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There were other motives in play, including the ego of General Curtis LeMay. The Air Force had already spent eight hundred million dollars developing the B-70 bomber airplane-a eight hundred million dollars developing the B-70 bomber airplane-a ma.s.sive, triangle-shaped, Mach 3, eight-engined bomber that had been General LeMay's pa.s.sion project since its inception in 1959. When a fleet of eighty-five of these giant supersonic bombers was first proposed to Congress, LeMay, then head of the Strategic Air Command, had his proposition met with cheers. But the Gary Powers shoot-down in May of 1960 had exposed the vulnerability of LeMay's B-70 bombers, which would fly at the same height as the U-2. In 1963 LeMay was no longer head of the Strategic Air Command-instead, he was President Kennedy's Air Force chief of staff. Despite evidence showing the B-70 bomber was not a practical airplane, LeMay was not about to give up his beloved bomber without a fight. ma.s.sive, triangle-shaped, Mach 3, eight-engined bomber that had been General LeMay's pa.s.sion project since its inception in 1959. When a fleet of eighty-five of these giant supersonic bombers was first proposed to Congress, LeMay, then head of the Strategic Air Command, had his proposition met with cheers. But the Gary Powers shoot-down in May of 1960 had exposed the vulnerability of LeMay's B-70 bombers, which would fly at the same height as the U-2. In 1963 LeMay was no longer head of the Strategic Air Command-instead, he was President Kennedy's Air Force chief of staff. Despite evidence showing the B-70 bomber was not a practical airplane, LeMay was not about to give up his beloved bomber without a fight.

When the CIA first briefed President Kennedy on how high and how fast the A-12 Oxcart would fly, the president was astonished the president was astonished. His first question, according to CIA officer Norman Nelson, was "Could it be converted into a long-range bomber to replace the B-70?" LeMay was in the room when Kennedy asked the question. The thought of losing his pet program to the Agency drove General LeMay wild. He lobbied the Pentagon to move forward with the B-70, and he stepped up his public relations campaign, personally promoting the B-70 bomber program in magazine interviews from Aviation Week Aviation Week to to Reader's Digest. Reader's Digest. He was committed to appealing to as many Americans as possible, from aviation buffs to housewives. But by 1963, Kennedy was leaning toward canceling the B-70. In a budget message, he called it He was committed to appealing to as many Americans as possible, from aviation buffs to housewives. But by 1963, Kennedy was leaning toward canceling the B-70. In a budget message, he called it "unnecessary and economically unjustifiable." "unnecessary and economically unjustifiable." Congress cut back its B-70 order even further Congress cut back its B-70 order even further. The original order for eighty-five had already been cut down to ten, and now Congress cut that to four.

LeMay was furious. He flew from Washington, DC, to Burbank, California, to see Kelly Johnson at the Skunk Works. Longtime rivals, Kelly Johnson greeted LeMay with skepticism when LeMay asked for a briefing about the A-12. After Johnson was finished, LeMay gave Johnson a quid pro quo. "Johnson, I want a promise out of you that you won't lobby anymore against the B-70," LeMay said. Provided Kelly Johnson complied, won't lobby anymore against the B-70," LeMay said. Provided Kelly Johnson complied, LeMay promised to send Lockheed LeMay promised to send Lockheed an Air Force purchase order for an interceptor version of Lockheed's A-12 Oxcart, in addition to the preexisting order. For Lockheed, this would mean a big new invoice to send to the Air Force. At first, Kelly Johnson was suspicious of LeMay's sincerity. That changed just a few weeks later when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara showed up at the Skunk Works with the secretary of the Air Force and the a.s.sistant secretary of defense in tow. Now McNamara asked for a briefing on the A-12, during which he took "copious notes." Within a matter of months, the Pentagon ordered twenty-five more A-12 variants. The Pentagon already had a catchy name for its versions of the Oxcart. They would call them Blackbirds. an Air Force purchase order for an interceptor version of Lockheed's A-12 Oxcart, in addition to the preexisting order. For Lockheed, this would mean a big new invoice to send to the Air Force. At first, Kelly Johnson was suspicious of LeMay's sincerity. That changed just a few weeks later when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara showed up at the Skunk Works with the secretary of the Air Force and the a.s.sistant secretary of defense in tow. Now McNamara asked for a briefing on the A-12, during which he took "copious notes." Within a matter of months, the Pentagon ordered twenty-five more A-12 variants. The Pentagon already had a catchy name for its versions of the Oxcart. They would call them Blackbirds. Black Black because they had been developed in the dark by the CIA, and because they had been developed in the dark by the CIA, and birds birds because they could fly. The meeting touched off the long-running battle between the two agencies over control of Area 51 and control of any U.S. government a.s.set with wings. But this is exactly what had happened with the U-2. The CIA did all of the heavy lifting to get the aircraft aloft, only to have the program eventually taken over by the Pentagon for the Air Force. because they could fly. The meeting touched off the long-running battle between the two agencies over control of Area 51 and control of any U.S. government a.s.set with wings. But this is exactly what had happened with the U-2. The CIA did all of the heavy lifting to get the aircraft aloft, only to have the program eventually taken over by the Pentagon for the Air Force.

At the Ranch, it was business as usual. No one but the generals had any idea that the CIA's spy plane program now officially had in the Pentagon a formidable rival that threatened its very existence. Instead, pilots, engineers, operators, scientists, and Air Force enlisted men worked triple shifts, around the clock, to get the A-12 Oxcart mission ready. These were the men who made up and supported the 1129th Special Activities Squadron at Groom Lake.

The J-58 jet engines built by Pratt and Whitney had taken forever to finish but now they were ready to fly. In January of 1963 they were finally delivered to the Ranch finally delivered to the Ranch. A host of new problems occurred when the engines were first powered up. In one instance, engineers suspected a foreign object was stuck in an engine's heart, called the power plant, and was damaging internal parts. An X-ray showed the outline of a pen An X-ray showed the outline of a pen that had fallen into the engine's cover, called a nacelle, during final a.s.sembly in Burbank. From then on, Lockheed workers got coveralls without breast pockets. There were other problems. The engines worked like giant vacuums. Once powered up on the tarmac, they sucked in every loose object lying around, including rocks and metal screws. As a solution, Area 51 workers took to sweeping and then vacuuming the runway before each flight. It was a tedious but necessary job. that had fallen into the engine's cover, called a nacelle, during final a.s.sembly in Burbank. From then on, Lockheed workers got coveralls without breast pockets. There were other problems. The engines worked like giant vacuums. Once powered up on the tarmac, they sucked in every loose object lying around, including rocks and metal screws. As a solution, Area 51 workers took to sweeping and then vacuuming the runway before each flight. It was a tedious but necessary job.

The next goal was to get the airplane to cruise at Mach 3. Nearly five times as fast as any commercial airplane, this was an aerodynamic feat that had never been accomplished before. Pushing through the lower Mach numbers was a laborious and dangerous task. Performance margins were met gradually, with a new set of challenges new set of challenges cropping up each day. As the airplane reached higher speeds, the 500-plus-degree temperatures began melting electrical components, many of which had to be redesigned and rewired. Chuck Yeager is credited with breaking the sound barrier in 1947, but every time a new aircraft moves through the speed of sound, which is 768 miles per hour, complications can arise. In the case of the Oxcart, the sonic shock unexpectedly caused the fuselage to flex in such a way that many structural parts became dangerously compromised. These parts had to be redesigned and replaced. cropping up each day. As the airplane reached higher speeds, the 500-plus-degree temperatures began melting electrical components, many of which had to be redesigned and rewired. Chuck Yeager is credited with breaking the sound barrier in 1947, but every time a new aircraft moves through the speed of sound, which is 768 miles per hour, complications can arise. In the case of the Oxcart, the sonic shock unexpectedly caused the fuselage to flex in such a way that many structural parts became dangerously compromised. These parts had to be redesigned and replaced.

