atomic Energy Commission's Las Vegas branch office."
U.S. Air Force C-54M (44-9068) transporting personnel to Watertown crashed near the top of Mt. Charleston, about 20 miles west of Las Vegas. Nine civilians and five military personnel were killed. There were no survivors.
After the accident, Lockheed took on the responsibility of transporting personnel to the test site. A C-47, owned by Lockheed, was used to bring in pilots, technicians, and special visitors.
Defense Secretary Charles Wilson visited Watertown for a briefing on the U-2 operation.
By the beginning of 1956, four U-2 aircraft had been delivered to the Groom Lake test site.
The fleet consisted of nine aircraft, and six CIA pilots were undergoing flight training at the site.
Col. Landon McConnell was assigned as base commander at Watertown.
CIA Director Allen Dulles visited Watertown to personally meet the first training class.
As Wilburn S. Rose took off on a training flight in U-2A (56-6678), one of the wing pogo wheels failed to separate. Rose flew low over the field, trying to shake it loose. The aircraft, heavy with fuel, stalled and crashed, killing Rose.
The second class arrived at Watertown. It included Francis G. "Frank" Powers, who would later win dubious fame after being shot down and captured while flying a U-2 over the Soviet Union.
While Powers' class underwent training, a group of four Greek and one Polish pilot also came to Groom for familiarization in the U-2. The Greek pilots all washed out during training, and the Polish pilot was never allowed to fly the U-2.
The second U-2 class completed their training.
The third U-2 training class arrived at Watertown. Among others, it included Frank G. Grace Jr. and Bob Ericson.
Grace was killed during a night training flight while flying U-2A (56-6687). He became disoriented by lights near the end of the runway, and flew into a telephone pole.
Bob Ericson was flying U-2A (56-6690) at 35,000 feet when he suffered an oxygen failure. As he began to pass out, the aircraft went out of control. Ericson managed to open the canopy, and parachute to a safe landing on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona.
Article 341 was modified for a series of radar cross section (RCS) tests called Project RAINBOW. Lockheed attempted to reduce the RCS of the U-2 using radar-absorbent materials.
Another U-2, Article 344, was strung with piano wire of varying dipole lengths between the nose and wings of the aircraft to reduce the radar signature. These methods created extra drag with a resultant penalty in range and altitude. The U-2 aircraft modified under Project RAINBOW were known as "dirty birds" because they were not aerodynamically "clean."
During a Project RAINBOW test flight, Article 341 suffered a flameout at 72,000 feet due to airframe heat build-up. Pilot Robert Sieker's pressure suit inflated, but his helmet faceplate failed and he lost consciousness. The aircraft stalled at 65,000 feet and entered a flat spin. Sieker revived at low altitude and attempted to bail out. Without an ejection seat, or enough altitude for a safe manual egress, Sieker was killed. His body was found near the wreck, with his parachute partially deployed. More information here.
An AEC information booklet called "Background Information on Nevada Nuclear Tests" published in 1957) gave a cover story for the Watertown operation. It stated that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was operating U-2 aircraft at the Groom Lake site "with logistical and technical support [from] the Air Weather Service of the U.S. Air Force to make weather observations at heights that cannot be attained by most aircraft." At that time, the aircraft were unpainted except for fictitious NACA markings in the event that one of them was lost off-site.
The AEC conducted a safety experiment with an XW-25 warhead just five miles northwest of Groom Lake in Area 13. Called Project 57, the test was part of Operation Plumbbob. The device, with a design yield of one to two kilotons, was involved in a simulated accident without a nuclear detonation. The test spread plutonium over 895 acres. More information here.
AEC Radiological Safety Officer Charles Weaver, Oliver R. Placak, and Melvin W. Carter participated in two meetings held at Watertown. The film Atomic Tests In Nevada was shown and discussed during two meetings. Watertown personnel were briefed on nuclear testing activities, radiation safety, and the possibility of radiation hazards from the Operation Plumbbob test series. Before leaving Watertown, the AEC men met with two Air Force officers, Col. Jack Nole and a Col. Schilling, and Richard Newton to discuss arrangements for radiation monitors to visit the airbase whenever fallout was anticipated in the Watertown area.
