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To a roomful of Cuban diplomats, many of whom knew otherwise, Khrushchev falsely claimed, "What is more, [the Americans] are trying to present the case as though rocket bases of the Soviet Union are being set up or are already established in Cuba. It is well known that this is foul slander. There is no Soviet military base in Cuba." Actually, this is exactly what the Soviets were doing. "Of course we knew better, and on January 3, 1961, severed all diplomatic ties with Cuba," Barnes explains.

Ten days later, the CIA convened its Special Group, a secret committee inside the National Security Council that had oversight regarding CIA covert activities. A formal decision was made that Castro's regime "must be overthrown." Castro's regime "must be overthrown." The man in charge of making sure this happened was Richard Bissell. In addition to being the highest-ranking CIA officer in the Special Operations Group, Bissell was also the most trusted CIA officer in the eyes of John F. Kennedy, the dashing new president. Before taking office, a member of the White House transition team asked Kennedy who he trusted most in the intelligence community. The man in charge of making sure this happened was Richard Bissell. In addition to being the highest-ranking CIA officer in the Special Operations Group, Bissell was also the most trusted CIA officer in the eyes of John F. Kennedy, the dashing new president. Before taking office, a member of the White House transition team asked Kennedy who he trusted most in the intelligence community. "Richard Bissell," Kennedy said "Richard Bissell," Kennedy said without missing a beat. without missing a beat.

Bissell's official t.i.tle was now deputy director of plans. As innocuous as it sounded, DDP was in fact a euphemism for chief of covert operations for the CIA. This meant Bissell was in charge of the Agency's clandestine service, its paramilitary operations. The office had previously been known as the Office of Policy Coordination, or OPC. As deputy director of plans, Richard Bissell would be doing a lot more than playing a gentleman's spy game from the air. The CIA's paramilitary operations spilled blood. During these covert anti-Communist operations, men were dying in droves from Hungary to Greece to Iran, and all of these operations had to be planned, staged, and approved by the deputy director of plans.

In such a position there was writing on the wall, script that Richard Bissell did not, or chose not to, see. The man he was replacing was Frank Wisner, his old friend and the man who first introduced Bissell to the CIA. It was Frank Wisner who'd knocked on Bissell's door unannounced and then spent a fireside evening in Bissell's Washington, DC, parlor eleven years before. It was Wisner who had originally asked Bissell to siphon off funds from the Marshall Plan and hand them over to the CIA, no questions asked. Wisner had served the Agency as deputy director of plans from August 1951 to January 1959, but by the end of the summer of 1958, the job proved too psychologically challenging for him-Frank Wisner had begun displaying the first signs of madness. The diagnosis was psychotic mania, according to author Tim Weiner. Doctors and drugs did not help. Next came the electroshock treatment: "For six months, his head was clamped into a vise and shot through with a current sufficient to fire a hundred-watt light bulb." Frank Wisner emerged from the insane asylum zombielike and went on to serve as the CIA's London station chief. A broken man, Wisner did not last long overseas. He shuffled in and out of mad-houses for years until finally forced to retire in 1962: "He'd been raving about Adolf Hitler, seeing things, hearing voices. He knew he would never be well." Tragically, on October 29, 1965, Wisner was getting ready to go hunting with his old CIA friend Joe Bryan at his country estate when he took a shotgun out of his gun cabinet and put a bullet in his own head put a bullet in his own head.

The pressure that came with being the deputy director of plans for the CIA was, for some, as treacherous as a loaded gun.

As workers toiled away at Area 51 getting ready for the arrival of the Oxcart spy plane, Richard Bissell focused on his orders to rid Cuba of Fidel Castro. By 1961, the Agency decided that Bahia de Cochinos, or the Bay of Pigs Bahia de Cochinos, or the Bay of Pigs, was the perfect place to launch its "paramilitary plan." The little sliver of coastline on the south sh.o.r.e of the island was barely inhabited. A few summer cottages were scattered among little bays, used mostly for fishing and swimming, and there was a valuable a.s.set nearby in "an airstrip not far from the beach."

Surely, the U-2 spy plane could help in gathering intel could help in gathering intel, Bissell decided. After Gary Powers was shot down, President Eisenhower had promised the world there would be no spy missions over Russia, but that promise did not include dangerous Soviet proxies like Cuba. In his new position as deputy director of plans, Bissell had used the U-2 to gather intelligence before. Its photographs had been helpful in planning paramilitary operations in Laos and the Dominican Republic. And in Cuba, overhead photographs taken by the Agency's U-2s revealed important details regarding the terrain just up the beach from the Bay of Pigs beach. Photo interpreters determined that the swampland in the area would be hard to run in unless the commandos familiarized themselves with preexisting trails. As for the water landing itself, from seventy thousand feet in the air, the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs looked flat and lovely. But because cameras could not photograph what lay underwater, Bissell had no idea that just beneath the surface of the sea there was a deadly coral reef that would later greatly impede the water landing by commandos.

Hundreds of pages, decla.s.sified after thirty years, reveal the hand of economics wizard Richard Bissell in the design of the paramilitary operation. Bissell painstakingly outlined: "Contingency Plans... Probabilities... Likelihood, chance of success... Plans for Operation 'T,'... Operation 'Z,'... Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3... Pre-Day Day plans... D-Day plans... Post D-Day plans... Unattributable actions by the Navy... Post-Recognition Plans... Arguments for maximum sabotage... Arguments for simultaneous defection... Feasibility of declaration of war by certain Central American states... Disclosures... Non-Disclosures... Continuation of Psychological Warfare Plans... How to deal, and how not to deal with the press." For all the organization and preplanning, the operation might have been successful. But there are many reasons why it failed so tragically. When the Bay of Pigs operation was over, hundreds of CIA-trained, anti-Castro Cuban exiles were killed on approach or left to die on the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs. Those that lived to surrender were imprisoned and later ransomed back to the United States. When the story became public, so did brigade commander Pepe San Roman's last words before his capture: "Must have air support in the next few hours or we will be wiped out. Under heavy attacks by MiG jets and heavy tanks." Pepe San Roman begged Richard Bissell for help. "All groups demoralized... They consider themselves deceived." By the end of the day, Richard Bissell's world had begun to fall irreparably apart. The Bay of Pigs would be his downfall.

There was plenty of blame to go around but almost all of it fell at the feet of the CIA. In the years since, it has become clear that equal blame should be imputed to the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and President Kennedy. Shortly before he died, Richard Bissell blamed the mission's failure on his old rival General Curtis LeMay Bissell blamed the mission's failure on his old rival General Curtis LeMay. Bissell lamented that if LeMay had provided adequate air cover if LeMay had provided adequate air cover as he had promised, the mission would most likely have been a success. The Pentagon has historically attributed LeMay's failure to send B-26 bombers to the Bay of Pigs to a as he had promised, the mission would most likely have been a success. The Pentagon has historically attributed LeMay's failure to send B-26 bombers to the Bay of Pigs to a "time zone confusion." "time zone confusion." Bissell saw the mix-up as personal, believing that LeMay had been motivated by revenge. That he'd harbored a grudge against Bissell for the U-2 and Area 51. Whatever the reason, more than three hundred people were dead and 1,189 anti-Castro guerrillas, left high and dry, had been imprisoned. The rivalry between Bissell and LeMay was over, and the Bay of Pigs would force Richard Bissell to leave government service in February of 1962. There were many government backlashes as a result of the fiasco. One has been kept secret until now, namely that President Kennedy sent the CIA's inspector general at the time, Bissell saw the mix-up as personal, believing that LeMay had been motivated by revenge. That he'd harbored a grudge against Bissell for the U-2 and Area 51. Whatever the reason, more than three hundred people were dead and 1,189 anti-Castro guerrillas, left high and dry, had been imprisoned. The rivalry between Bissell and LeMay was over, and the Bay of Pigs would force Richard Bissell to leave government service in February of 1962. There were many government backlashes as a result of the fiasco. One has been kept secret until now, namely that President Kennedy sent the CIA's inspector general at the time, Lyman B. Kirkpatrick Jr. Lyman B. Kirkpatrick Jr., out to Area 51 to write up a report on the base. More specifically, the president wanted to a.s.sess what other Richard Bissell disasters in the making might be coming down the pipeline at Area 51.

Adding friction to an already charged situation was the fact that by some accounts, Kirkpatrick held a grudge. Before the Bay of Pigs, Richard Bissell was in line to succeed Allen Dulles as director of the CIA, and eight years earlier, Lyman Kirkpatrick had worn those coveted shoes. But like Bissell, Kirkpatrick was cut down in his prime. Kirkpatrick's loss came not by his own actions but by a tragic blow beyond his control. On an Agency mission to Asia in 1952, Lyman Kirkpatrick contracted polio Lyman Kirkpatrick contracted polio and became paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Kirkpatrick was and became paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Kirkpatrick was relegated to the role of second-tier bureaucrat relegated to the role of second-tier bureaucrat.

In a world of gentlemen spy craft and high-technology espionage, bureaucracy was considered glorified janitorial work. But when Kirkpatrick was dispatched to Area 51 by JFK, the fate and future of the secret base Richard Bissell had built in the Nevada desert lay in Lyman Kirkpatrick's hands.

CHAPTER NINE.

The Base Builds Back Up As the man in charge of property control at Area 51 the man in charge of property control at Area 51, Jim Freedman was a taskmaster. "It was my job to provide services for all the different groups at the area," Freedman explains. "This included the CIA, the Air Force, EG&G, REECo [Reynolds Electric and Engineering], and even Howard Hughes-an individual who very few people had any idea had his own hangar out at the Ranch." What exactly Hughes was doing at Area 51 remains cla.s.sified as of 2011, but Freedman explains the dynamic that was at play. "The CIA liked to foster compet.i.tion between groups. It was why we had Kodak and Polaroid, Lockheed and North American, EG&G and Hughes. They were all no-bid contracts for security reasons. But compet.i.tion keeps people on their toes." Jim Freedman acted as the gofer among the groups from 1960 until 1974. If a scientist needed a widget, if an engineer needed an oscilloscope, or if a radar expert needed a piece of magnetic tape, it was Freedman's job to get it, fast. As a prerequisite for the job, Freedman knew how to keep secrets. He carried a top secret and a Q clearance and had worked for EG&G since 1953. "We worked under a code that said, 'What you learn here, leave here.' That was pretty simple to follow," says Freedman. "You couldn't afford to talk. You'd lose your job and you'd be blackballed. So instead, my wife and family thought I fixed TVs. 'How was your day, Dad?' my kids would ask when I got home. 'Great!' I'd say. 'I fixed twenty-four TVs.'"

As they had been with the Manhattan Project, the various jobs going on at Area 51 were compartmentalized for Oxcart, so that every person worked within very strict need-to-know protocols. The radar people had no idea about the ELINT people, who had no idea what any of the search-and-rescue teams were up to. Each group worked on its part of the puzzle. Each man was familiar with his single piece. Only a few individuals, officers working in managerial capacities, understood a corner of the puzzle-at most. But someone had to act as a go-between among these disparate groups, and in this way, Freedman became an individual who knew a lot more than most about the inner workings of Area 51.