Some performance benchmarks came surprisingly quickly. In July of 1963, Lou Schalk flew briefly at Mach 3, much to the Agency's delight. But sustaining flight for ten minutes at Mach 3 took another seven months to achieve. Every flight was like an operational mission, with navigators plotting a course and making maps days before as they worked to test the Oxcart's internal navigation system, or INS. "When you're flying at that alt.i.tude and that speed, you need big checkpoints to validate information from the INS," recalls navigator Sam Pizzo. "Any old geographical landmark, like a mountain or a river, would not do. The Oxcart traveled too fast. Pilots would have to look for landmarks on the scale of the Grand Canyon or the Great Lakes," says the veteran navigator. "You can't imagine what new territory this was for a navigator. No amount of experience can prepare you when you work on an airplane that goes two or three times as fast as anything you navigated for before."

The essence of Area 51 was that everything that happened there happened big. Because all efforts were being made on orders of the president, and given the colossal scale of secrecy surrounding the project, there was a deeply patriotic sense that the free world depended on the work being performed at Area 51. The men worked tirelessly and with phenomenal ingenuity to overcome challenges that would have stymied countless others. And yet the strange paradox underlying all efforts at the Ranch was that Project Oxcart was also subject to unforeseeable world events. It could be given the ax at a moment's notice-which is what almost happened on November 22, 1963.

It was late in the day after a rainstorm and Captain Donald Donohue was working with a crew out on the dry lake bed. An F-101 chase plane had run off the airstrip F-101 chase plane had run off the airstrip and sunk into a layer of gypsum that was several inches deep. Working with a group of engineers and mechanics, Donohue led the efforts to lay down several long planks of steel that could then be used to tow the airplane out of where it had become stuck in the soggy lake bed. and sunk into a layer of gypsum that was several inches deep. Working with a group of engineers and mechanics, Donohue led the efforts to lay down several long planks of steel that could then be used to tow the airplane out of where it had become stuck in the soggy lake bed.

"Pizzo came out," Donohue remembers. "He looked kinda pale. Then he said, 'Clean up and go home.' Well, something was not right. Sam Pizzo was a lot more talkative than that. Then he said something to the effect of 'We'll call you if we need you to come back.'"

"What the h.e.l.l is going on?" Donohue remembers asking.

"President Kennedy has just been a.s.sa.s.sinated, in Dallas," Pizzo said solemnly.

It was a terrible shock, Donohue remembers. "Our commander in chief. Dead? I recall it like it was yesterday. Pizzo was right. We had to go home and wait this thing out. When [Lyndon] Johnson was vice president, he was entirely unaware about the existence of the A-12 program. And he didn't have a clue about Area 51." The future of Oxcart was contingent on the new president's call.

With President Kennedy dead, Lyndon Johnson would be briefed Lyndon Johnson would be briefed on the CIA's secret domestic base by CIA director John McCone on his eighth day as commander in chief. Until then, what Johnson would decide about the CIA's supersonic spy plane program was anybody's guess. The relationship between a new president and the CIA is always tenuous starting out. What happened to President Kennedy with the CIA and the Bay of Pigs raised the bar in terms of jeopardy for all future presidents of the United States. Only time would tell if Lyndon Johnson would authorize the completion of the Agency's Mach 3 spy plane out at Area 51. on the CIA's secret domestic base by CIA director John McCone on his eighth day as commander in chief. Until then, what Johnson would decide about the CIA's supersonic spy plane program was anybody's guess. The relationship between a new president and the CIA is always tenuous starting out. What happened to President Kennedy with the CIA and the Bay of Pigs raised the bar in terms of jeopardy for all future presidents of the United States. Only time would tell if Lyndon Johnson would authorize the completion of the Agency's Mach 3 spy plane out at Area 51.

CHAPTER TWELVE.

Covering Up the Cover-Up Jim Freedman remembers the first time he brought up the subject of UFOs with his EG&G supervisor at Area 51. It was sometime in the middle of the 1960s and "UFOs were a pretty big thing," Freedman explains. Flying saucer sightings had made their way into the news with a fervor not seen since the late 1940s. "I heard through the rumor mill that one of the UFOs had gone to Wright-Pat and was then brought to a remote area of the test site," Freedman says. "I heard it was in Area 22. I was driving with my supervisor through the test site one day and I told him what I had heard and I asked him what he thought about that. Well, he just kept looking at the road. And then he turned to me and he said, 'Jim, I don't want to hear you mention anything like that, ever again, if you want to keep your job.'" Freedman made sure never to bring the subject of UFOs up again when he was at work.

In the mid-1960s, sightings of unidentified flying objects around Area 51 reached unprecedented heights as the A-12 Oxcart flying from Groom Lake was repeatedly mistaken for a UFO. Not since the U-2 had been flying from there were so many UFO reports being dumped on CIA a.n.a.lysts' desks. The first instance happened only four days after Oxcart's first official flight, on April 30, 1962. It was a little before 10:00 a.m., and a NASA X-15 rocket plane was making a test flight in the air corridor that ran from Dryden Flight Research Center, in California, to Ely, Nevada, during the same period of time when an A-12 was making a test flight in the vicinity at a different alt.i.tude. From inside the X-15 rocket plane, test pilot Joe Walker snapped photographs, a task that was part of his mission flight. The X-15 was not a cla.s.sified program and NASA often released publicity photographs taken during flights, as they did with Walker's photographs that day. But NASA had not scrutinized the photos closely before their public release, and officials missed the fact that a tiny "UFO" appeared in the corner of one of Walker's pictures. In reality, it was the Oxcart, but the press identified it as a UFO. A popular theory among ufologists about why aliens would want to visit Earth in the first place has to do with Earthlings' sudden advance of technologies beginning with the atomic bomb. For this group, it follows that the X-15-the first manned vehicle to get to the edge of s.p.a.ce (the highest X-15 flight was 354,200 feet-almost 67 miles above 354,200 feet-almost 67 miles above sea level) would be particularly interesting to beings from outer s.p.a.ce. sea level) would be particularly interesting to beings from outer s.p.a.ce.