Shot BOLTZMANN, a 12 kiloton blast, was fired from a 500-foot tower on northern Yucca Flat. Watertown personnel were required to evacuate the secret base to avoid fallout.
Two minor atomic blasts, FRANKLIN and LASSEN, were fired at Yucca Flat.
CIA pilot classes finished training.
The U-2 test operation moved to North Base at Edwards AFB, California.
Operational U-2 aircraft were assigned to the 4028th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron. 4028th SRS commander Col. Nole led the first of two three-ship U-2 formations from Watertown to their new home at Laughlin, Texas.
Watertown became a virtual ghost town. The base was apparently in caretaker status with a site manager, security, and minimal complement of personnel present.
An atomic test code-named WILSON deposited fallout on Watertown. The AEC measured radiation exposure inside the evacuated buildings and vehicles at the base to study the ability of various materials to shield against fallout. In effect, Watertown served as a laboratory to determine the shielding qualities of typical building materials that might be found in any average American small town.
The 37-kiloton PRISCILLA shot was detonated at Frenchman Flat.
HOOD, the sixth nuclear shot of Operation Plumbbob, caused substantial damage to the Watertown airbase. The device was lofted by balloon to a height of 1,500 feet over Yucca Flat, about 14 miles southwest of Watertown. On 5 July 1957, HOOD exploded with a yield of 74 kilotons. HOOD's shockwave shattered windows on two buildings at Watertown, and broke a ventilator panel on one of the dormitories. A maintenance building on the west side of the base had its west and east doors buckled, and the south door of the supply warehouse west of the hangars was also buckled.
A civilian pilot was detained when he made an emergency landing at the Watertown airstrip. Edward K. Current Jr., a Douglas Aircraft Company employee, had been on a cross country training flight when he became lost, ran low on fuel, and decided to land at Groom Lake. He was held overnight and questioned. Nevada Test Organization (NTO) security officials reported the incident to the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), which administered the air closure over the Test Site. The following day, the NTO Office of Test Information issued a press release to the news media, describing the incident. The statement noted that the "Watertown landing strip is in the Groom lake area at the northeast corner of the Nevada Test Site."
Operation Plumbbob nuclear testing continued. Five additional safety experiments and 18 more full-scale detonations were conducted. Several shots dropped significant fallout on Watertown. They included DIABLO, DOPPLER, SMOKY, and WHITNEY. SMOKY had a yield of 44 kilotons. It was fired on top of a 700-foot tower in Area 8, about 14 miles southwest of Groom Lake. The mushroom cloud was extremely dirty, and spread radioactive debris over the Groom Lake area.
An area comprised of 38,400 acres of land surrounding the Watertown base was officially withdrawn from public access under Public Land Order 1662. This rectangular addition to the Nevada Test Site was designated "Area 51."
USAF personnel from Edwards AFB embarked on a two-day survey trip in an L-28 to investigate potential emergency landing sites for the X-15 rocket plane. The L-28 received clearance to land on Groom Lake, the fifth stop on the trip. The crew tested the hardness of the lakebed surface by dropping a 10lb. steel ball from a height of six feet and measuring the diameter of the resulting imprint. The survey report described Groom Lake as follows: "The surface is very smooth and extremely hard. All approaches are good, and runways can be used in any direction with just over three miles of lake available. This lake is considered excellent for emergency use." Groom Lake was designated as a contingency landing site for eleven X-15 missions, but none of the flights had to abort to the secret base.
EG&G agreed to move its radar test facility to Groom Lake for security reasons. A special pylon was constructed on a paved loop road on the western side of the lakebed.
Aerial photos of Groom Lake were taken for construction contractor Holmes & Narver, Inc. (H&N).
The AEC issued a press release regarding construction of a butler-type building for "Project 51" at Groom Lake. The statement indicated that the building would be used to "house data reduction equipment for use by Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier [EG&G, Inc.] in an Air Force Program." The construction project led to a labor dispute. REECo obtained a court order to force the union to provide half a dozen sheet metal workers for the project, then agreed to arbitration of the dispute prior to an injunction hearing in district court.
A full-scale mock-up of the A-12 was shipped to Area 51 for radar signature testing by EG&G.