He also knew the layout of the base. Most Area 51 workers were confined to the building, or buildings, they worked in, the building they slept in, and the mess hall, where everybody dined together. As the Area 51 runner, Freedman "went to places out there that I don't think other people even knew were out there." For example, Freedman says, there was "the faraway runway where people who were not supposed to be seen by others were brought into the base." Freedman tells a story of one such group, the exact date of which he can't recall but that was during the Vietnam War. "One day I was out there delivering something to someone, it was three in the morning, and I watched an airplane land. Then I watched forty-one Vietnamese men get off the plane. I never saw the men again, but a few days later I was sent on an errand. My supervisor said, 'Jim, can you go to Las Vegas and get me x number of pounds of a special kind of rice?' I'd say it was fairly obvious who that rice was being requested for." Freedman elaborates: "These [foreign nationals] were being trained to use state-of-the-art Agency equipment out at the Area, which they probably took with them when they left and went and put behind enemy lines."

Freedman's first job at the test site had been installing radios in EG&G vehicles used during weapons tests. Next, he was trained as an engineer in the art of wiring nuclear bombs. In the 1950s, Freedman partic.i.p.ated in dozens of nuclear tests on the arming and firing party alongside Al O'Donnell at the test site and also at the Pacific Proving Ground. "I even managed to survive a helicopter crash in the Marshall Islands," Freedman adds. In 1957, EG&G learned that Freedman had studied photography after high school and a.s.signed him to a team photographing nuclear explosions. But by 1960, the nuclear-test-ban treaty was in effect, testing had moved underground, and Freedman's life had taken what he called "a dull turn."

One afternoon, he was sitting inside an EG&G warehouse in Las Vegas, cleaning camera equipment. "I was thinking about how fast office work gets boring when my boss walked up to me and said, 'Hey, Jim, do you want to go work on a secret project?'" Freedman didn't hesitate. "I said yes, because it sounded interesting, and I wound up at Area 51. I'd never heard of the place before I went there. I never knew it existed just over the hill from the Nevada Test Site where I'd worked for so many years. Neither did anyone else who didn't have a need-to-know." When Freedman arrived at Area 51, it felt to him "like I was arriving on the far side of the moon. You know about the bright side of the moon; well, in relative terms, that was what the test site was like. Area 51 was the dark side." What began as a short-term contract in December of 1960 would last for Jim Freedman for the next fourteen years.

One day, in the late summer of 1961, just two months after the Bay of Pigs became public, Jim Freedman was walking around the base with a checklist of tasks. His priority job that week struck him as a very odd, very low-tech request. In a world of cutting-edge science and technological gadgets relating to espionage, the supervisor wanted Freeman to help Area 51 carpenters locate more plywood. "The workers were transforming a set of steps into a ramp," he explains. "This was happening all over the base. Lots of doorsills were becoming lots of ramps and I remember thinking, There's a lot of money going into getting something low and on wheels to be able to move around this base." Freedman knew not to ask questions. "But when a small airplane landed, and out came a man in the wheelchair, I watched my boss, Werner Weiss of the CIA, meet the man out on the tarmac. And I knew from watching their interaction just how important this man was to the CIA. He had white-silvery hair. A very memorable figure in a wheelchair. For years, I looked for him on TV." Freedman never saw the man on TV, but the man was Lyman Kirkpatrick, inspector general for the CIA. Working on presidential orders to a.s.sess Area 51, Kirkpatrick is the only CIA inspector general known to have visited the base. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Kirkpatrick managed to meticulously cover the rugged high-desert terrain. After Kirkpatrick examined the various buildings he asked to be driven around the outer edges of the base. There, he found what he considered to be a security flaw. "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," Kirkpatrick wrote in his report, which was decla.s.sified in 2004 but has since been removed from the CIA library archives. "It is subject to a score or more of mineral claims, at least one of which is visited periodically by its owner," Kirkpatrick wrote, referring to the Black Metal and Groom mines. "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 warned. As inspector general for the CIA, Kirkpatrick was concerned that the base was not "rigorously protected against sabotage," most notably by "air violations." In the game of cat and mouse between the Soviet Union and the United States, tensions were at an all-time high. First there had been the Gary Powers incident, in May of 1960. Less than a year later came the CIA's failed commando operation at the Bay of Pigs. The president had been advised that the Soviets could be preparing their own operation as payback for either of those events. Former president Eisenhower told Kennedy that "the failure of the of the immediate operating area, which I visited in order to see for myself, is not under government ownership," Kirkpatrick wrote in his report, which was decla.s.sified in 2004 but has since been removed from the CIA library archives. "It is subject to a score or more of mineral claims, at least one of which is visited periodically by its owner," Kirkpatrick wrote, referring to the Black Metal and Groom mines. "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 warned. As inspector general for the CIA, Kirkpatrick was concerned that the base was not "rigorously protected against sabotage," most notably by "air violations." In the game of cat and mouse between the Soviet Union and the United States, tensions were at an all-time high. First there had been the Gary Powers incident, in May of 1960. Less than a year later came the CIA's failed commando operation at the Bay of Pigs. The president had been advised that the Soviets could be preparing their own operation as payback for either of those events. Former president Eisenhower told Kennedy that "the failure of the Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets to do something that they would otherwise not do," and Lyman Kirkpatrick warned that one type of sabotage operation the Soviets could be considering might involve hitting Area 51. It would be a strike between the eyes, meant to harm the office of the president in the view of the people. After Gary Powers, the White House had promised that the Watertown facility had been closed down. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the president promised to rein in covert activity by the CIA. Any public revelation that Area 51 existed would expose the fact that the CIA, the Air Force, and defense contractors were all working together on a black project to overfly Russia again-despite presidential a.s.surances that they would do no such thing. If the nation were to discover the Mach 3 spy plane project moving forward at Area 51, what would they think about the president's promises? to do something that they would otherwise not do," and Lyman Kirkpatrick warned that one type of sabotage operation the Soviets could be considering might involve hitting Area 51. It would be a strike between the eyes, meant to harm the office of the president in the view of the people. After Gary Powers, the White House had promised that the Watertown facility had been closed down. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the president promised to rein in covert activity by the CIA. Any public revelation that Area 51 existed would expose the fact that the CIA, the Air Force, and defense contractors were all working together on a black project to overfly Russia again-despite presidential a.s.surances that they would do no such thing. If the nation were to discover the Mach 3 spy plane project moving forward at Area 51, what would they think about the president's promises? Area 51 was a target Area 51 was a target in exposure alone, the inspector general said. in exposure alone, the inspector general said.

Jim Freedman was one of the men a.s.signed to photograph and a.s.sess the mines in the mountains-the terrain that Kirkpatrick had said would "afford excellent opportunity for successful penetration." Freedman's superior, Hank Meierdierck, decided to make a hunting trip decided to make a hunting trip out of the task. Meierdierck was a living legend at Area 51. In 1956 he had worked as the CIA's instructor pilot on base, teaching the Project Aquatone pilots how to fly the U-2. Now, during Oxcart, Hank Meierdierck had an office at the Pentagon but most of his time was spent out at Area 51. "One day Hank asked me if I liked to hunt," recalls Jim Freedman. "I said yes. Well, Hank smiled and said, 'Good. Bring your rifle out next time.'" out of the task. Meierdierck was a living legend at Area 51. In 1956 he had worked as the CIA's instructor pilot on base, teaching the Project Aquatone pilots how to fly the U-2. Now, during Oxcart, Hank Meierdierck had an office at the Pentagon but most of his time was spent out at Area 51. "One day Hank asked me if I liked to hunt," recalls Jim Freedman. "I said yes. Well, Hank smiled and said, 'Good. Bring your rifle out next time.'"

Weapons were not allowed on Lockheed transport planes flying in and out of Area 51 from McCarran Airport. But Freedman's level of clearance was such that security did not examine the things he carried with him. "The next trip to Area 51, I put my rifle in a box with an oscilloscope," Freedman explains, "and that's how I got my hunting rifle out there."

Meierdierck found a helicopter pilot to fly the men into the mountains north of Area 51 to photograph the old mines there. Then he dropped the two men and their hunting rifles off at a favored spot on Groom Mountain where Area 51 officials liked to surrept.i.tiously hunt deer. Meierdierck told the helicopter pilot to return the next day.

From on top of Groom Mountain, the view down over Area 51 was spectacular. It was, as Kirkpatrick had speculated, a perfect place for a Soviet spy to disguise himself as a deer hunter and take notes. During the day, you could see the buildings down at Area 51 spread out in an H formation to the west of the runways. Jeeps and vans could be seen ferrying workers around. If you had binoculars, you could get a clear look at what was going on. At night, the whole place went dark; most of the buildings that had windows kept the curtains drawn. If an aircraft needed to land at night, the lights would quickly flash on, illuminating the runway. The airplane would land and the lights would quickly go off, bathing the valley in darkness once again.

For Freedman, the hunting trip dragged on a little long. "Hank was stubborn," Freedman explains. "He said he wasn't leaving until he got a deer. And he preferred to hunt on his own, so he suggested we split up and meet back at the campsite for dinner." Which is what they did. "There was very little for us to talk about," Freedman says. "We both knew we were on top secret projects. You couldn't afford to talk. Everyone had a wife and a family. No one could afford to lose their job." One subject the men could discuss was hunting. Only three years had pa.s.sed since the last aboveground atomic tests had detonated across the valley down below. Freedman wondered if anyone who caught a deer up on Groom Mountain should even consider eating it because "the deer ate the foliage which was contaminated from alpha particles from all the tests." As it turned out, the men did not catch any deer anyway.

Come Monday, the helicopter pilot returned, and by the end of the next day, Freedman was sitting in his dining room in Las Vegas, eating dinner with his wife and kids. He was able to get his hunting rifle out of Area 51 the same way he got it in: "Inside the oscilloscope case."

Not long after Lyman Kirkpatrick filed his final inspector general's report on Area 51, Richard Bissell resigned Richard Bissell resigned. This was not before he had been offered a lesser job at CIA, as the director of the Office of Science and Technology. But in that new capacity Bissell's need-to-know would have been drastically reduced. In CIA parlance, having one's access curbed was an insult. Instead, he chose to leave the Agency.

Without Richard Bissell in charge of the secret CIA facility, what would become of Area 51? And who would run the Oxcart reconnaissance program? The decision about Bissell's replacement went up the chain of command to President Kennedy. He had been in office for less than a year and already he was up to his elbows in CIA backlash. President Kennedy's new secretary of defense was a man named Robert McNamara, an intellectually minded Harvard Business School graduate who had won the Legion of Merit during World War II for performing firebomb a.n.a.lysis from behind a desk. Now, as secretary of defense, after the Bay of Pigs, McNamara called for the Pentagon to a.s.sume control of all spy plane programs. McNamara was at the top of the chain of command of all the armed services and believed his Air Force should be in charge of all U.S. a.s.sets with wings. The public had lost confidence in the CIA, McNamara told the president.

