Key Point: The Air Force test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada—better known as Area 51—has harbored a wide variety of experimental aircraft the Pentagon would rather keep away from the prying eyes of the public.
While fanciful stories of alien spaceships continue to captivate the public, as recent internet memes attest, there’s little doubt that Groom Lake’s actual activities are of considerable interest—sufficiently so that in April 2019 Russia even dispatched one of its treaty-authorized Tu-154M Open Skies surveillance planes to spy on the base.
The facility has considerably expanded from the small, remote landing field adjacent to a salt flat first used to test the Lockheed U-2 spy plane in 1955. Now it lies within a twenty-three by twenty-five-mile perimeter of restricted airspace located within the larger 4,500-square mile Nevada Training and Test Range. Other nearby bases include Nellis Air Force Base and Tonopah Test Range—the latter which also has hosted numerous “black project” programs.
While a companion piece looks at Area 51’s original role in developing the CIA’s U-2 and A-12 spy planes, here we’ll look at the “black projects” known to have been flown there in the 1970s, to those speculated to be there in the present day.
While the F-117 has been officially retired from the Air Force service, photos and video footage reveal that at least one or two of the venerable stealth jets continue to fly over Area 51 as of 2019—possibly used to test sensors and air-to-air tactics against stealth aircraft.
Air Force and Navy pilots suffered unexpected difficulties in the early years of the air war over Vietnam when confronted by agile Soviet-built MiG-17 and MiG-21 jets.
Conveniently, Israel acquired a MiG-21 from a defecting Iraqi pilot in 1966. Then in 1968, two Syrian MiG-17F pilots got lost and mistakenly landed in Israel. All three jets were shipped over to Groom Lake, where Air Force pilots extensively tested the planes in a series of head-to-head dogfights with a wide variety of U.S. jets. They came to an uncomfortable conclusion: they were evenly matched in a head-to-head fight even with more sophisticated F-4 Phantom jets, and the better-trained pilot was likely to win—a conclusion which led to the formation of the Navy’s Top Gun program.
Evaluations continued in the 1970s under a special unit of “Red Hats” known as the 6513th Test Squadron, who received their own section of the base aptly nicknamed “Red Square” which accumulated a growing collection of Soviet warbirds.
However in 1984, General Richard Bond, a fifty-four-year-old decorated combat pilot and retiring head of the Air Force systems command, decided to take a MiG-23BN “Flogger” swing-wing fighter out for a spin without thoroughly familiarizing himself with the infamously temperamental aircraft. While racing at twice the speed of sound, he lost control of the MiG as its afterburners became stuck in the active position and was killed attempting to eject—in fact, he was the second U.S. Air Force pilot to die piloting a MiG-23 in two years.
While the 6513th was long ago inactivated, photos and footage of MiG-29s and Su-27s flying over Area 51 reveal that Red Hats continue to test the limits of Russian engineering to this day. After an Air Force test pilot died in a crash in 2017, Aviation Week’s Guy Norris reported he had been flying a foreign-built airplane.
Missing In Action: the Mythical ‘Aurora’ Spyplane
During the 1990s, several respected aviation writers wrote of their conviction that the Air Force had sequestered in Groom Lake a top-secret Blackbird successor dubbed the “Aurora” that could attain hypersonic speeds, i.e. exceeding five times the speed of sound. Supposedly, the triangle-shaped Aurora was powered by either a scramjet or a “pumpkin seed” shock-wave pulse engine which used the flat airframe to “squeeze” the aircraft forward.
However, no concrete evidence ever emerged to confirm such a plane’s existence, nor the exotic propulsion systems it would have required. Thus, the veracity of the admittedly cool legend seems dubious in hindsight.
No, not the Klingon starships from Star Trek—but a prototype stealth jet that vaguely resembled one with its upward-swept wings. Like its science-fiction counterpart, the Boeing Bird-of-Prey may also have possessed an active camouflage “cloaking device” designed to minimize its shadow and blend it visual signature with the surrounding sky—a technology first deployed on ships and aircraft during World War II.
The jet, fashioned out of a single piece of composite material, also tested radar-stealth features such as shielded engine intakes and a tailless fuselage which remarkably did not require a fly-by-wire system to remain aerodynamically stable.
The demonstrator made thirty-nine test flights between 1996-1999 before being unveiled to the public in 2002, and is now on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
Lockheed P175 Polecat Stealth Drone
The “Polecat” was a 4.5-ton flying wing high-altitude stealth drone made of two hundred composite parts glued together. Resembling a miniature B-2 stealth bomber with wings 27 meters wide, the P175 was conceived of as a high-altitude surveillance and attack platform with a thousand-pound payload. The stealth UAV began testing in 2006, but that December a failure in its remote-control system reportedly caused it to self-destruct by crashing into the ground.
The Northrop-Grumman RQ-180? The Lockheed SR-72?
Area 51’s perimeter remains heavily guarded by security sensors and camouflaged civilian security contractors with guns. Gray, unmarked 737 airliners and Blackhawk helicopters can be observed delivering cargoes to the airfield.
However, it’s possible to examine satellite images and snap photos of the base from twenty-six miles away on Tikaboo Peak. These reveal that in 2017, a huge new hangar was sighted in Area 51 measuring 200 by 250 feet in size—slightly more square footage than a football field—which surely houses something of interest.
Some interpreted this spate of activity in 2017 as being related to the development of the B-21 stealth bomber, a successor to the B-2 Spirit, which it also very much resembles. Officially, however, the Air Force has announced that B-21s will be tested at Tinkers AFB in Oklahoma and Edwards AFB in California.
The smart money may instead be that hangar harbors advanced stealth drones.
One likely-seeming candidate is the Northrop-Grumman RQ-180, which according to a 2013 report in Aviation Week, is a very large long-range and long-endurance drone with a powerful ground-scanning Active Electronically Scanned Array radar. The project had reportedly entered low-rate production, and was likely funded by a $2 billion allotment of black project money.
Though the RQ-180’s specs may resemble those of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an airliner-sized drone envisioned as a modern successor to the U-2, the RQ-180 is also a stealth platform that can penetrate hostile airspace and possibly could be employed on attack missions. Furthermore, it reportedly exhibits broadband stealth, unlike most stealth fighters which tend to become visible to less-precise low-bandwidth radars.
The Pentagon unusually responded to the article by confirming the RQ-180’s existence—and has had no more to say about it since then.
A long-range penetrating stealth drone could have significant strategic applications as a “silver bullet” to monitor and possibly even attack nuclear assets during crisis, which may explain the secrecy surrounding the RQ-180.
Area 51 might also be an attractive place to host new hypersonic glide vehicles, which the Pentagon is currently pouring a ton of research money into. Hypersonic weapons would combine the extreme speed of ballistic missiles with the flatter, harder-to-detect trajectory of a cruise-missile style weapon.
Indeed, Lockheed-Martin has publicly hinted that it may or may not have developed an experimental hypersonic unmanned aircraft nicknamed the SR-72 (a clear nod to the SR-71 spy plane) intended for both surveillance and bombing roles. If such a demonstrator exists, Groom Lake would seem like a logical place to secret it.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.