Joe Vensel, Forrest Petersen, and Jim McKay flew from the NASA Flight Research Center (FRC) at Edwards to Nevada in a NASA R4D-5 (17136) to re-survey X-15 landing sites. They landed on the northern end of Groom Lake, just outside the restricted area and tested the lakebed surface by taxiing the aircraft across the hard-packed clay. They soon saw jeeps approaching from Watertown, but the R4D took off before the jeeps arrived.
An Air Force crew attempted a survey following a winter storm. Air Traffic controllers at Area 51 denied landing clearance to the survey aircraft, so it just made a fly-by. The crew noted that there was water on the east half of the lakebed.
Project High Range was completed to track the X-15. It was a High-Altitude Continuous Tracking Radar range over 400 miles long, and stretching from California to Utah. It included radar facilities and microwave relay units. One of the latter, MRU-4, was placed on top of Bald Mountain, 14 miles north of Groom Lake.
Base construction began at Area 51 to build facilities to support Project OXCART, the Lockheed A-12. Since the existing 5,000-foot runway (built for the U-2) was incapable of supporting the weight of the A-12, a new airstrip (Runway 14/32) was constructed.
NASA and AFFTC personnel discussed the idea of using the airspace over Groom as a launch site for the X-15. They determined that Groom had advantages over Mud Lake, near Tonopah, since there were more intermediate contingency landing sites available between Groom and Edwards. The Use of Groom Lake also meant a reduction in AFFTC support requirements since there was already an airfield with emergency equipment and personnel at the site. Ultimately, they agreed to remove Groom from consideration as a launch site due to difficulty obtaining clearance into the area.
Runway 14/32 was completed. The A-12 required a runway at least 8,500 feet long and 150-feet-wide. A 10,000-foot hard asphalt extension, with a concrete turnaround pad in the middle, cut diagonally across the southwest corner of the lakebed. A semicircle (called "The Hook") approximately two miles in diameter was marked on the dry lake so that an A-12 pilot approaching the end of the overrun could abort to the hard-packed playa instead of running his aircraft into the sagebrush. An unpaved airstrip (Runway 09/27) crossed the lakebed from southwest to northeast. Another strip (Runway 03/21) was laid out as a crosswind runway.
The essential facilities at Area 51 were completed. Three surplus U.S. Navy hangars were obtained, dismantled, and erected on the north side of the base, just north of the three original hangars. They were designated as Hangars 4, 5, and 6. A fourth, Hangar 7, was also built.
One hundred and forty surplus U.S. Navy housing units were transported to the base and made ready for occupancy. The original U-2 hangars now served as maintenance and machine shops. Facilities in the main cantonment area included workshops and buildings for storage and administration, a commissary, control tower, fire station, and housing.
The airspace over Groom Lake became part of a new Restricted Area called R-4808N (replacing the former Prohibited Area P-275), that covered both the Nevada Test Site and Area 51. It prohibited overflights below 60,000 feet.
CIA Inspector General Lyman B. Kirkpatrick arrived at Area 51 for a three-day visit. Afterward, he had some critical comments regarding Area 51 security and OXCART project management.
In his preliminary summary report Kirkpatrick stated: "The 'Area' in my opinion appears to be extremely vulnerable in its present security provisions against unauthorized observation. The high and rugged northeast perimeter of the immediate operating area, which I visited in order to see for myself, is not under government ownership. It is subject to a score or more of mineral claims, at least one of which is visited periodically by its owner. Several claims are sites of unoccupied buildings or cellars which together with the terrain in general afford excellent opportunity for successful penetration by a skilled and determined opposition."
Kirkpatrick felt that Area 51 was "already demonstrably vulnerable to air violation including landings," that "major installations are not rigorously protected against sabotage," and that construction of facilities had been undertaken before construction personnel had received a full security clearance.
Richard M. Bissell thought these points were valid. The assistant to the CIA Deputy Director of Plans noted that Bissell "was particularly interested in why we have not yet been able to eject the various citizens holding property around the Area."
Col. Robert J. Holbury was named commander of Detachment 1, 1129th Special Activities Squadron Roadrunners and Area 51, with Werner Weiss of the CIA as his deputy.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expanded the restricted airspace above Groom to 22 by 20 nautical miles. The lakebed now lay at the center of a 440-square-mile box at the heart of the Nellis Air Force Range. Eventually, the airspace was restricted continuously, at all altitudes.
The first A-12 prototype (Article 121/ AF Serial No. 60-6924) was trucked to the test site.