Two weeks after the incident, the CIA's new director, John McCone, received a secret, priority Teletype on the matter stating that "on 30 April, A-12 was in air at alt.i.tude of 30,000 feet from 0948-106 local with concurrent X-15 Test" and that "publicity releases mention unidentified objects on film taken on X-15 flight." This message, which was not decla.s.sified until 2007, ill.u.s.trates the kind of UFO-related reports that inundated the CIA at this time. In total, 2,850 Oxcart flights would be flown out of Area 51 over a period of six years. Exactly how many of these flights generated UFO reports is not known, but the ones that prompted UFO sightings created the same kinds of problems for the CIA as they had in the previous decade with the U-2, only with elements that were seemingly more inexplicable. With Oxcart, commercial airline pilots flying over Nevada or California would look up and see the shiny, reflective bottom of the Oxcart whizzing by high overhead at triple-sonic speeds and think, UFO. How could they not? When the Oxcart flew at 2,300 miles per hour, it was going approximately five times faster than a commercial airplane-aircraft speeds that were unheard-of in those days. Most Oxcart sightings came right after sunset, when the lower atmosphere was shadowed in dusk. Seventeen miles higher up, the sun was still shining brightly on the Oxcart. The spy plane's broad t.i.tanium wings coupled with its triangle-shaped rear fuselage-reflecting the sun's rays higher in the sky than aircraft were known to fly-could understandably cause alarm. at alt.i.tude of 30,000 feet from 0948-106 local with concurrent X-15 Test" and that "publicity releases mention unidentified objects on film taken on X-15 flight." This message, which was not decla.s.sified until 2007, ill.u.s.trates the kind of UFO-related reports that inundated the CIA at this time. In total, 2,850 Oxcart flights would be flown out of Area 51 over a period of six years. Exactly how many of these flights generated UFO reports is not known, but the ones that prompted UFO sightings created the same kinds of problems for the CIA as they had in the previous decade with the U-2, only with elements that were seemingly more inexplicable. With Oxcart, commercial airline pilots flying over Nevada or California would look up and see the shiny, reflective bottom of the Oxcart whizzing by high overhead at triple-sonic speeds and think, UFO. How could they not? When the Oxcart flew at 2,300 miles per hour, it was going approximately five times faster than a commercial airplane-aircraft speeds that were unheard-of in those days. Most Oxcart sightings came right after sunset, when the lower atmosphere was shadowed in dusk. Seventeen miles higher up, the sun was still shining brightly on the Oxcart. The spy plane's broad t.i.tanium wings coupled with its triangle-shaped rear fuselage-reflecting the sun's rays higher in the sky than aircraft were known to fly-could understandably cause alarm.

The way the CIA dealt with this new crop of sightings was similar to how it handled the U-2s'. Colonel Hugh "Slip" Slater, Area 51's base commander during this time, explains "commercial pilots would report sightings to the FAA. The flights would be met in California, or wherever they landed, by FBI agents who would make pa.s.sengers sign inadvertent disclosure forms." End of story, or so the CIA hoped. Instead, interest in UFOs only continued to grow. The public again put pressure on Congress to find out if the federal government was involved in covering up UFOs. When individual congressmen asked the CIA if it was involved in UFOs, the Agency would always say no. to the FAA. The flights would be met in California, or wherever they landed, by FBI agents who would make pa.s.sengers sign inadvertent disclosure forms." End of story, or so the CIA hoped. Instead, interest in UFOs only continued to grow. The public again put pressure on Congress to find out if the federal government was involved in covering up UFOs. When individual congressmen asked the CIA if it was involved in UFOs, the Agency would always say no.

On May 10, 1966, the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, hosted a CBS news special report Walter Cronkite, hosted a CBS news special report called called UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy? UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy? To an audience of millions of Americans, Cronkite announced that the CIA was part of a government cover-up regarding UFOs. The CIA had been actively a.n.a.lyzing UFO data despite repeatedly denying to Congress that it was doing so, Cronkite said. He was absolutely correct. The Agency had been tracking UFO sightings around the world since the 1950s and actively lying about its interest in them. The CIA could not reveal the cla.s.sified details of the U-2 program-the existence of which had been outed by the Gary Powers shoot-down but the greater extent of which would remain cla.s.sified until 1998-nor could it reveal anything related to the Oxcart program and those sightings. That remained top secret until 2007. In Cronkite's expose, the CIA looked like liars. To an audience of millions of Americans, Cronkite announced that the CIA was part of a government cover-up regarding UFOs. The CIA had been actively a.n.a.lyzing UFO data despite repeatedly denying to Congress that it was doing so, Cronkite said. He was absolutely correct. The Agency had been tracking UFO sightings around the world since the 1950s and actively lying about its interest in them. The CIA could not reveal the cla.s.sified details of the U-2 program-the existence of which had been outed by the Gary Powers shoot-down but the greater extent of which would remain cla.s.sified until 1998-nor could it reveal anything related to the Oxcart program and those sightings. That remained top secret until 2007. In Cronkite's expose, the CIA looked like liars.

It got worse for the Agency. The Cronkite program also reopened a twelve-year-old can of UFO worms known as the Robertson Panel report of 1953. Dr. Robertson appeared on a Dr. Robertson appeared on a CBS Reports CBS Reports program and disclosed that the UFO inquiry bearing his name had in fact been sponsored by the CIA beginning in 1952, despite repeated denials by officials. The program and disclosed that the UFO inquiry bearing his name had in fact been sponsored by the CIA beginning in 1952, despite repeated denials by officials. The House Armed Services Committee held hearings on UFOs House Armed Services Committee held hearings on UFOs in July of 1966, which resulted in the in July of 1966, which resulted in the Air Force laying blame for the cover-up on the CIA Air Force laying blame for the cover-up on the CIA. "The Air Force... approached the Agency for decla.s.sification," testified secretary of the Air Force Harold Brown. Brown stated that while there was no evidence that "strangers from outer s.p.a.ce" had been visiting Earth, it was time for the CIA to come clean on its secret studies regarding UFOs.

According to CIA historian Gerald Haines, "The Agency again refused to budge. Karl H. Weber, Deputy Director of OSI [Office of Scientific Intelligence], wrote the Air Force that 'we are most anxious that further publicity not be given to the information that the panel was sponsored by the CIA.'" Weber's words, said Haines, were "shortsighted and ill considered" because the Air Force in turn gave that information to a journalist named John Lear journalist named John Lear, the science editor of the Sat.u.r.day Review. Sat.u.r.day Review. Lear's September 1966 article "The Disputed CIA Doc.u.ment on UFO's" put yet another spotlight on the CIA's ongoing cover-up of UFOs. Lear, unsympathetic to the idea of extraterrestrials, demanded the release of the report. The CIA held firm that its information was cla.s.sified, and the full, unsanitized facts regarding the Agency's role in unidentified flying objects remains cla.s.sified as of 2011. Lear's September 1966 article "The Disputed CIA Doc.u.ment on UFO's" put yet another spotlight on the CIA's ongoing cover-up of UFOs. Lear, unsympathetic to the idea of extraterrestrials, demanded the release of the report. The CIA held firm that its information was cla.s.sified, and the full, unsanitized facts regarding the Agency's role in unidentified flying objects remains cla.s.sified as of 2011.

The public was outraged by the layers of obfuscation. The year 1966 was the height of the Vietnam War, and the federal government's ability to tell the truth was under fire. Pressure on Congress to make more information known did not let up. And so once again, as it had been in the late 1940s, the Air Force was officially "put in charge" of investigating individual UFO claims. The point of having the Air Force in charge, said Congress, was to oversee the untrustworthy CIA. One of the great ironies at work in this was that only a handful of Air Force generals were cleared for knowledge about Oxcart flights blazing in and out of Area 51, which meant that to most Air Force investigators, Oxcart sightings were in fact unidentified flying objects. Further feeding public discord, several key Air Force officials who had previously been involved in investigating UFOs now believed the Air Force was also engaged in covering up UFOs. Several of these men left government service to write books about UFOs and help the public persuade Congress to do more.