But James Killian and his colleague Edwin Land, now both part of Kennedy's presidential foreign intelligence advisory board, told the president that the best move forward for national security was to keep the CIA in the spy plane business keep the CIA in the spy plane business at Area 51. What happened with Bissell was unfortunate, they said, suggesting that Richard Bissell, and at Area 51. What happened with Bissell was unfortunate, they said, suggesting that Richard Bissell, and Richard Bissell alone, had gone rogue Richard Bissell alone, had gone rogue. They argued that the CIA was still the agency best equipped to deliver overhead intelligence to the president. If that wasn't possible, Killian and Land said, then the idea of who controls overhead reconnaissance should be restructured. One plan was that the CIA might work in better partnership CIA might work in better partnership with the Air Force. President Kennedy liked that. On September 6, 1961, he created a protocol that required the CIA deputy director and the undersecretary of the Air Force to comanage all s.p.a.ce reconnaissance and aerial espionage programs together as the National Reconnaissance Office, a cla.s.sified agency within Robert McNamara's Department of Defense. A central headquarters for NRO was established in Washington, a small office with a limited staff but with a number of empire-size egos vying for power and control. The organization maintained a public face, an overt ident.i.ty at the Pentagon called the Office of s.p.a.ce Systems, but no one outside a select few knew of NRO's existence until 1992. with the Air Force. President Kennedy liked that. On September 6, 1961, he created a protocol that required the CIA deputy director and the undersecretary of the Air Force to comanage all s.p.a.ce reconnaissance and aerial espionage programs together as the National Reconnaissance Office, a cla.s.sified agency within Robert McNamara's Department of Defense. A central headquarters for NRO was established in Washington, a small office with a limited staff but with a number of empire-size egos vying for power and control. The organization maintained a public face, an overt ident.i.ty at the Pentagon called the Office of s.p.a.ce Systems, but no one outside a select few knew of NRO's existence until 1992.

Jim Freedman remembers the transition in the chain of command and how it affected his work at Area 51. "Because I was the person with a list of every employee at the area, it was my job to know not just who was who, but who was the boss of somebody's boss. An individual person didn't necessarily know much more about the person they worked for than their code name. And they almost certainly didn't know who was working on the other side of the wall or in the next trailer over. Wayne Pendleton was the head of the radar group Wayne Pendleton was the head of the radar group for a while. He was my go-to person for a lot of different groups. One day, Pendleton suddenly says, 'I'm going to Washington, Jim.' So I said, 'What if I need you, what number should I call?' And Pendleton laughed. He said, 'You won't need me because where I'm going doesn't exist.' Decades later I would learn that the place where Wayne was going when he left the Ranch was to a little office in Washington called NRO." for a while. He was my go-to person for a lot of different groups. One day, Pendleton suddenly says, 'I'm going to Washington, Jim.' So I said, 'What if I need you, what number should I call?' And Pendleton laughed. He said, 'You won't need me because where I'm going doesn't exist.' Decades later I would learn that the place where Wayne was going when he left the Ranch was to a little office in Washington called NRO."

After the Bay of Pigs and his resignation, Richard Bissell drifted away from Washington's power center like a man scorned. Quickly, his longtime, biggest supporters became his greatest detractors. Most notable among them was James Killian. The president's powerful science adviser, Killian had headhunted Bissell twice before, the first time in 1946 to work in the economics department at MIT, and then again in 1954 to manage the U-2 aerial espionage program for the CIA. For nearly twenty years, Killian had considered Richard Bissell not just a colleague but a friend. After the Bay of Pigs, Killian turned his back on his friend. In a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black, Killian told the CIA's historian Donald E. Welzenbach that he was terribly upset when he learned of Bissell's role in covert CIA operations. In a Studies in Intelligence Studies in Intelligence report for the CIA, Welzenbach wrote, "Killian looked upon science and technology almost as a religion, something sacred to be kept from contamination by those who would misuse it for unwholesome ends. Into this category fit the covert operations report for the CIA, Welzenbach wrote, "Killian looked upon science and technology almost as a religion, something sacred to be kept from contamination by those who would misuse it for unwholesome ends. Into this category fit the covert operations and 'dirty tricks' of d.i.c.k Bissell's and 'dirty tricks' of d.i.c.k Bissell's Directorate of Plans." Directorate of Plans."

It was hypocrisy of the highest order. James Killian had been up to his own dirty tricks, the true, perilous facts of which have remained buried until now. Unlike Richard Bissell, because of Killian's powerful role as President Eisenhower's chief science adviser, Killian did not get caught. But what Killian spearheaded in the name of so-called sacred science in retrospect hardly seems like science at all. In late 1958, Killian organized, oversaw, and then tried to cover up the facts regarding two of the most dangerous weapons tests in the history of the nuclear bomb. Two thermonuclear devices, called Teak and Orange called Teak and Orange, each an astonishingly powerful 3.8 megatons, were exploded in the Earth's upper atmosphere at Johnston Atoll, 750 miles west of Hawaii. Teak went off at 252,000 feet, or 50 miles, and Orange went off at 141,000 feet, 28 miles, which is exactly where the ozone layer lies which is exactly where the ozone layer lies. In hindsight, it was a ludicrous idea. "The impetus for these tests was derived from the uncertainty in U.S. capability to discern Soviet high-alt.i.tude nuclear detonation," read one cla.s.sified report. Killian was in charge of the tests, and was derived from the uncertainty in U.S. capability to discern Soviet high-alt.i.tude nuclear detonation," read one cla.s.sified report. Killian was in charge of the tests, and his rationale his rationale for authorizing them was that if sometime in the future the Soviets were to detonate a high-alt.i.tude nuclear bomb, our scientists would need to know what to look for. for authorizing them was that if sometime in the future the Soviets were to detonate a high-alt.i.tude nuclear bomb, our scientists would need to know what to look for.

Instead of being difficult to detect, a nuclear bomb exploding in the ozone layer was instantly obvious in horrific and catastrophic ways. The fireb.a.l.l.s produced by both Teak and Orange burned the retinas of any living thing that had been looking up at the sky without goggles within a 225-mile radius of the blast, including hundreds of monkeys and rabbits that Killian authorized to be flown in airplanes nearby. The animals' heads had been locked in gadgets The animals' heads had been locked in gadgets that forced them to witness the megaton blast. From Guam to Wake Island to Maui, the natural blue sky changed to a red, white, and gray, creating an aurora 2,100 miles along the geomagnetic meridian. Radio communication throughout a swath of the Pacific region went dead. that forced them to witness the megaton blast. From Guam to Wake Island to Maui, the natural blue sky changed to a red, white, and gray, creating an aurora 2,100 miles along the geomagnetic meridian. Radio communication throughout a swath of the Pacific region went dead.

"We almost blew a hole in the ozone layer," explains Al O'Donnell, the EG&G weapons test engineer who in the twelve years since Crossroads had wired over one hundred nuclear bombs, including Teak and Orange. O'Donnell was standing on Johnston Island, 720 miles southwest of Honolulu, on August 1, 1958, when the Teak bomb went off. Due to a "program failure" on the Redstone missile system (which carried the warhead to its target), the rocket went straight up and detonated directly above where O'Donnell and the rest of the arming and firing party were working. The bomb was supposed to have detonated twenty-six miles to the south. In a sanitized film record of the event, men in flip-flops and shorts can be seen ducking for cover as a phenomenal fireball consumes the sky overhead. "It was scary," O'Donnell sighs, remembering the catastrophic event as an old man, half a century later. There is a hint of resignation in his voice when he says, "But we were all used to it by then. The bombs had become too big." In Teak's first ten milliseconds, its fireball grew ten miles wide-enough yield to obliterate Manhattan. At H + 1 second, the fireball was more than forty miles wide, which could have taken out all five boroughs of New York City. It was not as if Killian, who was in charge of the project, hadn't realized the potential for part of the ozone layer to be destroyed. "In late 1957 and early 1958, the question was raised as to whether or not the ultraviolet emissions from the Teak and Orange events would 'burn a hole' into the natural ozone layer Teak and Orange events would 'burn a hole' into the natural ozone layer," states a 1976 review of the event auth.o.r.ed by Los Alamos National Laboratory. But "the pre-event discussions were inconclusive" and the tests barreled ahead anyway. Why? "It was argued that even in case of complete destruction of the ozone layer over an area with radius 50 km, the ozone loss would amount to only 2 x 105 of the global inventory. The 'hole' would be closed promptly by bomb-produced turbulence and ambient motions in the atmosphere." As astonishing and reckless as this was, the follow-up becomes even more unbelievable. "After the events, little attention was paid to this particular problem, evidently because no spectacular or unusual observations were made (because of lack of evidence one way or the other)." Apparently, no one thought to ask the dignitary on hand that day on Johnston Island, Wernher Von Braun. of the global inventory. The 'hole' would be closed promptly by bomb-produced turbulence and ambient motions in the atmosphere." As astonishing and reckless as this was, the follow-up becomes even more unbelievable. "After the events, little attention was paid to this particular problem, evidently because no spectacular or unusual observations were made (because of lack of evidence one way or the other)." Apparently, no one thought to ask the dignitary on hand that day on Johnston Island, Wernher Von Braun.

In government archival film footage, Von Braun can be seen observing the Redstone rocket Von Braun can be seen observing the Redstone rocket he had designed to get the nuclear weapon up to the ozone where it would explode. Wearing aviator sungla.s.ses and a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt and sporting an island tan, Von Braun appears more playboy than rocket scientist. But Von Braun was so spooked by the Teak blast that he he had designed to get the nuclear weapon up to the ozone where it would explode. Wearing aviator sungla.s.ses and a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt and sporting an island tan, Von Braun appears more playboy than rocket scientist. But Von Braun was so spooked by the Teak blast that he left the island before the second test left the island before the second test took place. Von Braun was not one to scare easily. When he worked for Adolf Hitler, he and his colleague Ernst Steinhoff were known took place. Von Braun was not one to scare easily. When he worked for Adolf Hitler, he and his colleague Ernst Steinhoff were known to dash up to Hitler's lair to dash up to Hitler's lair, Wolfsschanze, in Steinhoff's personal airplane to brief the dictator on how the V-2 was coming along. But the power of the Teak bomb sent Von Braun running. Immediately after the deadened communications systems were restored, Von Braun fled. He never publicly said why.

Killian's high-alt.i.tude nuclear tests did not stop there. Two weeks later, another ultrasecret nuclear weapons project called Operation Argus commenced project called Operation Argus commenced. Killian's nuclear bomb tests had now expanded to include outer s.p.a.ce. "Argus was an unusual operation," a Defense Nuclear Agency summary from 1993 recalls. "It was completed in less than six months after Presidential approval, and it was completed in complete secrecy. Nuclear-tipped missiles were fired from ships for the first time." Oblique words used to conceal another one of the most radical, covert science experiments conducted by man. On August 27, August 30, and September 6, 1958, three nuclear warheads were launched from X-17 rockets from the deck of the USS Norton Sound Norton Sound as the warship floated off the coast of South Africa in the South Atlantic Ocean. Up went the missiles and the warheads until they exploded approximately three hundred miles into s.p.a.ce. This "scientific experiment" was the brainchild of a Greek elevator operator turned physicist, Nicholas Christofilos. as the warship floated off the coast of South Africa in the South Atlantic Ocean. Up went the missiles and the warheads until they exploded approximately three hundred miles into s.p.a.ce. This "scientific experiment" was the brainchild of a Greek elevator operator turned physicist, Nicholas Christofilos. Christofilos convinced Killian Christofilos convinced Killian that a nuclear explosion occurring above the Earth's atmosphere-but within the Earth's magnetic field-might produce an electronic pulse that could hypothetically damage the arming devices on Soviet ICBM warheads trying to make their way into the United States. While the phenomenon did occur in minutiae, meaning the arming devices registered "feeling" the pulse from the nuclear blast, Christofilos was wrong about the possibility that this would actually that a nuclear explosion occurring above the Earth's atmosphere-but within the Earth's magnetic field-might produce an electronic pulse that could hypothetically damage the arming devices on Soviet ICBM warheads trying to make their way into the United States. While the phenomenon did occur in minutiae, meaning the arming devices registered "feeling" the pulse from the nuclear blast, Christofilos was wrong about the possibility that this would actually stop stop incoming enemy nuclear missiles in their tracks. In other words, the tests failed. incoming enemy nuclear missiles in their tracks. In other words, the tests failed.