Support aircraft began arriving at Area 51. These included: six McDonnell F-101B and two F-101F Voodoos for training and photo chase, two T-33A Shooting Stars for proficiency training, one Lockheed C-130 Hercules for cargo transport, one U-8A for administrative use, one Cessna 180 for liaison use (later replaced with a Cessna 210), and a Kaman HH-43 helicopter for search and rescue (later replaced with a UH-1). Two F-104A/G Starfighters (56-0790 and 56-0801) served as chase planes during the OXCART flight test program.
Article 121 made its unofficial first flight at Area 51 with Louis W. Schalk at the controls. He flew the aircraft less than two miles at an altitude of about 20 feet.
The following day, Schalk made a 40-minute flight.
Schalk's official first flight, several days later, was witnessed by a number of CIA personnel (including Richard Bissell) and Najeeb E. Halaby, head of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Second A-12 airframe (Article 122) arrives at Groom Lake and is mounted on the RCS pylon for three months of testing.
SEDAN, a 104-kiloton thermonuclear explosion, created a crater 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet across on Yucca Flat. The radioactive dust cloud drifted northeast over Groom Pass.
Shot BANDICOOT detonated in a subterranean shaft with a yield of 12.5 kilotons. Dynamic venting deposited fallout on the Groom Lake area.
A Lockheed test pilot flew a U-2 against radar sites at Area 51 to evaluate its radar cross-section. This was shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and may have been precipitated by the loss of a U-2 to a Cuban SA-2 surface-to-air missile on 27 October.
During a subsonic engine test sortie in A-12 (Article 123/60-6926), Ken Collins descended into a thick cloud deck. Ice quickly built up in the pitot tube, causing erroneous airspeed readings in the cockpit. The jet suddenly stalled and pitched up, entering an inverted flat spin. Collins ejected, and the A-12 impacted south of Wendover, near the Utah-Nevada border. Secrecy of the OXCART program was maintained by telling the press that a Republic F-105 had crashed. More information here.
The first YF-12A (Article 1001/60-6934) made its maiden flight at Area 51 with James Eastham at the controls.
A flight of three F-105 Thunderchiefs, led by British exchange pilot Anthony "Bugs" Bendell, was on a practice nuclear weapon delivery sortie about 80 miles north of Nellis AFB when one aircraft experienced an oil pressure malfunction. One F-105 returned to Nellis while Bendell led the stricken craft to the airfield at Groom Lake. After making a pass over the field with no response to distress calls, Bendell advised the student pilot to land. At this point, two F-101 Voodoos intercepted Bendell and forced him to land also.
Lou Schalk took Kelly Johnson for a ride in the TA-12 (Article 124/60-6927).
After President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the existence of the YF-12A (intentionally calling it "Lockheed A-11" at Kelly Johnson's request), the YF-12A test program moved to Edwards AFB, California.
Lockheed test pilot Bill Park flew a high-speed sortie in A-12 (Article 133/60-6939). While on final approach to Groom Lake, the controls locked up, and the aircraft began to roll. Park ejected just 200 feet above the ground. He swung through just one parachute oscillation before touching down.
Kelly Johnson flew Najeeb Halaby to the Area 51 test site. Halaby was taken up for a flight in the two-seat TA-12 trainer (Article 124/60-6927).
Bill Park piloted the first mated flight of the M-21/D-21 combination. The M-21 motherships were Article 134/60-6940 and Article 135/60-6941.
The A-12 was declared ready for operational use.
After takeoff in A-12 (Article 126/60-6929), Mele Vojvodich was forced to eject as the aircraft went out of control about 100 feet above the ground. The flight lasted only six seconds. Vojvodich parachuted to safety as the A-12 exploded nearby on the frozen surface of the lakebed. The cause was traced to controls that had been accidentally cross-wired during modifications.
The Lockheed D-21 TAGBOARD ramjet powered unmanned reconnaissance drone was launched for the first time from a dorsal pylon on the M-21 mothership.
The fourth launch attempt was made from M-21 (60-6941) with 60-6940 flying chase. After leaving Groom Lake, the aircraft flew out over the Pacific Ocean. As the D-21 separated from the launch pylon, it struck the tail of the M-21 resulting in the loss of the aircraft. Pilot Bill Park ejected safely and was rescued 150 miles off Point Mugu, California. His LSO Ray Torick ejected but drowned before he could be rescued.
