Thursday, 1 October 2015
There are a lot of airplanes buried in the ground at AREA-51
By KEITH ROGERS
As big as football fields and deep enough to bury airplanes, the graves at Groom Lake lie scattered around the government's secret installation, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
There are no headstones or markers to denote the final resting place for such high-tech aircraft as the predecessors to the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter jet and the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
But people who worked there and researchers who track aviation history and the government's so-called "black budget" programs say some planes that crashed and other experiments that failed were hauled to the bottom of 40-foot-deep holes and covered overnight with mounds of dirt.
One former Groom Lake worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he watched while an earthmover spent a day in 1982 scraping out a burial site.
It was a massive excavation, he said. "They didn't dig that hole and put Martians or moon men in it."
He said the wreckage of a classified plane that was buried on the base was for months in what's called the "Scoot-N-Hide," a shed off a taxiway where secret planes are kept out of view of orbiting satellites.
"They put it on a flatbed truck and put it in a hangar. Then one day they scraped it off the flatbed into the hole and buried it," he said. "They attached a cable to the aircraft and just pulled it off. The thing was shattered like an egg."
According to aviation writer and historian Peter Merlin -- who has obtained declassified flight documents and interviewed personnel involved with Groom Lake programs spanning a period since 1955 -- more than a dozen aircraft are buried around the installation. Combined, the craft were worth at least $600 million and might be valued as much as $1 billion.
This practice of disposing secret, high-tech equipment continues today, he said. "We have no reason to believe it has stopped."
Because it is cloaked in secrecy by a presidential order, Air Force officials will not discuss what it acknowledges only as "the operating location near Groom Lake," which is widely known as Area 51, a 38,400-acre swath of desert along the dry lake bed.
Merlin said the equipment that now lies 40 feet beneath the surface represents cutting-edge technology that in its time kept the U.S. military and the nation's intelligence community ahead of foreign adversaries.
For example, three generations of high-flying spy planes -- U-2s, A-12s, and SR-71s -- have been demonstrated at Groom Lake, each becoming progressively superior to foreign forces. "Nobody ever shot down an A-12," he noted.
Even former Soviet bloc aircraft, such as the 1970s-vintage MiG-23, have been obtained by the U.S. intelligence community and tested at Groom Lake to see how U.S. planes and radar stack up against it, said Merlin, who writes for several aeronautical trade publications, including a newspaper for the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.
The 1982 burial site described by the former Groom Lake worker was near a gravel-pit road and system of trenches where secret documents and materials including drums of toxic coatings for stealth fighter jets were routinely burned for years. A lawsuit by former base workers alleged they had developed illnesses from toxic fumes, but the Air Force has declined to release documents regarding the disposal practice, citing national security concerns.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org -- a Washington, D.C.-area defense-policy organization, said "the notion that the Air Force is burying its mistakes at Groom Lake makes sense." It is patrolled by helicopters carrying doorgunners manning machine guns.
The Groom Lake graveyard, according to Merlin, includes:
• Several 1960s-vintage A-12s, predecessors of the fast, high-flying SR-71 Blackbird spy planes.
• Four U2s from the 1950s.
• An F-101 chase plane that crashed in 1965.
• Two Have Blue airframes that were used to demonstrate technology for the F-117A.
• Wreckage of a MiG-23 that crashed in 1984.
Merlin and three other sources who worked at the base said base officials wanted to retrieve one of the Have Blue airframes buried somewhere near the Groom Lake installation but were unable to find it.
He said there was a plan to bury a unique surveillance aircraft, Tacit Blue -- a white plane equipped with sensors and radar that could survive flying close to war zones -- but it was rescued and placed in the U.S. Air Force Museum in Ohio instead. Tacit Blue was tested at Groom Lake from 1982 to 1985, he said.
Not all once-secret planes from Groom Lake that crashed have been buried there, including the first production F-117A, tail No. 785, according to Merlin and others who worked at the base at the time.
On April 20, 1982, Lockheed test pilot Robert Riedenauer was at the controls of that plane when it cartwheeled wing over wing attempting to take off from a Groom Lake runway.
To this day neither Riedenauer nor Air Force officials can say where the ill-fated takeoff occurred -- but other sources who worked at the base as well as Merlin say that crash was indeed at the Groom Lake installation.
While Riedenauer can't talk about the crash location he spoke openly about how he escaped death that day, when miswired controls caused the craft to go down instead of up.
"I had four seconds to think about it," Riedenauer explained in an interview about his ride aboard the jet.
He said he spent the first two seconds trying to get the craft under control. "The third was reaching for handles to bail out, and the fourth was I realized the aircraft was inverted so it didn't make sense to bail out, so I started shutting down the engine and throttle."
Rescuers managed to save Riedenauer from a fire that flared up. They spent 20 minutes cutting him out of the cockpit. He would spend months in the hospital.
The wings of the $46 million plane were shattered. The plane was to have been the first of 59 stealth F-117As delivered to the Air Force.
Much of it, however, was salvaged and spared from burial, according to Merlin.
The damaged aircraft was returned to Palmdale, Calif., where it now sits on a pylon on display. The first preproduction F-117s have also been converted to displays. One of them, tail No. 780 is at Freedom Park at Nellis Air Force Base.
Bob Pepper, a spokesman for the F-117A stealth fighter jet unit at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, said the policy for disposing of wrecked stealths is to store them temporarily at Holloman and then to follow the procedure for disposing other military aircraft.
The current procedure for disposing of Air Force planes developed from unclassified technology, according to Pike, is to take them to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz., where they are kept for parts, chopped up and melted down to recycle their aluminum and other metals.
"A stealth composite airplane is not the sort of thing that can be melted down to make pots and pans. You would want to dispose of them so they don't come back to haunt you," he said, explaining that the government's intention is to keep secret materials and components in a secure location so they can't be obtained by other countries.
One former base worker described the 1984 crash of a MiG-23 that ultimately ended up in the Groom Lake graveyard.
"I saw that thing explode," he said. "I was looking up at the sky. I thought, `God, these guys are going fast.'
"Then it was just like it disappeared. The plane came apart. The wings came off it and he punched out," he said, referring to the pilot's fatal bail-out.
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