To cover his tracks as to the sheer waste and recklessness of the experiment, in the month following the nuclear detonation in s.p.a.ce, Killian wrote a memo to President Eisenhower attempting to put a congratulatory spin on how quickly the project occurred and how terrific it was that secrecy was maintained. Dated November 3, 1958, Killian's letter began by describing Argus as "probably the most spectacular event ever conducted." "probably the most spectacular event ever conducted." More egregious self-congratulation came next: "The experiment was in itself an extraordinary accomplishment. Especially notable was the successful launching of a large, solid-fuel rocket carrying a nuclear payload from the heaving deck of a ship in the squally South Atlantic. Scarcely less so is the fact that the whole experiment was planned and carried out in less than five months... Impressive, too, is the fact that no leaks have occurred." More egregious self-congratulation came next: "The experiment was in itself an extraordinary accomplishment. Especially notable was the successful launching of a large, solid-fuel rocket carrying a nuclear payload from the heaving deck of a ship in the squally South Atlantic. Scarcely less so is the fact that the whole experiment was planned and carried out in less than five months... Impressive, too, is the fact that no leaks have occurred."

When the New York Times New York Times's senior science writer Walter Sullivan hand-delivered a letter to Killian Walter Sullivan hand-delivered a letter to Killian letting him know the letting him know the New York Times New York Times was in possession of leaked information about these secret tests, the White House went into denial mode. was in possession of leaked information about these secret tests, the White House went into denial mode. "Neither confirm nor deny such leaks," "Neither confirm nor deny such leaks," the president's special a.s.sistant Karl G. Harr Jr. wrote in a secret memo to Killian. "If the the president's special a.s.sistant Karl G. Harr Jr. wrote in a secret memo to Killian. "If the New York Times, New York Times, or anyone else, breaks a substantial part of the story," one possible response would be to say the White House had disclosed "all that we may safely say from a national security point of view." In regards to brazenly violating the White House policy of announcing every nuclear test, Killian's position was to be that "it was a scientific experiment utilizing a nuclear detonation to discharge electrons into the Earth's magnetic field." It was semantics that gave Killian the authority, or cover, to declare that a nuclear test was not a nuclear test. Adding one last ironic touch of deception, the president's special a.s.sistant told Killian that were the or anyone else, breaks a substantial part of the story," one possible response would be to say the White House had disclosed "all that we may safely say from a national security point of view." In regards to brazenly violating the White House policy of announcing every nuclear test, Killian's position was to be that "it was a scientific experiment utilizing a nuclear detonation to discharge electrons into the Earth's magnetic field." It was semantics that gave Killian the authority, or cover, to declare that a nuclear test was not a nuclear test. Adding one last ironic touch of deception, the president's special a.s.sistant told Killian that were the New York Times New York Times to make the Argus test public, a panel of scientists "should meet with the press in the Great Hall of the National Academy of Science in order to emphasize the scientific aspects of this experiment." to make the Argus test public, a panel of scientists "should meet with the press in the Great Hall of the National Academy of Science in order to emphasize the scientific aspects of this experiment."

Were the president's top science advisers really making America safer? Or were they abusing their power with the president? Couple their power with the total lack of oversight they enjoyed, and it was the president's scientists who paved the road for the U.S. militarization of s.p.a.ce. "It was agreed that I would be protected from congressional inquisition I would be protected from congressional inquisition," Killian wrote in his memoirs, adding, "I think now this was the wrong decision. It would have been of help to Congress to have been more fully informed about the work of PSAC [President's Science Advisory Committee], and help me to have a better feeling for congressional opinion."

Beginning with Argus, the president's science advisers were using s.p.a.ce as their laboratory, conducting tests that a Defense Nuclear Agency review board would later call "poorly instrumented and hastily executed." They did so with total disregard for potentially catastrophic effects on the planet, not to mention the effect it would have decades later on the arms race in s.p.a.ce. According to the same report, Killian was aware of the risk and took a gamble. There had been discussions regarding the possibility that the Teak and Orange shots really could burn holes in the ozone. But those "pre-event discussions were inconclusive," the report said. And so the scientists went forward on the a.s.sumption that if a hole happened, it would later be closed.

In reality, Killian and others had no idea what would or would not happen when the megaton bomb exploded in the upper atmosphere. "And they didn't factor in to their equations what could have happened if they failed," recalls Al O'Donnell. "We were lucky. When the Teak bomb exploded right over our heads on Johnston Island, we thought we might be goners. It was an enormous bright white-light blast." The men did not have radio communications for eight hours. "All the birds on the island that had been pestering us during the setup, these big fearless birds we called Gooney birds, after the bomb went off, they just disappeared. Or maybe they died." When Admiral Parker of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project finally reached O'Donnell and the rest of the EG&G crew by radio from his office in the Pentagon, his words were: "Are you still there?" "Are you still there?"

If American citizens were in the dark about the megaton thermonuclear weapons tests being conducted by the American military in s.p.a.ce, the Russians certainly were not. They forged ahead with an unprecedented weapons test of their own. On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the largest, most powerful nuclear weapon the world had ever known. Called the Tsar Bomba, the hydrogen bomb had an unbelievable yield of fifty megatons, roughly ten times the amount of all the explosives used in seven years of war during World War II, including both nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tsar Bomba, detonated over northern Russia, flattened entire villages in surrounding areas and broke windows a thousand miles away in Finland. Anyone within a four-hundred-mile radius who was staring at the blast would have gone blind. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told the United Nations a.s.sembly that the purpose of the test was to "show somebody Kuzka's mother"-to show somebody who's boss. The world was racing toward catastrophe. Would the A-12 spy planes heading to Area 51 really help, or would overhead espionage prove to be nothing more than a drop in the bucket?

CHAPTER TEN.

Wizards of Science, Technology, and Diplomacy Harry Martin stood on the tarmac mesmerized by the beauty of the Oxcart. With its long, shiny fuselage, the airplane resembled a cobra with wings. As the master fuels sergeant, Martin had been at Area 51 since the very first days Martin had been at Area 51 since the very first days of the Oxcart program, back when the tarmac he was standing on was being poured as cement. Now, something big was happening at Area 51. The Oxcart had arrived and it was getting ready to fly. For more than a week, Martin had watched dignitaries come and go, touching down and taking off in Air Force jets. of the Oxcart program, back when the tarmac he was standing on was being poured as cement. Now, something big was happening at Area 51. The Oxcart had arrived and it was getting ready to fly. For more than a week, Martin had watched dignitaries come and go, touching down and taking off in Air Force jets. The generals would inevitably show up The generals would inevitably show up in the hangar where Martin worked because it was the place where the airplane stayed. Martin's job was to prep the aircraft with fuel, which for weeks had been leaking as if through a sieve. in the hangar where Martin worked because it was the place where the airplane stayed. Martin's job was to prep the aircraft with fuel, which for weeks had been leaking as if through a sieve.

Martin had caught glimpses of General LeMay, shorter than he'd expected but chomping on his signature cigar like he did on the cover of magazines. Martin had also seen General Doolittle, of the harrowing World War II Doolittle Raid. Harry Martin never shook hands with any of the generals; they were busy and way above his pay grade. Besides, Martin's left hand was wrapped in a bandage, which made work slightly challenging, although he was most grateful to still have a thumb. Martin had been working with a saw and a pipe the week before when his tool slipped and nearly severed his most important finger. Fortunately, a flight surgeon was working with a project pilot in the hangar next door and Martin got his thumb sewn together fast.

It was April 25, 1962. Just a few buildings down from where Martin worked, Lockheed test pilot Louis Schalk sat in a recliner inside a Quonset hut taking a nap when a man from the Agency put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Lou, wake up!" "Lou, wake up!" The Oxcart was ready and it was time for Lou Schalk to fly. Two physiological support division officers helped Schalk into a flight suit, which looked like a coverall. There was no need for a pressure suit because today Schalk was only going to make a taxi test. Out on the tarmac, an engineer rolled up a metal set of stairs and Schalk climbed up into the strange-looking aircraft. There were no observers other than the crew. John Parangosky, who auth.o.r.ed a secret interagency monograph called "The Oxcart History," decla.s.sified in 2007, noted that if anyone had been watching he would have been unable to process what he was looking at. "A casual observer would have been startled by the appearance of this vehicle; he would have perhaps noticed especially its extremely long, slim shape, its two enormous jet engines, its long, sharp projecting nose, and its swept-back wings which appeared far too short to support the fuselage in flight." It was a revolutionary airplane, Parangosky wrote, able to fly at three times the speed of sound for more than three thousand miles without refueling-all the way from Nevada to DC in less than an hour. "Toward the end of its flight, when fuel began to run low, it could cruise at over 90,000 feet." The Oxcart was ready and it was time for Lou Schalk to fly. Two physiological support division officers helped Schalk into a flight suit, which looked like a coverall. There was no need for a pressure suit because today Schalk was only going to make a taxi test. Out on the tarmac, an engineer rolled up a metal set of stairs and Schalk climbed up into the strange-looking aircraft. There were no observers other than the crew. John Parangosky, who auth.o.r.ed a secret interagency monograph called "The Oxcart History," decla.s.sified in 2007, noted that if anyone had been watching he would have been unable to process what he was looking at. "A casual observer would have been startled by the appearance of this vehicle; he would have perhaps noticed especially its extremely long, slim shape, its two enormous jet engines, its long, sharp projecting nose, and its swept-back wings which appeared far too short to support the fuselage in flight." It was a revolutionary airplane, Parangosky wrote, able to fly at three times the speed of sound for more than three thousand miles without refueling-all the way from Nevada to DC in less than an hour. "Toward the end of its flight, when fuel began to run low, it could cruise at over 90,000 feet."

But of course there were no casual observers present at Area 51. On that sunny day at Area 51 in April of 1962, this was the only A-12 Oxcart that Lockheed had completed for the CIA so far.

As for all the remarkable things the aircraft had been meticulously designed to do, it wasn't able to do any of them yet. Sitting on the tarmac, the aircraft was 160,000 pounds of t.i.tanium outfitted with millions of dollars' worth of expensive equipment that no one yet knew how to work, certainly not above seventy thousand feet. Like its predecessor the U-2, the Oxcart was an aircraft without a manual. Unlike the U-2, this aircraft was technologically forty years ahead of its time. Some of the records the Oxcart would soon set would hold all the way into the new millennium.

Lou Schalk fired up the engines and began rolling down the runway for the taxi test. To everyone's surprise, including Lou Schalk's, the aircraft unexpectedly got lift. Given the enormous engine power, the aircraft suddenly started flying-lifting up just twenty feet off the ground. Stunned and horrified, Kelly Johnson watched from the control tower. "The aircraft began wobbling," "The aircraft began wobbling," Johnson wrote in his notes, which "set up lateral oscillations which were horrible to see." Johnson feared the airplane might crash before its first official flight. Schalk was equally surprised and decided not to try to circle around. Instead he set the plane down as quickly as he could. This meant landing in the dry lake bed, nearly two miles beyond where the runway ended. When it hit the earth, the aircraft sent up a huge cloud of dust, obscuring it from view. Schalk turned the plane around and drove back toward the control towers, still engulfed in a cloud of dust and dirt. When he got back, the Lockheed engineers ran up to the airplane on the metal rack of stairs. Kelly Johnson had only four words for Schalk: Johnson wrote in his notes, which "set up lateral oscillations which were horrible to see." Johnson feared the airplane might crash before its first official flight. Schalk was equally surprised and decided not to try to circle around. Instead he set the plane down as quickly as he could. This meant landing in the dry lake bed, nearly two miles beyond where the runway ended. When it hit the earth, the aircraft sent up a huge cloud of dust, obscuring it from view. Schalk turned the plane around and drove back toward the control towers, still engulfed in a cloud of dust and dirt. When he got back, the Lockheed engineers ran up to the airplane on the metal rack of stairs. Kelly Johnson had only four words for Schalk: "What in h.e.l.l, Lou?" "What in h.e.l.l, Lou?" For about fifteen very tense minutes, Johnson had thought Lou Schalk had wrecked the CIA's only Oxcart spy plane. For about fifteen very tense minutes, Johnson had thought Lou Schalk had wrecked the CIA's only Oxcart spy plane.