Col. Hugh "Slip" Slater takes command of DWT 1, 1129th SAS and Area 51.
While returning to Area 51 from a routine training flight, A-12 (Article 125/60-6928) crashed near Leith, Nevada. A faulty gauge had allowed the jet to run out of fuel 70 miles short of Groom Lake. Walt Ray ejected, but failed to separate from his seat, and was killed.
Sam Mitchell (CIA) assigned as commander of Area 51.
James S. Simon Jr. died while flying chase during a night sortie of the TA-12. As the TA-12 approached the south end of the runway Simon's F-101B (56-0286) struck the ground and exploded near the South Trim Pad.
Under the SENIOR BOWL program, the D-21 drone was reconfigured for launch from a B-52 and redesignated D-21B. Two B-52H aircraft (60-0036 and 61-0021) from the 4200th Support Squadron were sent to Groom Lake for the test program.
The unofficial first flight of the D-21B (Article 501) occurred when one of the drones was accidentally dropped due to a mechanical failure.
The first actual launch of a D-21B was completed successfully from a B-52H over the Pacific Ocean.
Project HAVE DOUGHNUT, a joint USAF/Navy technical and tactical evaluation of the MiG-21F-13 began at Area 51.
First test flight of HAVE DOUGHNUT MiG-21.
Project HAVE DOUGHNUT was completed.
Project HAVE DRILL/HAVE FERRY evaluation of two MiG-17F airplanes began at Area 51 with delivery of first airplane.
First MiG-17 test flight completed.
Second MiG-17 delivered to Area 51.
First flight of second MiG-17.
Project HAVE DRILL/HAVE FERRY was completed.
The CIA began testing a remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) At Area 51 under project AQUILINE. With a six-foot wingspan and pusher propeller, the television-guided RPV was designed to gather intelligence by intercepting electronic transmissions from inside denied territory.
Project HAVE GLIB, evaluation of foreign radar and threat systems began. A complex of actual Soviet systems and replicas began to grow around "Slater Lake" (the pond, which had been named after the former Roadrunners commander), a mile northwest of the main base. The systems were given names such as Mary, Kay, Susan, and Kathy. They were arranged to simulate a Soviet-style air defense complex.
BANEBERRY, a 10-kiloton blast was detonated at the bottom of a 910-foot-deep shaft on Yucca Flat. Shortly afterward, radioactive gases erupted from a surface fissure. The plume reached an altitude of 8,000 feet and moved northeast. The fallout cloud arrived at Groom Lake an hour later. Within 20 minutes, radiation levels had reached a peak exposure rate of 0.18mR/hr. (compared to a normal background reading of 0.02 mR/hr.). Within another hour the cloud had passed.
The Microwave Radar/Repeater Annex (MRU-4) on a three-acre parcel at the summit of Bald Mountain was improved. Construction at the site was sponsored by the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) at Edwards AFB.
Project AQUILINE was canceled and the surviving airframes were placed in storage.
Project HAVE IDEA was initiated to evaluate foreign aircraft at Area 51 and elsewhere. The test aircraft initially included MiG-21 and MiG-17 variants.
The CIA Office of Special Activities (OSA) filed a Memorandum of Agreement regarding a classified project to be undertaken at Area 51. The top-secret project, with a classified code-name, was expected to last about one year. Six permanent personnel were assigned to the test site, with up to 20 personnel "on site during peak periods of short duration activity." Project personnel planned to use Hangars 13 through 17 at the south end of the test site.
The 4477th TEF Red Eagles was activated at Nellis AFB to support evaluation of foreign aircraft.
A C-5 had arrived at Area 51 carrying the Lockheed HAVE BLUE prototype. Also known as the Experimental Survivable Testbed (XST), HAVE BLUE was the progenitor of the Lockheed F-117A. It was the first airplane built to be virtually invisible to radar.
6513th Test Squadron Red Hats was activated at Edwards AFB to support evaluation of foreign aircraft.
HAVE BLUE completed its maiden flight with Lockheed test pilot Bill Park at the controls. On hand to witness the event were Skunk Works chief Ben Rich, his predecessor "Kelly" Johnson, and Ken Perko of the Advanced Research Projects Agency. The flight was also monitored by the White House Situation Room and Tactical Air Command Headquarters at Langley AFB, Virginia.