For more than two hundred years, since the invention of the hot-air balloon, people all over the world have been terrified of unidentified flying objects because their very existence makes man feel vulnerable from an attack from above. The War of the Worlds War of the Worlds radio-broadcast phenomenon was far from the first such incident. The first pictorially recorded panic over a UFO event occurred in August of 1783, shortly after two French brothers named Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier secured patronage from the king of France to design and fly a hot-air balloon-the eighteenth-century version of a modern-day defense contract. During one of the Montgolfiers' early flight tests, a balloon got caught in a thunderstorm and crashed in a small French village called Gonesse. The peasants that inhabited the town thought the balloon was a monster attacking them from the sky. A pen-and-ink drawing from that time shows men with pitchforks and scythes ripping the crashed balloon to shreds. Townsfolk in the background can be seen running away, flailing their arms above their heads in fear. From this story, it is easy to see that with any new form of flight comes the archetypal fear of an attack from above. In the more than two hundred years since, these fears have taken dramatic twists and turns. radio-broadcast phenomenon was far from the first such incident. The first pictorially recorded panic over a UFO event occurred in August of 1783, shortly after two French brothers named Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier secured patronage from the king of France to design and fly a hot-air balloon-the eighteenth-century version of a modern-day defense contract. During one of the Montgolfiers' early flight tests, a balloon got caught in a thunderstorm and crashed in a small French village called Gonesse. The peasants that inhabited the town thought the balloon was a monster attacking them from the sky. A pen-and-ink drawing from that time shows men with pitchforks and scythes ripping the crashed balloon to shreds. Townsfolk in the background can be seen running away, flailing their arms above their heads in fear. From this story, it is easy to see that with any new form of flight comes the archetypal fear of an attack from above. In the more than two hundred years since, these fears have taken dramatic twists and turns.

Twenty years into the American jet age, in the mid-1960s, fears of unidentified flying objects continued to shape cultural thinking and sp.a.w.n industries. By then, millions of Americans correctly believed that various factions inside the U.S. government were actively engaged in a cover-up regarding UFOs. Many citizens believed the government was trying to cover up the existence of extraterrestrial beings; people did not consider the fact that by overfocusing on Martians, they would pay less attention to other UFO realities, namely, that these were sightings of radical aircraft made by men. By the late 1960s, the two government agencies at the forefront of citizens' wrath-the CIA and the Air Force-had been using cover and deception as tools to keep cla.s.sified programs out of the public eye. Cover conceals the truth, and deception conveys false information. From cover stories about airplane crashes to deception campaigns about covert UFO study programs, both organizations had created complex webs of lies. How exactly a deception campaign works on ordinary people is best exemplified by this factual, dawn-of-the-jet-age U.S. Army Air Corps tale.

In 1942, when the jet engine was first being developed, the Army Air Corps desired to keep the radical new form of flight a secret until the military was ready to unveil the technology on its own terms. Before the jet engine, airplanes flew by propellers, and before 1942, for most people it was a totally foreign concept for an airplane to fly without the blades of a propeller spinning around. With the jet engine, in order to maintain silence on this technological breakthrough, the Army Air Corps entered into a rather benign strategic deception campaign involving a group of its pilots. Every time a test pilot took a Bell XP-59A jet aircraft out on a flight test over the Muroc dry lake bed in California's Mojave Desert, the crew attached a dummy propeller to the airplane's nose first. The Bell pilots had a swath of airs.p.a.ce in which to perform flight tests but every now and then a pilot training on a P-38 Lightning would cruise into the adjacent vicinity to try to get a look at the airplane. The airplane was seen trailing smoke, and eventually, rumors started to circulate at local pilot bars. Pilots wanted to know what was being hidden from them.

According to Edwards Air Force Base historian Dr. James Young, the chief XP-59A Bell test pilot, a man by the name of Jack Woolams, got an idea. He ordered a gorilla mask from a Hollywood prop house. On his next flight, Woolams removed the mock-up propeller from the nose of his jet airplane and put on the gorilla mask. When a P-38 Lightning came flying nearby for a look, Woolams maneuvered his airplane close enough so that the P-38 pilot could look inside the c.o.c.kpit of the jet plane. The Lightning pilot was astonished. Instead of seeing Woolams, the pilot saw a gorilla flying an airplane-an airplane that had no propeller. The stunned pilot landed and went straight to the local bar, where he sat down and ordered a stiff drink. There, he began telling other pilots what he had definitely seen with his own eyes. His colleagues told him he was drunk, that what he was saying was an embarra.s.sment, and that he should go home. Meanwhile, the concept of the gorilla mask caught on among other Bell XP-59A test pilots and soon Woolams's colleagues joined the act. Over the course of the next few months, other P-38 Lightning pilots spotted the gorilla flying the propellerless airplane. Some versions of the historical record have the psychiatrist for the U.S. Army Air Corps getting involved, helping the Lightning pilots to understand how a clear-thinking fighter pilot could become disoriented at alt.i.tude and believe he had seen something that clearly was not really there. Everyone knows that a gorilla can't fly an airplane. Whether or not the psychiatrist really did get involved-and if he did, whether he was aware of the gorilla masks-remains ambiguous to Dr. Craig Luther, a contemporary historian at Edwards Air Force Base. But for the purposes of a strategic deception campaign, the point is clear: no one wants to be mistaken for a fool.

Ockham's razor is an idea attributed to a fourteenth-century English friar named William of Ockham. It asks when trying to explain a phenomenon, does the alternative story explain more evidence than the princ.i.p.al story, or is it just a more complicated and therefore a less useful explanation of the same evidence? In other words, according to Ockham, when man is presented with a riddle, the answer to the riddle should be simpler, not more complicated, than the riddle itself. Ockham's razor is often applied to the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. In the case of the flying-gorilla story, the true explanation-that the gorilla was actually a pilot with a gorilla mask on-offered the simplest answer to what appeared to be an inexplicable phenomenon. The same can be said about the truth regarding the Roswell crash. But it would take decades for more to be revealed.

One of the more enigmatic figures involved in the Roswell mystery was Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the first man to run the CIA. Hillenkoetter was the director of Central Intelligence from May 1, 1947, until October 7, 1950. After his retirement from the CIA, Hillenkoetter returned to a career in the navy. Curiously, after he retired from the Navy, in the late 1950s, he involved in the Roswell mystery was Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the first man to run the CIA. Hillenkoetter was the director of Central Intelligence from May 1, 1947, until October 7, 1950. After his retirement from the CIA, Hillenkoetter returned to a career in the navy. Curiously, after he retired from the Navy, in the late 1950s, he served on the board of governors served on the board of governors of a group of UFO researchers called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. Hillenkoetter's placement on the board was a paradox. He was there, in part, to learn what the UFO researchers knew about unidentified flying crafts. But he also empathized with their work. While Hillenkoetter did not believe UFOs were from outer s.p.a.ce, he knew unidentified flying objects were a serious national security concern. In his position as CIA director Hillenkoetter knew that the flying disc at Roswell had been sent by Joseph Stalin. And he knew of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's fear that what had been achieved once could happen again. Which makes it peculiar that, in February of 1960, in a rare reveal by a former cabinet-level official, of a group of UFO researchers called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. Hillenkoetter's placement on the board was a paradox. He was there, in part, to learn what the UFO researchers knew about unidentified flying crafts. But he also empathized with their work. While Hillenkoetter did not believe UFOs were from outer s.p.a.ce, he knew unidentified flying objects were a serious national security concern. In his position as CIA director Hillenkoetter knew that the flying disc at Roswell had been sent by Joseph Stalin. And he knew of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's fear that what had been achieved once could happen again. Which makes it peculiar that, in February of 1960, in a rare reveal by a former cabinet-level official, Hillenkoetter testified to Congress Hillenkoetter testified to Congress that he was dismayed at how the Air Force was handling UFOs. To the Senate Science and Astronautics Committee he stated that "behind the scenes, high-ranking Air Force officers are soberly concerned about UFOs. But through official secrecy and ridicule, many citizens are led to believe the unknown flying objects are nonsense." He also claimed that "to hide the facts, the Air Force has silenced its personnel." that he was dismayed at how the Air Force was handling UFOs. To the Senate Science and Astronautics Committee he stated that "behind the scenes, high-ranking Air Force officers are soberly concerned about UFOs. But through official secrecy and ridicule, many citizens are led to believe the unknown flying objects are nonsense." He also claimed that "to hide the facts, the Air Force has silenced its personnel."