The following day, Schalk flew again, this time with Kelly Johnson's blessings but still not as an official first flight. Harry Martin was standing on the tarmac when the aircraft took off. "It was beautiful. Remarkable. Just watching it took your breath away," Martin recalls. "I remember thinking, This is cool. And then, all of a sudden, as Schalk rose up in the air, pieces of the airplane started to fall off!" The engineers standing next to Martin panicked. Harry Martin thought for sure the airplane was going to crash Martin thought for sure the airplane was going to crash. But Lou Schalk kept flying. The pieces of the airplane were thin slices of the t.i.tanium fuselage, called fillets. Their sudden absence did not affect low-alt.i.tude flight. Schalk flew for forty minutes and returned to Area 51. It was mission accomplished for Schalk but not for the engineers. They spent the next four days roaming around Groom Lake attempting to locate and reattach the pieces of the plane. Still, it was a milestone for the CIA. Three years, ten months, and seven days had pa.s.sed since Kelly Johnson first presented his plans for a Mach 3 spy plane to Richard Bissell, and here was the Oxcart, finally ready for its first official flight.

Agency officials were flown in from Washington to watch and to celebrate. Jim Freedman coordinated pickups and deliveries between McCarran Airport and the Ranch. It was a grand, congratulatory affair with lots of drinking in the newly constructed bar, called House-Six. Rare film footage of the historic event Rare film footage of the historic event, shot by the CIA, shows men in suits milling around the tarmac slapping one another on the back over this incredible flying machine. They watch the aircraft take off and disappear from view. Schalk traveled up to thirty thousand feet, flew around in the restricted airs.p.a.ce for fifty-nine minutes, and came back down. His top speed was four hundred miles per hour. Watching from the tarmac was Richard Bissell, tall and gangly, wearing a dark suit and a porkpie hat. Bissell had been invited to attend the groundbreaking event as a guest of Kelly Johnson. It was a significant gesture; the two men had become friends, and Kelly Johnson was notably making a point. "Part of what made Kelly Johnson such a good man was that he was extremely loyal to the people he considered his friends," Ed Lovick explains. For Bissell, the visit to Area 51 had to have been bittersweet. It would be the last time he would ever set foot at the facility he had overseen for the CIA since it was nothing but a desert floor. Richard Bissell would never be invited back again.

And Area 51 would soon have a new mayor.

It was late at night in the summer of 1962 and Bud Wheelon Bud Wheelon sat in the library in the Washington, DC, home of sat in the library in the Washington, DC, home of Howard and Jane Roman Howard and Jane Roman, two clandestine officers with CIA. It was only Wheelon's second month employed by the Agency, and because he was not a career spy, he had had a lot of catching up to do. Almost every night, he worked until ten, having just accepted the job that made him the Agency's first head of the Directorate of Science and Technology, or DS&T. Only thirty-three years old, Wheelon was a brilliant ballistic-missile scientist and signals intelligence a.n.a.lyst. He was also a graduate of MIT and had played rugby with James Killian when Killian was the president there. Now he had been hand-picked by President Kennedy's science advisers hand-picked by President Kennedy's science advisers, including James Killian, to replace Richard Bissell on all overhead reconnaissance projects for the CIA. This included satellites, U-2 operations, and the Oxcart spy plane. It was the job Bissell had declined, but "in this way, I became the new 'Mayor of Area 51,'" "in this way, I became the new 'Mayor of Area 51,'" Wheelon explains. Wheelon explains.

"I did not have much to do at night so I started reading clandestine reports, which I'd never seen before," Wheelon says. Although he found many uninteresting, one in particular caught his eye. "It made me concerned. At the time, there was a very serious National Intelligence Estimate under way for President Kennedy, one that would address the question: Will the Russians put nuclear missiles in Cuba? I had been briefed that the estimate was coming down on the side that the Russians would not do such a thing. The Pentagon had decided that putting missiles in Cuba was too reckless a move for the Russians and that they would not do such a reckless thing."

The Pentagon was dead wrong. As Wheelon read dozens of intelligence reports, one rose up like a red flag. "One thing you have to worry about with anyone informing against a person or a state is fabrication," Wheelon explains. "There were a lot of Cubans in Miami [at the time] whose sugar plantations had been taken away from them by Castro and they wanted action taken. But there was one report that caught my eye. The informant said that he'd seen very long trailers, big trucks, led by jeeps with Soviet security people inside. As these trucks made their way through certain villages, Cubans were directing traffic so the long trailers could get by. In South America, often on the street corners, you will find post-office boxes. They are not squat boxes with a level opening like you find in the States. Instead, they are more of a traditional letterbox attached at the top of a long pole. The informant witnessed one of these very long trailer trucks coming up to an intersection and not being able to make the curb. There was a letterbox blocking the way. Some of the Soviet security people got out of the truck. They grabbed an acetylene torch from the back and cut the letterbox right down. They didn't waste any time or give it a second thought. When I read that, I thought, Whoever reported this is no fabricator. This is not a detail you could make up. Whatever was in those trailers was too important to let a letterbox stand in the way."

Wheelon believed there were missiles inside the trailers. Missiles with nuclear warheads. Unknown to Wheelon at the time, his new boss, CIA director John McCone, also believed this was true. Except McCone wasn't around Washington, DC; he was in Paris, on his honeymoon. This left Wheelon in charge of more than was usual for a newcomer to the CIA. Concerned by the intelligence report, Wheelon asked to meet with the head of the board of the National Intelligence Council, Sherman Kent. "I went to him and I said, 'Sherm, I am new around here so you should discount a lot of what I say. I am not a professional intelligence person, but it looks to me like the evidence is overwhelming that they have missiles down there.'" Sherman Kent thanked Wheelon for his advice but explained that the board was going to present President Kennedy with the opposite conclusion-that there were no Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The Cuban missile crisis is a story of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the drama that culminated in a ten-day standoff between two superpowers on the brink of thermonuclear war. But it is also the story of two powerful rivals within the American services, the CIA and the U.S. Air Force, and how they set aside historical differences to work together to save the world from near nuclear annihilation. Like so many international crises of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis had its link to Area 51-through the U-2.

During the crisis, the CIA and the Air Force worked together to conduct the U-2 spy mission that caused the Soviet Union to back down. How this was accomplished not only involved two key Area 51 players but also set a precedent for the power-sharing arrangement at Area 51 that worked well for a while, until it didn't work anymore. The diplomatic efforts of one Army Air Force old-timer and one CIA newcomer helped set the stage for success. The old-timer was General Jack Ledford, and the newcomer was Bud Wheelon.

On the afternoon of August 29, 1962, a U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba spotted eight surface-to-air missile sites in the western part of Cuba, the same SA-2 missile systems that had shot down Gary Powers two years before. The following week, three more missile sites were discovered on the island, as well as a Soviet MiG-21 parked on the Santa Clara airfield nearby. For two months, the Agency had been a.n.a.lyzing reports Agency had been a.n.a.lyzing reports that said between 4,000 and 6,000 individuals from the Soviet bloc had arrived in Cuba, that said between 4,000 and 6,000 individuals from the Soviet bloc had arrived in Cuba, including 1,700 Soviet military technicians including 1,700 Soviet military technicians. Cuban citizens were being kept from entering port areas where the Soviet-bloc ships were unloading unusually large crates, ones big enough to "contain airplane fuselage or missile components." The implications were threefold: that Russia was building up the Cuban armed forces, that they were establishing multiple missile sites, and that they were establishing electronic jamming facilities against Cape Canaveral jamming facilities against Cape Canaveral in Florida as well as other important U.S. installations. The director of the CIA, John McCone, had already told the president's military advisers that he believed the Soviets were laying a deadly trap involving nuclear missiles. But there was no hard evidence of the missiles themselves, the military argued, and their position on that fact was firm. (The Pentagon did not doubt that the Soviets wanted to put nuclear missiles on Cuba; officials just didn't think they'd accomplished that yet.) in Florida as well as other important U.S. installations. The director of the CIA, John McCone, had already told the president's military advisers that he believed the Soviets were laying a deadly trap involving nuclear missiles. But there was no hard evidence of the missiles themselves, the military argued, and their position on that fact was firm. (The Pentagon did not doubt that the Soviets wanted to put nuclear missiles on Cuba; officials just didn't think they'd accomplished that yet.) McCone left for his honeymoon in Paris McCone left for his honeymoon in Paris.

In the following month, September, bad weather got in the way of good photographic intelligence. Day after day it rained over Cuba or the island was shrouded in heavy cloud cover. Finally, on September 29, a CIA U-2 mission over the Isle of Pines and the Bay of Pigs revealed yet another previously unknown missile site. President Kennedy's top advisers were convened. The CIA warned the advisers of more unknown dangers in Cuba and pushed for additional overflights so as to gain better intelligence on military installations there. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk were opposed to the idea. Not another Gary Powers incident Not another Gary Powers incident, they said. But on October 5 and 7, the CIA got presidential approval the CIA got presidential approval to run two additional missions of its own. The resultant news was hard to ignore: there were now a total of nineteen surface-to-air missile sites on the island of Cuba, meaning there was something very important that the Soviets were intent on defending there. The Pentagon held firm. There was still no hard data revealing actual missiles, McNamara and Rusk said. Making matters even more complicated, JFK's Air Force chief of staff, General Curtis LeMay, was to run two additional missions of its own. The resultant news was hard to ignore: there were now a total of nineteen surface-to-air missile sites on the island of Cuba, meaning there was something very important that the Soviets were intent on defending there. The Pentagon held firm. There was still no hard data revealing actual missiles, McNamara and Rusk said. Making matters even more complicated, JFK's Air Force chief of staff, General Curtis LeMay, was pushing for preemptive strikes pushing for preemptive strikes against Cuba. It was a volatile and incredibly dangerous situation. If the CIA was correct and there already were nuclear missiles in Cuba, then LeMay's so-called preemptive strikes would actually initiate a nuclear war, not prevent one. against Cuba. It was a volatile and incredibly dangerous situation. If the CIA was correct and there already were nuclear missiles in Cuba, then LeMay's so-called preemptive strikes would actually initiate a nuclear war, not prevent one.