The first HAVE BLUE aircraft (Article 1001) was returned to Burbank for modifications. It was prepared for RCS tests (with RAM coatings and removal of the nose boom).
HAVE BLUE (Article 1001) returned to Area 51.
During a test flight in HAVE BLUE a sudden drop caused the airplane to slam down hard on the runway. Fearing he would slide off the runway, Bill Park applied full power and aborted the landing. He climbed to altitude, automatically retracting the gear, and again attempted to land. The chase pilot told Park that his right main gear had failed to come down. As fuel levels became critical, Park decided to eject. He was struck by the seat and knocked unconscious during bailout, suffering injuries that ended his flying career.
The wreckage was buried near Groom Lake.
HAVE BLUE (Article 1002), the low-observables technology demonstrator, made its first flight piloted by Lt. Col. Norman K. "Ken" Dyson.
Lockheed conducted the first test of its stealth cruise missile, code-named SENIOR PROM. Six prototypes were built. They somewhat resembled a subscale, unmanned version of the HAVE BLUE. The demonstrator models were launched from a DC-130 from the 6514th Test Squadron from Hill AFB, Utah. The SENIOR PROM test articles and launch aircraft were housed in Hangar 17 at Area 51.
The first guard shack was set up on Groom Lake Road, blocking access to the north end of Groom Lake, which at that point was still public land. The land surrounding the new guard shack was not legally withdrawn from public land until six years later, in August 1984.
Article 1002 was lost due to an engine fire. Dyson noticed two hydraulic system warning lights while flying about 35 miles from Groom Lake. He ejected, and the last HAVE BLUE tumbled end over end to the desert floor. The wreckage was buried near Groom Lake.
The CIA transferred control of the test site to the Air Force. AFFTC commander B/Gen. Philip J. Conley Jr. originally designated and activated the new unit as the 6516th Test Squadron, under the supervision of the 6510th Test Wing.
The Special Order designating and activating the 6516th Test Squadron was revoked and the unit was activated as OL-AA, Detachment 3, AFFTC. Col. Larry D. McClain was assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
The 4477th Test and Evaluation Flight sponsored Phase I construction of a new airfield and support facilities at Tonopah Test Range (TTR).
The $7 million project included construction of a maintenance hangar, a concrete apron, access taxiway, propane tank, a few permanent outbuildings, and 16 mobile homes.
The original 6,000-foot runway was extended to 10,000 feet. It was laid out with the same heading as the main runway at Area 51.
The 4477th TEF Red Eagles was upgraded to squadron status as the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron.
Phase II construction, sponsored by the 4477th TES, began at TTR at a cost of $17 million. It included an expansion of the apron area, construction of a taxiway, fuel tanks, a dining hall, water tank, warehouse, support utilities, and a 42,000-square-foot hangar.
The Lockheed test site at Groom Lake accepted delivery of the first SENIOR TREND Full-Scale Development prototype (designated YF-117A).
In preparation for TAC operational test and evaluation of the F-117A, Phase III construction began at TTR.
At a cost of $79 million, facilities were built for the 4450th Tactical Group, the unit that would operate the aircraft.
Col. Charles "Pete" Winters became commander of DET 3, AFFTC. Winters had served as McClain's vice commander.
Lockheed test pilot Hal Farley successfully completed the first YF-117A flight.
Phase II construction at TTR was completed in January 1982. This provided a new home for the 4477th TES, and began the transition of TTR (also known as Area 52) from a bare base to a standard Air Force base.
TACIT BLUE, a stealth technology demonstrator built by Northrop, was trucked to the Groom Lake test site in several large crates for final assembly in Hangar 8.
Northrop test pilot Richard G. Thomas, made the first flight of TACIT BLUE.
The first production F-117A (80-10785) was delivered to DREAMLAND, disassembled, inside a C-5.
Test pilot Bob Riedenauer attempted takeoff in the first production F-117A (80-10785) on its maiden checkout flight. Before the first test flight, technicians relocated a servomechanism from one equipment bay to another, and rewired it. Unfortunately, they inadvertently reversed the rate gyros. As Riedenauer lifted off, the aircraft flipped over backwards and crashed. He suffered injuries that left him hospitalized for seven months.