Hillenkoetter remained a ranking member of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena until 1962, when he mysteriously resigned he mysteriously resigned. Equally puzzling was that the man who later replaced Hillenkoetter and became the head of the board of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena in 1969 was Joseph Bryan III-the CIA's first chief of political and psychological warfare. Not much is known about Bryan's true role with the ufologists Bryan's true role with the ufologists because his work at the CIA remains cla.s.sified as of 2011. If his name sounds familiar, it is because Joe Bryan was the man scheduled for a hunting trip with Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell's friend and predecessor at the CIA. But before Bryan arrived that day, on October 29, 1965, Wisner shot himself in the head. because his work at the CIA remains cla.s.sified as of 2011. If his name sounds familiar, it is because Joe Bryan was the man scheduled for a hunting trip with Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell's friend and predecessor at the CIA. But before Bryan arrived that day, on October 29, 1965, Wisner shot himself in the head.

At the CIA, during the mid-1960s, the thinking regarding UFOs began to move in a different direction. Since the birth of the modern UFO phenomenon, in June of 1947, the CIA had maintained three lines of thought on UFOs the CIA had maintained three lines of thought on UFOs. They were (a) experimental aircraft, (b) the delusions of a paranoid person's mind, or (c) part of a psychological warfare campaign by the Soviet Union to create panic among the people and sow seeds of governmental mistrust. But by 1966, a faction within the CIA added a fourth line of thought to its concerns: maybe UFOs were real. This new postulation came from the Agency's monitoring This new postulation came from the Agency's monitoring of circ.u.mstances in the Soviet Union, which was also in the midst of a UFO sea change. of circ.u.mstances in the Soviet Union, which was also in the midst of a UFO sea change.

In the 1940s and until Stalin's death in 1953, CIA a.n.a.lysts of Soviet publications had found only one known mention of UFOs, in an editorial published in a Moscow newspaper in 1951. Khrushchev appeared to have continued the policy. The a.n.a.lysts at CIA a.s.signed to monitor the Soviet press during his tenure found no stories about UFOs. But curiously, in 1964, after Khrushchev's colleagues removed him from power and installed Leonid Brezhnev in his place, articles on UFOs began to emerge. In 1966, a series of articles about UFOs were published by Novosti, Moscow's official news agency. Two leading scientists from the Moscow Aviation Inst.i.tute not only were writing about UFOs but were split on their opinions about them, which was highly unusual for Soviet state-funded scientists. One of the scientists, Villen Lyustiberg Villen Lyustiberg, promoted the idea that UFOs were the creation of the American government and that "the U.S. publicizes them to divert people from its failures and aggressions." "the U.S. publicizes them to divert people from its failures and aggressions." A second leading scientist, Dr. Felix A second leading scientist, Dr. Felix Zigel, had come to believe Zigel, had come to believe that UFOs were in fact real. that UFOs were in fact real.

Decla.s.sified CIA memos written during this time reveal a concern that if the leading scientists and astronomers in the Soviet Union believed UFOs were real, maybe UFOs truly were real after all. In 1968, the CIA learned that a Soviet air force general named Porfiri Stolyarov had been named the chairman of a new "UFO Section of the All-Union Cosmonautics Committee" "UFO Section of the All-Union Cosmonautics Committee" in Moscow. After learning that Russia had an official UFO committee, the CIA went scrambling for its own science on UFOs. For the first time in its history, America's spy agency internally allowed for the fact that UFOs might in fact be coming from outer s.p.a.ce. " in Moscow. After learning that Russia had an official UFO committee, the CIA went scrambling for its own science on UFOs. For the first time in its history, America's spy agency internally allowed for the fact that UFOs might in fact be coming from outer s.p.a.ce. "The hypothesis that UFOs originate in other worlds, that they are flying craft from other planets other than Earth, merits the most serious examination," read one secret memo that was circulated among CIA a.n.a.lysts.

Had the original UFO cover-up-the crash of the Horten brothers' flying disc at Roswell-created this Hydra-like monster? Had maintaining secrecy around the follow-up program, which had been clandestinely set up in the Nevada desert just outside Area 51, resulted in such endemic paranoia among a.n.a.lysts at the CIA that these individuals sensed they were being lied to? That the dark secret the government was hiding was that UFOs really were were from outer s.p.a.ce? Or was an elite group with a need-to-know allowing-perhaps even fostering-exactly this kind of conjecture among a.n.a.lysts because it was better to have insiders on a wild-goose chase than to have them on the trail leading to the original enigma of Area 51? from outer s.p.a.ce? Or was an elite group with a need-to-know allowing-perhaps even fostering-exactly this kind of conjecture among a.n.a.lysts because it was better to have insiders on a wild-goose chase than to have them on the trail leading to the original enigma of Area 51?

CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous Requires Drones Starting in 1963, preparing for Oxcart missions involved punishing survival-training operations for the pilots, many of which occurred in the barren outer reaches of Area 51. For Ken Collins, a mock nighttime escape from an aircraft downed over the desert was meant to simulate h.e.l.l. Collins knew the kind Collins knew the kind of challenge he would be up against as he stood on the tarmac at Groom Lake watching the sun disappear behind the mountains to the west. Soon, it would be dark and very cold. Collins climbed into a C-47 aircraft and noticed that the windows were blacked out. Neither he nor any of the other Oxcart pilots he was with had any idea where they were headed. "We got inside and flew for a little while," Collins recalls, "until we landed in another desert airfield, somewhere remote." The men were unloaded from the aircraft and put into a van, also with the windows blacked out. They were driven for miles, Collins thought going in circles, until the doors of the van opened into what appeared to be thick, rough, high-desert terrain. "We were told that we were in Chinese enemy territory. To escape and survive the best that you can. There were electronic alarms, trip wires, and explosive charges on the ground." of challenge he would be up against as he stood on the tarmac at Groom Lake watching the sun disappear behind the mountains to the west. Soon, it would be dark and very cold. Collins climbed into a C-47 aircraft and noticed that the windows were blacked out. Neither he nor any of the other Oxcart pilots he was with had any idea where they were headed. "We got inside and flew for a little while," Collins recalls, "until we landed in another desert airfield, somewhere remote." The men were unloaded from the aircraft and put into a van, also with the windows blacked out. They were driven for miles, Collins thought going in circles, until the doors of the van opened into what appeared to be thick, rough, high-desert terrain. "We were told that we were in Chinese enemy territory. To escape and survive the best that you can. There were electronic alarms, trip wires, and explosive charges on the ground."

Collins ran and took cover under a bush. In the darkness, he lay on his belly and gathered his thoughts. He had been through a series of survival trials during Oxcart training already. Once, he and another pilot were taken to the Superst.i.tion Mountains in Arizona for a mountain-survival trial. "On that exercise we had minimal food, sleeping bags, and a very small tent. We walked and camped in the mountains for five days. The first three days were comfortable; the third night a weather front moved in with cold rain," making things a little more challenging. A second exercise took place in Kings Canyon, in the Sierra Mountains. During that trip, Collins and another pilot had to live in snow for three days. They dug a snow cave and made beds of pine boughs. A third trip, to Florida, simulated jungle survival simulated jungle survival. "I was taken out to a swamp, given a knife, and told to survive on my own for four days." What Collins remembers vividly was the food. "I caught some turtles to eat, but found them difficult to open, so my staple became the heart of palm. I'd cut the new palm buds out from the center. It was thin fare, but sustainable," Collins says. But the high-desert survival training at Area 51 felt different. Unlike the other sessions, this one would involve psychological warfare by the mock enemy Chinese.