What the Agency needed desperately was a wizard of diplomacy, someone who could help the rival agencies see eye to eye so they could all work together to get the Soviets to back down. The Agency and the Air Force had decidedly different ideas on imminent missions; the CIA wanted to gather more intelligence with the U-2; the Air Force wanted to prepare for war. An individual who could wear both hats with relative objectivity was needed, someone who could see both sides of the debate. In a rare moment of accord, both sides agreed that the man for the job was Brigadier General Jack Ledford. Just a few weeks earlier, Ledford had been asked by McCone Ledford had been asked by McCone to serve as the director of the Office of Special Activities at the Pentagon, meaning he would be the Pentagon liaison to the CIA at Area 51. Ledford had just graduated from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and was looking forward to moving out west when his old World War II commander to serve as the director of the Office of Special Activities at the Pentagon, meaning he would be the Pentagon liaison to the CIA at Area 51. Ledford had just graduated from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and was looking forward to moving out west when his old World War II commander General LeMay encouraged him to take the new CIA liaison job General LeMay encouraged him to take the new CIA liaison job.

LeMay had known Ledford since the war in the Pacific when Ledford flew under his command. A former Olympic diver, Ledford was tall, charismatic, and handsome. According to Wheelon, "He was someone whose charisma was contagious. Ledford was impossible not to like to be around." There was, of course, the legendary story of Ledford's plane crash, involving heroics Ledford's plane crash, involving heroics in the Pacific theater during World War II. As a captain in the Air Force, Ledford was making a bombing run over Kyushu Island, j.a.pan, when he was attacked by j.a.panese fighter jets, his airplane and his own body hit with fire. Ledford's flight engineer, Master Sergeant Harry C. Miller, was. .h.i.t in the head. The medic on board treated Miller and in the Pacific theater during World War II. As a captain in the Air Force, Ledford was making a bombing run over Kyushu Island, j.a.pan, when he was attacked by j.a.panese fighter jets, his airplane and his own body hit with fire. Ledford's flight engineer, Master Sergeant Harry C. Miller, was. .h.i.t in the head. The medic on board treated Miller and tried to treat Ledford with opiates tried to treat Ledford with opiates, who declined so he could keep his head clear. With the aircraft crashing, Ledford and the medic opened a parachute, cut the shroud lines, and attached the chute to the unconscious flight engineer. They dropped the man through the nose of the wheel well; Captain Ledford followed, delaying opening his own parachute so he could be next to Sergeant Miller when he landed. Miller would be unconscious when he hit the earth, and without Ledford's help he would likely have broken his back. The medic, not far behind, later recounted how amazing it was that Ledford's daring and dangerous plan had actually worked.

Now, two decades later, at the Cuban missile crisis round table, Ledford showed the same foresight in preempting a potentially deadly situation. The first thing General Ledford did was present the CIA and the Air Force with a shoot-down a.n.a.lysis, detailing the odds for losing a U-2 on another overflight. The chances were one in six, Ledford said The chances were one in six, Ledford said. He pushed for the U-2 mission, arguing that it was better to know now if there really were nuclear missiles in Cuba than to wish you knew later on, when it could be too late. Once these cold hard facts were on the table, the heart of the debate became clear. The point of contention was not whether or not to fly the mission. Rather, it was who who would fly the mission-the Air Force or the CIA. As it turned out, each organization wanted the job. President Kennedy felt the mission needed to involve a pilot wearing a blue U.S. Air Force pilot suit. would fly the mission-the Air Force or the CIA. As it turned out, each organization wanted the job. President Kennedy felt the mission needed to involve a pilot wearing a blue U.S. Air Force pilot suit. Kennedy felt that if a CIA spy plane Kennedy felt that if a CIA spy plane were to get shot down over Cuba, there would be too much baggage attached to the event, that it would rekindle hostilities over the Gary Powers shoot-down. But General Ledford knew what the president did not: that the CIA had higher-quality U-2 airplanes, ones far less likely to end up getting shot down. Agency U-2s flew five thousand feet higher than their heavier Air Force U-2 counterparts, which were weighed down by additional reconnaissance gear. The CIA airplanes also had better electronic countermeasure packages, meaning they had more sophisticated means of jamming SA-2 missiles coming at them. So Ledford performed diplomatic wizardry by convincing the CIA to actually loan the Air Force its prized U-2 airplanes. With the fate of the free world at stake, the CIA and the Air Force agreed to work together to solve the crisis. were to get shot down over Cuba, there would be too much baggage attached to the event, that it would rekindle hostilities over the Gary Powers shoot-down. But General Ledford knew what the president did not: that the CIA had higher-quality U-2 airplanes, ones far less likely to end up getting shot down. Agency U-2s flew five thousand feet higher than their heavier Air Force U-2 counterparts, which were weighed down by additional reconnaissance gear. The CIA airplanes also had better electronic countermeasure packages, meaning they had more sophisticated means of jamming SA-2 missiles coming at them. So Ledford performed diplomatic wizardry by convincing the CIA to actually loan the Air Force its prized U-2 airplanes. With the fate of the free world at stake, the CIA and the Air Force agreed to work together to solve the crisis.

On October 14, an Air Force pilot flying a CIA U-2 Air Force pilot flying a CIA U-2 brought home film footage of Cuba that the White House needed to see. brought home film footage of Cuba that the White House needed to see. Photographs showing nuclear missiles Photographs showing nuclear missiles supplied by the Soviet Union and set up on missile stands in Cuba. Those eight canisters of film brought back by the CIA's U-2 set in motion the Cuban missile crisis, bringing the world closer than it had ever come to all-out nuclear war. They would also give the work going on at Area 51 a shot in the arm. The Pentagon told the CIA they wanted the Oxcart operations ready immediately so the aircraft could be used to overfly Cuba. A CIA review of Oxcart, decla.s.sified in 2007, said it flatly: "The Oxcart program suddenly a.s.sumed greater significance than ever, and its achievement of operational status became one of the highest national priorities." supplied by the Soviet Union and set up on missile stands in Cuba. Those eight canisters of film brought back by the CIA's U-2 set in motion the Cuban missile crisis, bringing the world closer than it had ever come to all-out nuclear war. They would also give the work going on at Area 51 a shot in the arm. The Pentagon told the CIA they wanted the Oxcart operations ready immediately so the aircraft could be used to overfly Cuba. A CIA review of Oxcart, decla.s.sified in 2007, said it flatly: "The Oxcart program suddenly a.s.sumed greater significance than ever, and its achievement of operational status became one of the highest national priorities."

CHAPTER ELEVEN.

What Airplane?

Gardening helped CIA pilot Kenneth Collins relax. He had over a hundred rosebushes in his garden, which he and his wife, Jane, pruned together on weekends after Collins returned home from a long, mysterious week at the Ranch. At Area 51, where he worked as a project pilot, Collins went by the code name Ken Colmar Collins went by the code name Ken Colmar. "Same first name because you will instantly respond to it when called," Collins explains. "Colmar for the C, C, in case you had something monogrammed." His call sign was Dutch 21 but most men on base called him the Iceman. The pressure-suit officers came up with the nickname. "I was known to show no emotion or irritation even after a particularly dangerous flight," Collins recalls. The pressure-suit officers could gauge how tough a flight was by how sweaty a pilot's underwear was when they helped pilots undress. Collins's underwear was always remarkably dry. in case you had something monogrammed." His call sign was Dutch 21 but most men on base called him the Iceman. The pressure-suit officers came up with the nickname. "I was known to show no emotion or irritation even after a particularly dangerous flight," Collins recalls. The pressure-suit officers could gauge how tough a flight was by how sweaty a pilot's underwear was when they helped pilots undress. Collins's underwear was always remarkably dry.

Flying Oxcart was, to an Air Force pilot, the single most elite job in the nation at the time. Ken Collins "commuted" to Area 51 each week, flying in from sunny Southern California, where he and other pilots who now worked for the CIA pretended to live normal lives with their pretty wives and, ideally, a few children. Having a stable marriage and family had become a CIA-pilot mandate during Oxcart, something that was not in place during the U-2. It was Gary Powers's alcoholic wife who'd triggered the change. Some in the Agency believed she put the secrecy of the entire U-2 program at risk with behavior that even they could not control. Once, Barbara Powers got it into her head to visit her husband at his clandestine post in Turkey. She made it as far as Athens She made it as far as Athens before the officer a.s.signed to watch her notified Powers that he would be out of a job if he couldn't keep his impetuous wife in line. Ken Collins was told this story during his first interview at the Pentagon. Loose lips didn't just sink ships, he was reminded; loose lips could trigger nuclear war. Collins also learned that his wife, Jane, would be subject to psychological screening were he to be accepted into a top secret program rumored to involve "s.p.a.ce travel." before the officer a.s.signed to watch her notified Powers that he would be out of a job if he couldn't keep his impetuous wife in line. Ken Collins was told this story during his first interview at the Pentagon. Loose lips didn't just sink ships, he was reminded; loose lips could trigger nuclear war. Collins also learned that his wife, Jane, would be subject to psychological screening were he to be accepted into a top secret program rumored to involve "s.p.a.ce travel."

Collins and his family were moved from their home in South Carolina to a Los Angeles suburb called Northridge and into a four-bedroom raised ranch with a two-car garage and an avocado tree out front. He was thirty-six years old. Jane attended church and collected antique china. All four of Jane and Ken Collins's children, two boys and two girls, maintained good grades in school. The neighbors were told Mr. Collins worked for Hughes Aircraft Company. Collins was told to report nosy neighbors to the CIA, and if any foreign-borns tried to befriend the Collinses, they were to notify the Agency, who would look into the matter.

Each Monday morning, Collins left his home and drove to Burbank Airport, nine miles to the southwest. There, he and the other Oxcart pilots climbed aboard Constellation propeller planes and headed to Area 51, never with more than two pilots per airplane-a guideline put into place after the Mount Charleston crash eight years earlier. The deaths of those top Agency and Air Force managers and scientists had set progress on the U-2 program back several months. Now, in 1963, Oxcart was already more than a year behind schedule. The Agency could not afford to lose any pilots. The vetting process alone took eighteen months and getting familiar with the aircraft took another year.

After leaving Burbank, Collins and his fellow pilots were flown, two by two, up over the Mojave Desert to the northeast, past China Lake, and into the Tikaboo Valley. Flying into the restricted airs.p.a.ce above the Nevada Test Site, Collins would look out the window and make a mental note of the ever-growing landscape of giant craters. The appearance of a new, moonlike subsidence crater was often a weekly occurrence now that nuclear testing had moved underground. When seen from above, the landscape at the Nevada Test Site looked like a battlefield after the apocalypse. For Collins, the destruction was a solid visual reminder of what scorched earth would look like after a nuclear war.

The Agency couldn't have chosen a more dedicated pilot. Collecting intelligence on dangerous reconnaissance flights was Ken Collins's life mission; it was what he did best. He seemed to be propelled by a natural talent and kept alive by an unknown force Collins called fate. "Fate is a hunter," Collins believes. "When it comes for you, it comes," and for whatever reason it was not time for death to come to him yet. This was a notion Collins formulated during the Korean War while flying reconnaissance missions and watching so many talented and brave fellow pilots die. How else but by fate did he survive all 113 combat missions he had flown? On those cla.s.sified missions, the young Collins was armed with only a camera in the nose of his airplane as he flew deep into North Korea he flew deep into North Korea, sometimes all the way over the Yalu River, being fired at by MiG fighter jets fired at by MiG fighter jets. During the war, he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross Distinguished Flying Cross and also the and also the coveted Silver Star for valor coveted Silver Star for valor, the third-highest military decoration a member of the armed services can receive. Both medals were pinned on Collins's chest before he turned twenty-four.