The aircraft was a complete loss and, since the takeoff had not been successful in any sense, the "flight" was not even included in the test logs.
Project HAVE GLASS was undertaken to significantly reduce the radar cross-section of the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. A series of modifications included RAM coatings and fillings, reflective materials, and component shape changes.
AeroVironment received CIA sponsorship to build a proof-of-concept high-altitude, solar-powered, radio-controlled UAV called HALSOL. It was essentially a rectangular flying wing made from lightweight materials. Initial test flights were powered by eight electric motors using silver-zinc batteries. HALSOL made nine test flights, beginning in June 1983.
Col. Ralph H. Graham assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
Maj. Frank T. Birk piloted the first flight of a "classified advanced technology demonstration prototype" at Groom Lake. He flew two additional flights for envelope clearance, stability and control, and initial systems evaluation.
Lt. Gen. Robert M. Bond, Vice Commander of Air Force Systems Command, visited Groom Lake for two orientation flights in YF-117A (79-10782).
Lt. Gen. Robert M. Bond made two orientation flights in a Russian-built MiG-23 jet fighter. While making a high-speed run during his second flight, Bond lost control and crashed in Area 25 of the Nevada Test Site. He was killed while ejecting.
Richard Thomas completed the 100th flight of TACIT BLUE.
Approximately 89,000 acres of public land and private holdings northeast of Groom Lake were closed to the public for "national security reasons." This area comprised the Groom Mountain Range that overlooks the lakebed. The appropriation was done without fulfilling the legal requirements for an environmental impact statement. Air Force officials denied there would be any significant impact because the area would only be used as a buffer zone.
TACIT BLUE completed its final flight. Following a highly successful test program, the one-of-a-kind aircraft was stored in the Area 51 "boneyard." Eventually, it was displayed at a classified museum facility in the low bay (called "Dyson's Dock") of Hangar 18.
Col. Karl M. Jones Jr. assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
The U.S. Air Force issued a proposal (ex post facto) for the withdrawal of the 89,000 acres of land in the Groom Mountains that had already been seized in 1984.
New dormitories were constructed. Several large water tanks were added to supply the base. Hangar 18 was built near the south ramp. Four "Rubber Duck" temporary aircraft shelters were erected near the Southend for use by TAC during F-117A OT&E. Many new facilities were built and, by the end of the decade the "Rubber Duck" shelters were replaced with metal hangars (Hangars 20 through 23). Runway 14/32 was extended 4,600-feet further southeast of the lakebed because the north end was subject to flooding during the rainy season.
Congress officially authorized the withdrawal of the Groom Mountains.
Col. James W. Tilley II assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
President Ronald Reagan signed legislation making the Groom Mountains part of the Nellis Air Force Range until 2003. The Desert Research Institute in Reno was contracted to conduct an archeological survey of the area for renewal of the withdrawal.
Col. ??? assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
Northrop's stealthy AGM-137 Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile (TSSAM), based on technology from TACIT BLUE, underwent initial tests.
After several decades of use, Runway 14/32 was becoming too expensive to maintain. AFFTC leadership considered several options, and ultimately decided to build a new parallel runway east of the old one. Construction of Runway 14L/32R began.
Col. William W. Dobbs assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
The F-117A Combined Test Force relocated its operation from Groom Lake to Site 7 at AF Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.
The 6513th Test Squadron Red Hats was inactivated. It was reactivated immediately as the 413th Flight Test Squadron, providing test and evaluation capability for electronic warfare (EW) systems.
When Runway 14L/32R was completed, the old airstrip became Runway 14R/32L. The new runway had no asphalt extension, but an overrun line, extending to "The Hook" was marked on the lakebed. Most of the northern half of Runway 14R/32L was closed, reducing the active runway length to about 10,000 feet.
Col. Craig P. Dunn assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
The U.S. Air Force filed a notice in the Federal Register seeking to withdraw 3,972 acres of land from public on the eastern perimeter of the DREAMLAND section of the Nellis Air Force Range.
The 412th Test Wing at Edwards began formation of an EW Directorate to encompass all aspects of ground and flight test of EW assets and act as a "gateway" to DET 3, AFFTC, providing technical guidance on how to use their capabilities for electronic combat testing.