Collins crawled along the desert floor through the darkness, feeling for the trip wires and considering his next move. He pulled his small compa.s.s from his survival pack so he could chart a path. "I crawled slowly through the brambles, bugs, and mud for about thirty minutes when, suddenly, I hit a trip wire and alarms went off. A glaring spotlight came on and ten Chinese men in uniform grabbed me and dragged me to one of their jeeps." Collins was handcuffed, driven for a while, put into a second vehicle, and taken to so-called Chinese interrogation headquarters. There, he was stripped naked and searched. "A doctor proceeded to examine every orifice the human body has, from top to bottom-literally," which, Collins believes, "was more to humiliate and break down my moral defenses than anything else." Naked, he was led down a dimly lit hallway and pushed into a concrete cell furnished with a short, thin bed made of wood planks. "I had no blanket, I was naked, and it was very cold. They gave me a bucket to be used only when I was told."

For days, Collins went through simulated torture that included sleep deprivation, humiliation, extreme temperature fluctuation, and hunger, all the while naked, cold, and under surveillance by his captors. "The cell had one thick wooded door with a hole for viewing. This opening had a metal window that would clank open and shut. A single bright light was on and when I was about to doze off, the light would flash off, which would immediately snap me out of sleep." For food, he was given watery soup, two thin pepper pods, and two bits of mysterious meat. "I had no water to drink and I was always watched. I didn't know day from night so there was no sense of time. The temperature varied from hot to very cold. The voice through the viewing window shouted demands."

Soon Collins began to hallucinate. Now it was interrogation time. Naked, he was led to a small room by two armed guards. He stood in front of his Chinese interrogators, who sat behind a small desk. They grilled him about his name, rank, and why he was spying on China. The torturous routine continued for what Collins guessed was several more days. Then one day, instead of being taken to his interrogators, he was told that he was free to go.

But halfway across the world, on November 1, 1963, Ken Collins's experience was being mirrored for real. A CIA pilot named Yeh Changti CIA pilot named Yeh Changti had been flying a U-2 spy mission over a nuclear facility in China when he was shot down, captured by the Chinese Communist government, and tortured. Yeh Changti was a member of the Thirty-Fifth Black Cat U-2 Squadron, a group of Taiwanese Chinese Nationalist pilots (as opposed to the Communist Chinese, who inhabited the mainland) who worked covert espionage missions for the CIA. In the 1960s, had been flying a U-2 spy mission over a nuclear facility in China when he was shot down, captured by the Chinese Communist government, and tortured. Yeh Changti was a member of the Thirty-Fifth Black Cat U-2 Squadron, a group of Taiwanese Chinese Nationalist pilots (as opposed to the Communist Chinese, who inhabited the mainland) who worked covert espionage missions for the CIA. In the 1960s, the Black Cats flew the Black Cats flew what would prove to be the deadliest missions in the U-2's fifty-five-year history, all of which were flown out of a secret base called Taoyuan on the island of Taiwan. When the CIA decla.s.sified most of the U-2 program, in 1998, " what would prove to be the deadliest missions in the U-2's fifty-five-year history, all of which were flown out of a secret base called Taoyuan on the island of Taiwan. When the CIA decla.s.sified most of the U-2 program, in 1998, "no information was released about Yeh Changti or the Black Cats," says former Black Cat pilot Hsichun Hua. The program, in entirety, remains cla.s.sified as of 2011. or the Black Cats," says former Black Cat pilot Hsichun Hua. The program, in entirety, remains cla.s.sified as of 2011.

Colonel Hugh "Slip" Slater, the man who would later become the commander of Area 51, remembers Yeh Changti before he got shot down. "His code name was Terry Lee and he and I played tennis on the base at Taoyuan all the time. He was a great guy and an amazing acrobat, which helped him on the court. Sometimes we drank scotch while we played. Both the sport and the scotch helped morale." Slater says that the reason morale was low was that "the U-2 had become so vulnerable to the SA-2 missiles that n.o.body wanted to fly." One Black Cat pilot had already been shot down. But that didn't stop the dangerous missions from going forward for the CIA. and he and I played tennis on the base at Taoyuan all the time. He was a great guy and an amazing acrobat, which helped him on the court. Sometimes we drank scotch while we played. Both the sport and the scotch helped morale." Slater says that the reason morale was low was that "the U-2 had become so vulnerable to the SA-2 missiles that n.o.body wanted to fly." One Black Cat pilot had already been shot down. But that didn't stop the dangerous missions from going forward for the CIA.

Unlike what had happened with the Gary Powers shoot-down, the American press remained in the dark about these missions. For the CIA, getting hard intelligence on China's nuclear facilities getting hard intelligence on China's nuclear facilities was a top national security priority. On the day Yeh Changti was shot down, he was returning home from a nine-hour mission over the mainland when a surface-to-air missile guidance system locked on to his U-2. Colonel Slater was on the radio with Yeh Changti when it happened. "I was talking to him when I heard him say, 'System 12 on!' We never heard another word." The missile hit Yeh Changti's aircraft and tore off the right wing. Yeh Changti ejected from the airplane, his body riddled in fifty-nine places with missile fragments. He landed safely with his parachute and pa.s.sed out. When he woke up, he was in a military facility run by Mao Tse-tung. was a top national security priority. On the day Yeh Changti was shot down, he was returning home from a nine-hour mission over the mainland when a surface-to-air missile guidance system locked on to his U-2. Colonel Slater was on the radio with Yeh Changti when it happened. "I was talking to him when I heard him say, 'System 12 on!' We never heard another word." The missile hit Yeh Changti's aircraft and tore off the right wing. Yeh Changti ejected from the airplane, his body riddled in fifty-nine places with missile fragments. He landed safely with his parachute and pa.s.sed out. When he woke up, he was in a military facility run by Mao Tse-tung.

This was no training exercise. Yeh Changti was tortured and held prisoner Yeh Changti was tortured and held prisoner for nineteen years until he was quietly released by his captors, in 1982. He has been living outside Houston, Texas, ever since. The CIA did not know that Yeh Changti had survived his bailout and apparently did not make any kind of effort to locate him. A for nineteen years until he was quietly released by his captors, in 1982. He has been living outside Houston, Texas, ever since. The CIA did not know that Yeh Changti had survived his bailout and apparently did not make any kind of effort to locate him. A second Black Cat pilot named Major Jack Chang second Black Cat pilot named Major Jack Chang would also get shot down in a U-2, in 1965, and was imprisoned alongside Yeh Changti. After their release, the two pilots shared their arduous stories with fellow Black Cat pilot, Hsichun Hua, who had become a general in the Taiwanese air force while the men were in captivity. Neither Yeh Changti nor Major Jack Chang was ever given a medal by the CIA. The shoot-down of the Black Cat U-2 pilots, however, had a major impact on what the CIA and the Air Force would do next at Area 51. Suddenly, the development of drones had become a national security priority, drones being pilotless aircraft that could be flown by remote control. would also get shot down in a U-2, in 1965, and was imprisoned alongside Yeh Changti. After their release, the two pilots shared their arduous stories with fellow Black Cat pilot, Hsichun Hua, who had become a general in the Taiwanese air force while the men were in captivity. Neither Yeh Changti nor Major Jack Chang was ever given a medal by the CIA. The shoot-down of the Black Cat U-2 pilots, however, had a major impact on what the CIA and the Air Force would do next at Area 51. Suddenly, the development of drones had become a national security priority, drones being pilotless aircraft that could be flown by remote control.