But now, as an Oxcart pilot, Collins kept his medals tucked away in a drawer, never mentioning that he had received them. As with many servicemen, glory was a difficult distinction to contemplate when so many of your fellows had died. Accepting fate as the hunter made things easier for Collins, which is how he dealt with the memory of his closest friend and former wingman from the Fifteenth Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, Charles R. "Chuck" Parkerson. The two men had flown on many missions together, but there was one from which Parkerson never came home. "We had flown into North Korea and back out side by side," Collins recalls. "We were almost home when Parkerson radioed me. He said the engine on his RF-80 had flamed out and he was unable to restart it. I saw he was losing alt.i.tude quickly and he knew that soon he would crash." Parachuting into enemy territory meant certain death. "Over the radio, Parkerson asked me, 'What should I do?'" Collins explains. "I said, 'Fly out over the Yellow Sea and I'll fly with you.' I told him to bail out in the water and I'd send his coordinates back to base for a rescue team." It seemed like a good idea, and Collins flew alongside his wingman as they headed toward the Yellow Sea. Parkerson prepared for a bailout. "But there was a problem," Collins recalls. "The canopy on Parkerson's RF-80 was stuck. Jammed. It wouldn't open, which meant he was trapped inside the airplane. There was nothing I could do for my friend except to fly alongside him all the way until the end." Collins watched Parkerson land his airplane on the sea. With Parkerson unable to get out of the sinking aircraft, Collins waited, watching from the air as his friend drowned. "When your time is up, it is up," Collins recalls.

Ten years later, it was 1963, the Korean War was history, and there was an airplane to get ready at Area 51. After the twin-prop pa.s.sed over the last set of hills on the Nevada Test Site's eastern edge, the airstrip at Groom Lake came into view, and Collins thought about how no one but his fellow CIA pilots had any idea who he really was. During training missions, the papers in Collins's flight pouch identified him only as a NASA weather pilot. His s.p.a.ce-age-looking aircraft was registered to an airfield called Watertown Strip, Nevada. He was never to carry any personal effects with him in the airplane. When the Lockheed Constellation landed on the tarmac at Area 51, security guards took his ID and papers and locked them away in a metal box. Each Friday, before the afternoon flight home, Collins's ident.i.ty was returned to him.

His mission flight that day, May 24, 1963, should have been like any other flight. By now, there were a total of five Oxcarts being flight-tested at Area 51 a total of five Oxcarts being flight-tested at Area 51, and Collins breezed through his prebriefing with the Lockheed engineers, making mental notes about the different tasks he was to perform during the flight. The engineers wanted to know how certain engine controls worked during acceleration and slow cruise. Today's test would be subsonic with the high-performance aircraft traveling somewhere around 450 miles per hour, like a racehorse out for a trot. It was to be a short mission up over Utah, into Wyoming, and back to Area 51. Air Force chase pilot Captain Donald Donohue would start out following Collins Captain Donald Donohue would start out following Collins in an F-101 Voodoo. in an F-101 Voodoo. Later, Jack Weeks Later, Jack Weeks, also an Oxcart project pilot, would pick up the task.

For a little over an hour, everything appeared to be normal. Heading into Wendover, Utah, Collins made note of a large c.u.mulus cloud that lay ahead. As Collins slowed down, Jack Weeks signaled that he was going to head back to Area 51. The F-101 could not handle flying as slow as Collins needed to fly that day. Besides, from Weeks's perspective, everything on the Oxcart looked fine. Collins gave Weeks the okay signal with one hand in the c.o.c.kpit window and headed into the cloud.

"Suddenly, the altimeter was rapidly unwinding, indicating a rapid loss of speed," Collins recalls. In heavy clouds, Collins had no visual references to determine where he was. "I advanced the throttles to counter the loss of airspeed. But instead of responding, and without any warning, the aircraft pitched up and flipped over with me trapped underneath. Then it went into an inverted flat spin." The Agency's million-dollar A-12 Oxcart was unrecoverable and crashing. Collins needed to bail out.

Collins had no idea how close he was to the Earth's surface because he was in the middle of a cloud and couldn't see out of it. He also did not know if he was over a mountain range, which would mean he had even less time to eject. Collins closed his visor and grabbed the ejection ring that was positioned between his legs. He pushed his head firmly against the headrest and pulled. This kind of radical ejection from a prized top secret aircraft is not easy to forget, and Collins recalls dramatic details. "The canopy of the aircraft flew off and disappeared but I was still upside down, with the aircraft on top of me," he explains. "Having pulled the D-ring, my boot stirrups snapped back. The explosive system in the seat rocket engaged, shooting me downward and away from the aircraft." First Collins separated from the Oxcart. Next he separated from his seat. After that, he was a body falling through the air until a small parachute called a drogue snapped open, slowing his body down. In his long history of flying airplanes, this was the first time Collins had ever had to bail out. Falling to Earth, he tried to get a sense of what state he might be over. Was he in Nevada or Utah? The ground below him appeared to be high-desert terrain, low hills but no mountains that he could see. He was still too high up to discern if there were roads. As he floated down, in the distance he spotted the heavy black aircraft tumbling through the air until it disappeared from sight. "I remember seeing a large, black column of smoke rise up from the desert floor and thinking, That's my airplane." Only now there was nothing left of it but an incinerated hunk of t.i.tanium smoldering on the ground. Fate was a hunter, all right.

Suddenly, Collins felt his parachute break away and he began to free-fall once again. Had his luck run out? he wondered. Was today the day he was going to die? But then, as suddenly as the one parachute had broken away, he felt another tug at his shoulders, and a second parachute blossomed above him. This one was more than twice the size of the drogue. He began to float gently toward Earth. Collins hadn't been told that the A-12 Oxcart ejection system had two separate parachutes. The first parachute, or drogue, was small enough to slow the pilot down and get him to an alt.i.tude of fifteen thousand feet. Then the drogue chute would jettison away in advance of the main parachute deploying. This large, thirty-five-foot-diameter landing aid was the one most pilots were familiar with.

With the ground below him quickly getting closer, Collins could see roads and sagebrush. He wondered how long it might take for anyone to locate him. When fellow pilot Jack Weeks had left him, just minutes before the crash, everything on Collins's aircraft had seemed fine, but because of secrecy protocols, Collins had not made radio contact with the command post before he bailed out. He could see that he was most likely somewhere north of the Salt Lake salt flats. Collins tucked his legs up and a.s.sumed the landing position. When he hit the ground, he rolled. His mind went through the checklist of what to do next.

Collins unclipped himself from the parachute and began collecting everything around him. Flight-protocol pages and filmstrips of navigational maps fluttered across the desert. As he hurried to collect the top secret papers, he was surprised to hear a car motor in the distance. Looking up, he saw a pickup truck bouncing toward him along a dirt desert road. "As it got closer, I could see there were three men in the front cab," Collins recalls. "The truck pulled alongside me and came to a stop. I could see they had my aircraft canopy in the back of their pickup."

The men, who appeared to be local ranchers, sized up Collins. Because the flight had been subsonic, Collins was wearing a standard flight suit and not a high-alt.i.tude pressure suit, which would have made him look like an astronaut or an alien and likely prompted a lot more questions. Instead, the ranchers asked Collins if he wanted a ride. They said they knew exactly where his airplane had crashed, and if he hopped in, they'd give him a ride back to his plane. Until that moment, no civilian without a top secret security clearance had ever laid eyes on the Oxcart, and Collins had strict orders to keep it that way. He'd been briefed on what to do in a security breach such as this one, given a cover story by the Agency that fit perfectly with the proximity to the Nevada Test Site-and with the times. Collins told the ranchers that his aircraft was an F-105 fighter jet and that it had a nuclear weapon on board. The men's expressions changed from helpful to fearful. "They got very nervous and said if I wanted a ride, I better jump in quick because they were not staying around Wendover for long," Collins recalls.

The ranchers drove Collins to the nearest highway patrol office. There, he jumped out, took his airplane canopy from the back of the truck, and watched the men speed off. Collins reached into the pocket of his flight suit. Inside, he found the note that read call this number, call this number, followed by a telephone number. Also in his pocket was a dime. Inside the highway patrol office, Collins asked the officer on duty where he could find the nearest pay phone. The man pointed around to the side of the building, and using the Agency's dime, Collins made the phone call that no Agency pilot ever wants to make. A little less than an hour later, Kelly Johnson's private airplane landed in Wendover, Utah, along with several men from the CIA. After a brief exchange of words so Kelly Johnson could confirm that Collins was physically okay, Collins boarded the airplane. During the two-hour flight to the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico, no one said a word. "There would be plenty of talking to do during the debriefing," Collins says, "and with the Agency's tape recorders taking everything down." A crash of a CIA spy plane meant someone had some explaining to do. followed by a telephone number. Also in his pocket was a dime. Inside the highway patrol office, Collins asked the officer on duty where he could find the nearest pay phone. The man pointed around to the side of the building, and using the Agency's dime, Collins made the phone call that no Agency pilot ever wants to make. A little less than an hour later, Kelly Johnson's private airplane landed in Wendover, Utah, along with several men from the CIA. After a brief exchange of words so Kelly Johnson could confirm that Collins was physically okay, Collins boarded the airplane. During the two-hour flight to the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico, no one said a word. "There would be plenty of talking to do during the debriefing," Collins says, "and with the Agency's tape recorders taking everything down." A crash of a CIA spy plane meant someone had some explaining to do.

Back in the control room at Groom Lake, navigator Sam Pizzo had a monumental amount of work Sam Pizzo had a monumental amount of work on his hands. News of Collins's crash had just hit the command post, and it was up to Colonel Holbury, the air commander of Detachment 1 of the 1129th U.S. Air Force Special Activities Squadron, to put together a search team for the crash site. "Maintenance guys, security guys, navigators, we all took off in trucks and airplanes and headed to Utah," Pizzo explains. With Collins confirmed alive, the goal now was to locate every single piece of the wrecked airplane, "every nut, bolt, and sliver of fuselage." The efforts would be staged from an old, abandoned airfield northwest of the dry lakes. These were the same facilities where World War II bombers had practiced for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb runs. The quarters there, long since deserted, were rudimentary. There was no running water or heat. This meant the men from Groom Lake brought their own cooks, cots, and gear as part of their crash-recovery team. on his hands. News of Collins's crash had just hit the command post, and it was up to Colonel Holbury, the air commander of Detachment 1 of the 1129th U.S. Air Force Special Activities Squadron, to put together a search team for the crash site. "Maintenance guys, security guys, navigators, we all took off in trucks and airplanes and headed to Utah," Pizzo explains. With Collins confirmed alive, the goal now was to locate every single piece of the wrecked airplane, "every nut, bolt, and sliver of fuselage." The efforts would be staged from an old, abandoned airfield northwest of the dry lakes. These were the same facilities where World War II bombers had practiced for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb runs. The quarters there, long since deserted, were rudimentary. There was no running water or heat. This meant the men from Groom Lake brought their own cooks, cots, and gear as part of their crash-recovery team.

Once they found the site, the work crew had a lot of digging to do. The aircraft, Article #123, hadn't broken apart in flight, but given the speed at which it had hit the earth, huge sections of the airplane had become buried. Critically important was locating every loose piece of the t.i.tanium fuselage. The metal was rare and expensive, and the fact that the Agency's spy plane was hand-forged from t.i.tanium was a closely held secret. If a news reporter or a local got a hold of even the smallest piece of the aircraft, its unusual composition would raise questions that might threaten the cover of the entire Oxcart program. Equally critical to national security was making sure the radar-absorbing materials, known as composite and that covered the entire airplane, remained in government control. If a piece of the plane got into the wrong hands, the results could be disastrous: the Russians could learn the secret of stealth.