Several workers filed a lawsuit against the government, claiming damages from exposure to toxic fumes from burning waste at the Groom Lake facility.
Gen. Ronald W. Yates, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, visited DET 3, AFFTC for two days.
The EW Directorate was unofficially established, consisting of the Electronics Research Division, 413th FLTS, Avionics Test and Integration Division, and Electronic Combat Development Flight.
A unique Electromagnetic Test Environment (EMTE) was created to support open-air development test and evaluation and operational test and evaluation of electronic combat systems.
The NC-130H (87-0157), with a dorsally mounted rotating radar dish, was modified under the Advanced Simulation and Training Initiative (ASTI). ASTI provided enhanced threat density of open-air combat training ranges by injecting virtual targets from a ground-based simulator through real-time data links.
The Air Force seized 5,000 more acres of public land to prevent civilians from viewing the base from nearby hilltops that had been overlooked in previous seizures. This occurred in the midst of increased public scrutiny of the secret base.
Col. ??? assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
The YF-113G "classified prototype" made its first flight.
On 29 September 1995 President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Determination No. 95-45. It stated in part: "I find that it is in the paramount interest of the United States to exempt the United States Air Force's operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada from any applicable requirement for the disclosure to unauthorized persons of classified information concerning that operating location."
TACIT BLUE was declassified and delivered to the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, for permanent display.
McDonnell Douglas test pilot Rudy Haug piloted the maiden flight of the "Bird of Prey" (also known as the BoP). The classified technology demonstrator showcased low-observables ("stealth") and lean manufacturing capabilities. Over a three-year period, the "Bird of Prey" completed 38 test flights. The Boeing Company purchased McDonnell Douglas in 1997 and continued funding for the BoP. Besides Haug, the BoP was flown by Air Force test pilot Doug Benjamin and Boeing test pilot Joe Felock.
Col. ??? assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
Col. Mark A. Stubben assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
There was a large fire, possibly caused by an aircraft accident, on the southern slopes of the Groom Mountains north of Groom Lake.
Air Force takes official ownership of Area 51 in a land swap deal, signed by President Clinton. Click here for LVRJ article.
The white Jeep Cherokee security vehicles are being replaced by Ford F-150's, and later Chevy 2500 4x4 pickup trucks.
The Transient Parking ramp (JANET ramp) was excavated and re-paved.
Col. David W. Eidsaune assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
Area 51 North Gate (Back Gate) is upgraded with a chain link fence, double gate and a new guard shack. More information and photos here.
F-22A (91-4004) was flown through the Dynamic Coherent Measurement System (DYCOMS) airborne RCS range (known on-site as Project 100 or simply P-100) to verify the low-observable characteristics of the Lockheed Martin F/A-22A Raptor.
All but two of the original tanks in the fuel farm were removed and two new large tanks were installed.
The South Delta Taxiway was marked as Runway 12/30. It is approximately 5,420-feet-long and 150-feet-wide, with convenient access to the Southend ramp. Runway 14R/32L was closed in its entirety.
DET 3 security personnel from EG&G Technical Services went on strike for two days, citing low wages and excessive amounts of overtime in the three months since the terrorist strikes in September. Supervisors were forced to man posts vacated by the 70 striking guards. Click here for LVRJ article.
Col. Thomas J. Masiello assigned as commander of DET 3, AFFTC.
Construction of the two new fuel tanks is completed.
A new Center Taxiway, providing access to Runway 14L/32R, is constructed. It includes a new access way to Hangar 19 (the "Scoot-n-Hide shed"). Construction is completed by July 2003. Click here for a Satellite Image, and photos from Tikaboo Peak.
The Southend ramp in front of Hangars 9 through 16 was similarly replaced in the summer of 2003.
A Beech 1900 (N27RA), operated by EG&G, crashed on a flight from Groom to TTR. The civilian pilot, David D. Palay, and passengers Derrick L. Butler, Michael A. Izold, Daniel M. Smalley, and Roy A. Van Voorhis (contractors with JT3 LLC) perished. Click here for LVRJ article.
The 413th Flight Test Squadron was inactivated as part of a consolidation and realignment of EW assets.
50th Anniversary of establishment of Groom Lake test facility.