Drones could accomplish what the U-2 could in terms of bringing home photographic intelligence, but a drone could do it without getting pilots captured or killed. Ideally, drones could perform missions that fell into three distinct categories: dull, dirty, and dangerous dull, dirty, and dangerous. Dull Dull meant long flights during which pilots faced fatigue flying to remote areas of the globe. meant long flights during which pilots faced fatigue flying to remote areas of the globe. Dirty Dirty included situations where nuclear weapons or biological weapons might be involved. included situations where nuclear weapons or biological weapons might be involved. Dangerous Dangerous meant missions over denied territories such as the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China, where shoot-downs were a political risk. Lockheed secured a contract to develop such an unmanned vehicle in late 1962. After Yeh Changti's shoot-down, the program got a big boost. Flight-testing of the drone code-named Tagboard would take place at Area 51 and, ironically, getting the Lockheed drone to fly properly was among the first duties a.s.signed to Colonel Slater after he left Taoyuan and was given a new a.s.signment at Area 51. meant missions over denied territories such as the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China, where shoot-downs were a political risk. Lockheed secured a contract to develop such an unmanned vehicle in late 1962. After Yeh Changti's shoot-down, the program got a big boost. Flight-testing of the drone code-named Tagboard would take place at Area 51 and, ironically, getting the Lockheed drone to fly properly was among the first duties a.s.signed to Colonel Slater after he left Taoyuan and was given a new a.s.signment at Area 51.

"Lockheed's D-21 wasn't just any old drone, it was the world's first Mach 3 stealth drone," says Lockheed physicist Ed Lovick, who worked on the program. "The idea of this drone was a radical one because it would fly at least as fast, if not faster, than the A-12. It had a ram jet engine, which meant it was powered by forced air. The drone could only be launched off an aircraft that was already moving faster than the speed of sound." The A-12 mother ship was designated M-21, M M as in as in mother, mother, and was modified to include a second seat for the drone launch operator, a flight engineer. The D-21 was the name for the drone, the and was modified to include a second seat for the drone launch operator, a flight engineer. The D-21 was the name for the drone, the D D standing for standing for daughter. daughter. But launching one aircraft from the back of another aircraft at speeds of more than 2,300 mph had its own set of challenges, beginning with how not to have the two aircraft crash into each other during launch. The recovery process of the drone also needed to be fine-tuned. Lovick explains, "The drone, designed to overfly China, would travel on its own flight path taking reconnaissance photographs But launching one aircraft from the back of another aircraft at speeds of more than 2,300 mph had its own set of challenges, beginning with how not to have the two aircraft crash into each other during launch. The recovery process of the drone also needed to be fine-tuned. Lovick explains, "The drone, designed to overfly China, would travel on its own flight path taking reconnaissance photographs and then head back out to sea and then head back out to sea." The idea was to have the drone drop its photo package, which included the camera, the film, and the radio sensors, by parachute so it could be retrieved by a second aircraft nearby. Once the pallet was secure, the drone would crash into the sea and sink to the ocean floor.

Practicing this process at Area 51 translated into a lot of lost drones. Colonel Slater directed the test missions, which took place in what was called the special operating area, or Yuletide Yuletide, just north of Groom Lake airs.p.a.ce. Colonel Slater and Frank Murray would follow the M-21/D-21 in chase planes and oversee the subsonic launches of the drone. "They'd launch, and then disappear," Colonel Slater recalls. Helicopter pilot Charlie Trapp was sent to find them, along with a crew of search-and-rescue parajumpers, called PJs. "First, we'd locate the lost drones. Then I'd lower my parajumpers down on ropes. They'd hook the lost pods to a cargo hook and we'd pull the drones off the mountain that way," Trapp explains. "Sometimes it got tricky, especially if the drone crash-landed on the top of a mountain ridge. We had some tense times with PJs nearly falling off cliffs with PJs nearly falling off cliffs." When Colonel Slater felt the Oxcart and its drone were ready for a Mach 3 test, it was time to add ocean-survival training to the mix. For public safety reasons, the plan was to launch the triplesonic drone off the coast of California in March of 1966 for the first test, and to prepare his pilots, Colonel Slater had them swim laps each day in the Area 51 pool, first in bathing suits and then with their pressure suits on. "We'd hoist the guys up over the water in a pulley and then drop them in the pool. As soon as they hit the water the first time, the pressure suit inflated, so we had to have that fixed," Slater recalls. When it came time to practice an actual landing in a large body of water, the Agency's highest-ranking officer on base, Werner Weiss, got the Coast Guard to seal off a large section of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir of water in the United States, located just east of Las Vegas.

Slater remembers the pilot training well. "We were out there in this little Boston Whaler and the plan was to get the project pilots hoisted up into a parasail and then let them drop down in the water in their full pressure suits. First [Agency pilot Mele] Vojvodich went. His test went fine. By the time we got [Agency pilot Jack] Layton up, the wind had picked up. When Layton went down in the water, the Whaler started dragging him, and the water in his parachute started pulling him underneath. I called it off. 'Stop!' I said. 'We're gonna lose somebody out here!'"

They were prescient words. On the night of July 30, 1966, the 1129th Special Activities Squadron at Groom Lake prepared to make the first official nighttime drone launch off the coast of California. From the tarmac at Area 51, Lockheed's chief flight test pilot, Bill Park, was about to close the canopy on the M-21 Oxcart when Colonel Slater approached him with some final words. "I said, 'Bill, it's a dangerous mission,'" Slater remembers. "There were only a few feet between the drone and the tail of the A-12. Park knew that. We all did. In back was the flight engineer, Ray Torick flight engineer, Ray Torick; he knew that too. The canopy closed and I got into another Mach 3 aircraft we had flying alongside during the test." Both aircraft flew west until they were a hundred and fifty miles off the coast of California. There, the M-21, piloted by Bill Park, prepared for the D-21 launch. A camera in Slater's airplane would capture the launch on 16-millimeter film. Down below, on the dark ocean surface, a rescue boat waited. Park hit Ignite, and the drone launched up and off the M-21. But during separation, the drone pitched down instead of up and instantly split the mother aircraft in half. Miraculously, the drone hit neither Park nor Torick, who were both trapped inside.

The crippled aircraft began to tumble through the sky, falling for nearly ten thousand feet. Somehow, both men managed to eject. Alive and now outside the crashing, burning airplane, both men were safely tethered to their parachutes. Remarkably, neither of the men was. .h.i.t by the burning debris falling through the air. Both men made successful water landings. But, as Slater recalls, an unforeseen tragedy occurred. "Our rescue boat located Bill Park, who was fine. But by the time the boat got to Ray Torick, he was tied up in his lanyard and had drowned."

Kelly Johnson was devastated. "He impulsively and emotionally decided to cancel the entire program and give back the development funding to the Air Force and the Agency," Johnson's deputy Ben Rich recalled in his 1994 memoir about the Lockheed Skunk Works. Rich asked Johnson why. "I will not risk any more test pilots or Blackbirds. I don't have either to spare," Johnson said. But the Air Force did not let the Mach 3 drone program go away so quickly. They created a new program to launch the drone from underneath a B-52 bomber, which was part of Strategic Air Command. President Johnson's deputy secretary of defense, Cyrus Vance, told Kelly Johnson, "We need this program to work because our government will to cancel the entire program and give back the development funding to the Air Force and the Agency," Johnson's deputy Ben Rich recalled in his 1994 memoir about the Lockheed Skunk Works. Rich asked Johnson why. "I will not risk any more test pilots or Blackbirds. I don't have either to spare," Johnson said. But the Air Force did not let the Mach 3 drone program go away so quickly. They created a new program to launch the drone from underneath a B-52 bomber, which was part of Strategic Air Command. President Johnson's deputy secretary of defense, Cyrus Vance, told Kelly Johnson, "We need this program to work because our government will never again allow a Francis Gary Powers situation never again allow a Francis Gary Powers situation develop. All our overflights over denied territory will either be with satellites or drones." develop. All our overflights over denied territory will either be with satellites or drones."