Along with a crew of more than one hundred men, the Agency brought its own horses to the crash site. Men from Groom Lake took to the desert terrain on horseback took to the desert terrain on horseback and began their search. For two days they scoured the ground, looking for stray pieces of airplane as well as for flight papers and maps that had been in the c.o.c.kpit with Collins. "By the time we were done, we'd combed over every single square inch of ground," Pizzo recalls. A ma.s.sive C-124 transport plane hauled the pieces of the airplane back to Area 51. In a heavily guarded hangar there, what was left of the airplane was spread out, piece by piece, in an effort to re-create its shape. and began their search. For two days they scoured the ground, looking for stray pieces of airplane as well as for flight papers and maps that had been in the c.o.c.kpit with Collins. "By the time we were done, we'd combed over every single square inch of ground," Pizzo recalls. A ma.s.sive C-124 transport plane hauled the pieces of the airplane back to Area 51. In a heavily guarded hangar there, what was left of the airplane was spread out, piece by piece, in an effort to re-create its shape.

Richard Bissell's departure from Area 51 a year earlier had left a huge power vacuum at the base. There was a general feeling among the men working there now that the vacuum was being filled by Air Force bra.s.s filled by Air Force bra.s.s. This made perfect sense. Whereas the U-2 was, in essence, a motorized glider, the A-12 Oxcart was the highest, fastest, most state-of-the-art piloted aircraft in the world. For men who prided themselves on airpower-as did everyone involved in the U.S. Air Force-the supersonic Oxcart was the top dog. The Area 51 facility was now one of the Air Force's most prestigious billets, a place where officers got to be in charge of their "own little air force," as Major General Paul Bacalis had once said. What this meant was that Pentagon favorites, usually World War II heroes who had survived dangerous, death-defying missions, were rewarded with key positions at Area 51. Men like Colonel Robert Holbury.

At Area 51, Holbury's official t.i.tle was air commander of the U.S. Air Force Special Activities Squadron at Las Vegas, the noncla.s.sified reference name for Oxcart. A former fighter pilot during World War II, Holbury had been given a commendation by General Patton Holbury had been given a commendation by General Patton for a dangerous low-flying reconnaissance mission over the Saar River, in western Germany, which he survived despite coming under heavy enemy fire. This meant Holbury was the official wing commander at the base when Ken Collins crashed the first Oxcart spy plane. In Air Force culture, when an airplane crashes, someone has to take the blame. Collins explains: "In the SAC [Strategic Air Command] mind-set, if there's an accident, the wing commander suffers the consequences." Instead, Collins believes, Holbury tried to get Collins to be the fall guy. "Holbury didn't want blame; he wanted a star. He wanted to become a general, so he tried to put the blame on me. After the crash, even before the investigation, he requested that I be fired." for a dangerous low-flying reconnaissance mission over the Saar River, in western Germany, which he survived despite coming under heavy enemy fire. This meant Holbury was the official wing commander at the base when Ken Collins crashed the first Oxcart spy plane. In Air Force culture, when an airplane crashes, someone has to take the blame. Collins explains: "In the SAC [Strategic Air Command] mind-set, if there's an accident, the wing commander suffers the consequences." Instead, Collins believes, Holbury tried to get Collins to be the fall guy. "Holbury didn't want blame; he wanted a star. He wanted to become a general, so he tried to put the blame on me. After the crash, even before the investigation, he requested that I be fired."

Collins was unwilling to accept that. Fortunately for Collins's career, Kelly Johnson, the builder of the aircraft, didn't care about blame as much as he wanted to find out what had gone wrong with his airplane. Listening to Collins describe what had happened during the debriefing, Johnson couldn't figure out what caused the aircraft to crash. He wondered if there was something Collins had forgotten, or was maybe leaving out. "I was clear in my mind that the crash was a mechanical error and not a pilot error," Collins explains. "So when Kelly Johnson asked would I try unconventional methods like hypnosis and truth serum, I said yes. I was willing to do anything I could to get to the truth." While the Pentagon's accident board conducted a traditional investigation, Collins submitted to a far less conventional way of seeking out the truth of the cause of the crash.

Inside the flight surgeon's office at Lockheed, Collins sat with a CIA-contracted hypnotist from Boston, "a small, rotund man dressed in a fancy suit," as Collins recalls. "He tried very hard to put me in a trance, only it didn't work. I don't think he realized that hypnotizing a fighter pilot was not as easy as he thought it might be." Next, Collins was injected with sodium thiopental, also known as truth serum. Collins remembers the day well. "I told my wife, Jane, I was going to work for a few hours, which was unusual to begin with because it was a Sunday. The point of the treatment was to see if I could remember details other than those I relayed in the original debrief with the CIA. But yes, even with the sodium pentothal in my system, everything I said was exactly the same. The treatment takes a lot out of you and after it was over, I was very unsteady on my feet. Three CIA agents brought me home late that Sunday evening. One drove my car, the other two carried me inside and laid me down on the couch. I was still loopy from the drugs. They handed Jane the car keys and left without saying a word."

When Collins woke up the next morning, he figured the only conclusion his wife could have drawn was that her husband had gone out on a Sunday and gotten drunk. Feeling bad, he confided in her that he'd been given truth serum and could not say anything more. Jane told her husband a story of her own. She said that he didn't have to explain further because she had a pretty good idea what had happened to him on the job. Earlier in the week, Jane explained, immediately after Collins's crash, family friend and fellow Oxcart pilot Walt Ray had broken protocol and called Jane from Area 51 to tell her that Ken had bailed out of an airplane but that he was all right. "Where is he?" Jane had asked. Walt Ray said he didn't know. Jane then asked, "How can you know if Ken is okay if you don't even know where he is?" At the time Walt Ray didn't have an answer for that. So now, hangover or no hangover, Jane Collins was happy to have her husband home alive. After a lengthy investigation it was determined that a tiny, pencil-size part called a pitot tube had in fact caused the crash a pitot tube had in fact caused the crash. The pitot tube measured the air coming into the aircraft and thereby controlled the airspeed indicator. Unlike in a car, where the driver can feel relative speed, in a plane, without a proper reading from an airspeed indicator, a pilot has no awareness of how fast he is going, and without correct airspeed information a pilot cannot land. When Collins flew into the cloud, the pitot tube reacted adversely to the moisture inside and froze. The false airspeed indicator caused the aircraft to stall. As a result of the stall, the Oxcart flipped upside down and crashed.

Ken Collins's crash in Utah caused the CIA to redouble its secrecy efforts regarding operations at Area 51. The press was told an F-105 crashed, and as of 2011, the Air Force still has it listed that way. Worried its cover was about to be blown, the Agency decided to sh.o.r.e up an accounting of who knew what about Oxcart. An a.n.a.lyst was a.s.signed the task of combing through all the files the CIA had been keeping on journalists, civilians, and even retired Air Force personnel-anyone who showed a curiosity about what might be going on at Area 51. Beginning in the spring of 1963, the noted instances of what the CIA called "Project Oxcart Awareness Outside Cleared Community" drastically increased. Decla.s.sified in 2007 and never before made public, the CIA had been monitoring phone conversations monitoring phone conversations of journalists who seemed interested in the Oxcart program. "Mr. Marvin Miles, Aviation Editor, Los Angeles Times, telephonically contacted Westinghouse Corp., Pittsburgh, attempting to confirm if employees of that firm were traveling covertly to 'the desert' each week in connection with top secret Project which he suspects may have 'CIA' a.s.sociation," read one memo. Another stated that "Mr. Robert Hotz, Editor Aviation Week, indicated his awareness of developments at Burbank." Of particular concern to the Agency was an article in the of journalists who seemed interested in the Oxcart program. "Mr. Marvin Miles, Aviation Editor, Los Angeles Times, telephonically contacted Westinghouse Corp., Pittsburgh, attempting to confirm if employees of that firm were traveling covertly to 'the desert' each week in connection with top secret Project which he suspects may have 'CIA' a.s.sociation," read one memo. Another stated that "Mr. Robert Hotz, Editor Aviation Week, indicated his awareness of developments at Burbank." Of particular concern to the Agency was an article in the Hartford Courant Hartford Courant that referred to the "secret development" of the J-58 engine. Another article in the Fontana, California, paper the that referred to the "secret development" of the J-58 engine. Another article in the Fontana, California, paper the Herald News Herald News speculated about the existence of Area 51, calling it a "super secret Project site." An speculated about the existence of Area 51, calling it a "super secret Project site." An increasingly suspicious CIA increasingly suspicious CIA worked overtime to monitor journalists, and they also monitored regular citizens, including a Los Angelesbased taxi driver who was described in a memo marked "cla.s.sified" as once having asked a Pratt and Whitney employee if he was "en route to Nevada." worked overtime to monitor journalists, and they also monitored regular citizens, including a Los Angelesbased taxi driver who was described in a memo marked "cla.s.sified" as once having asked a Pratt and Whitney employee if he was "en route to Nevada."

With the Air Force steadily gaining a foothold in day-to-day operations at Area 51, it was the Air Force that the CIA should have been watching more closely in terms of the future of the spy plane program as a whole. It was not as if there weren't writing on the wall. In the year before Collins's crash, the Air Force had decided it wanted a Mach 3 Oxcart-type program of its own. Just as it had with the U-2, the Pentagon moved in on the CIA's spy plane territory. Only with the Oxcart, the Air Force ordered not one but three Air Force variants the Air Force ordered not one but three Air Force variants for its stable. One version, the YF-12A, would be used as an attack aircraft, its camera bay retrofitted to hold two 250-kiloton nuclear bombs. The second Oxcart variant the Air Force ordered could carry a drone on its back. The third was a two-seater version of the CIA's stealth spy plane, only instead of being designed to conduct high-speed, high-alt.i.tude reconnaissance missions over enemy territory during peacetime, the Air Force supersonic spy plane was meant to go in and take pictures of enemy territory immediately after a nuclear strike by U.S. bomber planes-to see if any strategic targets had been missed. Designated the RS-71 Blackbird, this now-famous aircraft had its letter designation accidentally inverted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a public speech. Since the president is rarely ever "corrected," the Air Force changed its letter designation, which is how the SR-71 Blackbird got its name. (Originally, the for its stable. One version, the YF-12A, would be used as an attack aircraft, its camera bay retrofitted to hold two 250-kiloton nuclear bombs. The second Oxcart variant the Air Force ordered could carry a drone on its back. The third was a two-seater version of the CIA's stealth spy plane, only instead of being designed to conduct high-speed, high-alt.i.tude reconnaissance missions over enemy territory during peacetime, the Air Force supersonic spy plane was meant to go in and take pictures of enemy territory immediately after a nuclear strike by U.S. bomber planes-to see if any strategic targets had been missed. Designated the RS-71 Blackbird, this now-famous aircraft had its letter designation accidentally inverted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a public speech. Since the president is rarely ever "corrected," the Air Force changed its letter designation, which is how the SR-71 Blackbird got its name. (Originally, the letters stood for "Reconnaissance/Strike." letters stood for "Reconnaissance/Strike.") There was no end to the irony in all of this. The Air Force's Mach 3 airplanes were a far cry from President Eisenhower's original idea to let the CIA create a spy plane with which to conduct espionage missions designed to prevent nuclear war. This new Air Force direction underscored the difference in the two services: the CIA was in the business of spying, and the Air Force was in the business of war.

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