Most Americans didn't know about the secret military projects back in the days of Leave it to Beaver, the first GI Joe doll, soda fountains or hula hoops. Most did not know there were those working in obscurity to protect our country back in the 1950's and 1960's. As American Citizens were going about their daily routines; these men were risking and sometimes giving their lives in the name of freedom. They are the silent heroes of the Cold War.
One group of individuals, The Roadrunners, were an elite group of CIA, Air Force and support personnel operating out of what is officially known as "an operating location near Groom Lake, Nev.," also known as Area 51, the Ranch or the Area by those who worked there. These heroes, whether pilots, crewmembers, support personnel or government contractors were an integral part of our Cold War history.
Aircraft including the U-2 and the A-12, developed by Lockheed Skunkworks, were designed to perform reconnaissance and photographic missions over the world's hot spots including Russia, North Vietnam and North Korea.
The A-12 program (code named OXCART) was headed by Col. Hugh Slater. Lockheed pilot Lou Schalk first tested this predecessor to the SR-71 at Groom Lake in April 1962. The program became operational in May 1967 with a detachment of 260 personnel deployed to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa.
Their mission called "Black Shield" was formally sanctioned by President Johnson. They flew out of Kadena over North Vietnam and North Korea collecting imagery of missile sites. The A-12 was the first to fly over North Korea after the USS Pueblo was seized in 1968. But after only 10 months, the USAF ordered Lockheed to destroy the A-12 and YF-12 tooling.
In March 1968, the first SR-71A arrived at Kadena as the A-12's replacement. Some still say the A-12's INTEL capabilities out performed the SR-71.
"We had a product that worked admirably well for its time (and still would)," said Ron Girard, who was a mission planner with the program. "We had the ability to collect photographic intelligence that was superior to the SR-71 sensors anywhere in the world."
Although the program they worked on is no longer operational, the group reunites every two years to renew friendships. The Roadrunners reunion group, conceived in late 1969 consists of former pilots, crewmembers, engineers, support personnel and government contractors for the YF-12, U-2 and A-12 programs.
This years reunion in Las Vegas, Nev. boasted more than 250 of the 311 members and associates of the organization. Included were retired USAF NCO's, a contingent of Taiwanese pilots who flew U-2 missions over Red China, representatives from Lockheed (Skunkworks) Honeywell, Pratt and Whitney and Hycon. Authors, researchers and aviation enthusiasts are also members of the association.
British author, Chris Pocock presented a slide show detailing the U-2 program. Pocock has written two books on the U-2.
A number of associate members plan their vacation around the Roadrunners reunion. "I was awestruck two years ago when I attended my first reunion," said Ron Girouard.
Girouard of Carencro, LA is an avid collector of both photos and squadron patches. Girouard's collection brought back a lot of memories to some of the attendees as they perused his booklet. "I really feel privileged to have been allowed to even stand in their presence," he said. "To actually have insignia that really belonged to them.well that really put me over the top."
A highlight of the week's festivities was a tour to Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste repository located at the Nevada Test Site.
At this year's banquet, retired Lockheed test pilot, Bob Gilliland spoke, recalled the early days of testing and operations. Gilliland is most noted for taking SR-71 #950 on its maiden flight in December 1964.
The five remaining A-12 project pilots, Ken Collins, Jack Layton, Francis J. Murray, Denny Sullivan and Mel Vojvodich gathered at the podium to honor their former commander, Col. Hugh "Slip" Slater and presented him with an autographed A-12 photograph.
"They (the pilots) were picked from the very best bunch of fighter pilots in the Air Force," said Slater.
The unit was small and tight knit, said Girard. "Col Slater was a leader whom I strongly admire," he said. "During my 20 years in the Air Force, this job was easily one of my best assignments."
This year's reunion was especially stirring in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Roadrunners president, Roger Anderson of Las Vegas said it's been a tough couple of weeks and our lives have changed forever. "It's organizations like ours that really come together at times like this," he said.
"I wanted to thank each of you to take the time to make the effort to come to Roadrunners #17 and help us celebrate what this nation and this group is all about." he said. With that, the festivities ended with the group singing "God Bless America."
Lockheed SR-71, Secret Missions Exposed, by Paul F. Crickmore
The U-2 Spyplane: Toward the Unknown: A New History of the Early Years, by Chris Pocock
Official web site of the Roadrunners. Honoring and sharing the adventures and accomplishments of Cold War participants in the A-12 and YF-12 Oxcart program at Groom Lake and other "black and nonexistent" places.
The Online Blackbird Museum
Includes photo gallery, news and events pertaining to both the A-12 and the SR-71.
Leland Haynes Blackbirds
A wealth of information on the A-12 and SR-71 history and missions, including The OXCART story, theaters of operation, photos and news.
John Stone's Blackbirds
Includes a comprehensive timeline on the Blackbird and U-2 operations.