Three years later, in 1969, the D-21 drone finally made its first reconnaissance mission, over China, launched off a B-52. The drone flew into China and over the Lop Nur nuclear facility but had then somehow strayed off course into Soviet Siberia, run out of fuel, and crashed. The suggestion was that the drone's guidance system had failed on the way home, and it was never seen or heard from again. At least, not for more than twenty years. In the early 1990s, a CIA officer showed up in Ben Rich's office at Skunk Works with a mysterious present for him. "Ben, do you recognize this?" "Ben, do you recognize this?" the man asked Rich as he handed him a hunk of t.i.tanium. "Sure I do," Rich said. What Ben Rich was holding in his hand was a piece of composite material loaded with the radar-absorbing coating that Lovick and his team had first developed for Lockheed four decades before. Asked where he got it, the CIA officer explained that it had been a gift to the CIA from a KGB agent in Moscow. The agent had gotten it from a shepherd in Siberia, who'd found it in the Siberian tundra while herding his sheep. According to Rich, "The Russians mistakenly believed that this generation-old panel signified our current stealth technology. It was, in a way, a very nice tribute to our work on Tagboard." the man asked Rich as he handed him a hunk of t.i.tanium. "Sure I do," Rich said. What Ben Rich was holding in his hand was a piece of composite material loaded with the radar-absorbing coating that Lovick and his team had first developed for Lockheed four decades before. Asked where he got it, the CIA officer explained that it had been a gift to the CIA from a KGB agent in Moscow. The agent had gotten it from a shepherd in Siberia, who'd found it in the Siberian tundra while herding his sheep. According to Rich, "The Russians mistakenly believed that this generation-old panel signified our current stealth technology. It was, in a way, a very nice tribute to our work on Tagboard."

The use of drones in warfare has its origins in World War II. Joseph Kennedy Jr., President Kennedy's older brother, died in a secret U.S. Navy drone operation against the Germans. The covert mission, dubbed Operation Aphrodite dubbed Operation Aphrodite, targeted a highly fortified n.a.z.i missile site inside Germany. The plan was for the older Kennedy to pilot a modified B-24 bomber from England and over the English Channel while his crew armed 22,000 pounds of explosives piled high in the cargo hold. Once the explosives were wired, the crew and pilot needed to quickly bail out. Flying not far away, a mother ship would begin remotely controlling the unmanned aircraft as soon as the crew bailed out. Inside the bomber's nose cone were two cameras that would help guide the drone into its n.a.z.i target.

The explosive being used was called Torpex, a relatively new and extremely volatile chemical compound. Just moments before Joseph Kennedy Jr. and his crew bailed out, the Torpex caught fire, and the aircraft exploded midair, killing everyone on board. The Navy ended its drone program, but the idea of a pilotless aircraft caught the eye of general of the Army Henry "Hap" Arnold. On Victory over j.a.pan Day, General Arnold made a bold a.s.sertion. "The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all," he said. He was off by four wars, but otherwise he was right.

The idea behind using remotely piloted vehicles in warfare is a simple one-keep the human out of harm's way-but the drone's first application was for pleasure. Nikola Tesla mastered wireless communication in 1893, years before any of his fellow scientists were even considering such a thing. At the Electrical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden in 1898, Tesla gave a demonstration in which he directed a four-foot-long steel boat using radio remote control. Audiences were flabbergasted. Tesla's pilotless boat Tesla's pilotless boat seemed to many to be more a magic act than the scientific breakthrough it was. Ever a visionary, Tesla also foresaw a military application for his invention. "I called an official in Washington with a view of offering him the information to the government and he burst out laughing upon telling him what I had accomplished," Tesla wrote. This made unfortunate sense-the military was still using horses for transport at the time. Tesla's friend writer Mark Twain also envisioned a military future in remote control and offered to act as Tesla's agent in peddling the "destructive terror which you have been inventing." Twain suggested the Germans might be good clients, considering that, at the time, they were the most scientifically advanced country in the world. In the end, no government bought Tesla's invention or paid for his patents. The great inventor died penniless in a New York hotel room in 1943, and by then, the Germans had developed remote control on their own and were wreaking havoc on ground forces across Europe. The Germans' first war robot was a remote-controlled minitank called Goliath, and it was about the size of a bobsled. seemed to many to be more a magic act than the scientific breakthrough it was. Ever a visionary, Tesla also foresaw a military application for his invention. "I called an official in Washington with a view of offering him the information to the government and he burst out laughing upon telling him what I had accomplished," Tesla wrote. This made unfortunate sense-the military was still using horses for transport at the time. Tesla's friend writer Mark Twain also envisioned a military future in remote control and offered to act as Tesla's agent in peddling the "destructive terror which you have been inventing." Twain suggested the Germans might be good clients, considering that, at the time, they were the most scientifically advanced country in the world. In the end, no government bought Tesla's invention or paid for his patents. The great inventor died penniless in a New York hotel room in 1943, and by then, the Germans had developed remote control on their own and were wreaking havoc on ground forces across Europe. The Germans' first war robot was a remote-controlled minitank called Goliath, and it was about the size of a bobsled. Goliath carried 132 pounds of explosives Goliath carried 132 pounds of explosives, which the n.a.z.is drove into enemy bunkers and tanks using remote control. Eight thousand Goliaths were built and used in battle by the Germans, mostly on the Eastern Front, where Russian soldiers outnumbered German soldiers nearly three to one. With no soldiers to spare, the Germans needed to keep the ones they had out of harm's way.

In America, the Army Air Forces developed its first official drone wing after the war, for use during Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in 1946. There, drones were sent through the mushroom cloud, their operators flying them by remote control from an airborne mother ship called Marmalade mother ship called Marmalade flying nearby. To collect radioactive samples, the drones had been equipped with air-collection bags and boxlike filter-paper holders. Controlling the drones in such conditions was difficult. Inside the mushroom cloud, one drone, code-named flying nearby. To collect radioactive samples, the drones had been equipped with air-collection bags and boxlike filter-paper holders. Controlling the drones in such conditions was difficult. Inside the mushroom cloud, one drone, code-named Fox, was blasted "sixty feet higher Fox, was blasted "sixty feet higher than its flight path," according to decla.s.sified memos about the drone wing's performance there. Fox's "bomb doors warped, all the cushions inside the aircraft burst and its inspection plates and escape hatch blew off." Remarkably, the drone pilot maintained control from several miles away. Had he witnessed such a thing, Nikola Tesla might have smiled. than its flight path," according to decla.s.sified memos about the drone wing's performance there. Fox's "bomb doors warped, all the cushions inside the aircraft burst and its inspection plates and escape hatch blew off." Remarkably, the drone pilot maintained control from several miles away. Had he witnessed such a thing, Nikola Tesla might have smiled.

During the second set of atomic tests, called Operation Sandstone Operation Sandstone, in April of 1948, the drones were again used in a job deemed too dangerous for airmen. During an eighteen-kiloton atomic blast called Zebra, however, a manned aircraft accidentally flew through a mushroom cloud, and after this, the Air Force made the decision that because the pilot and crew inside the aircraft had "suffered no ill effects," pilots should be flying atomic-sampling missions, not drones. Whether or not pilots were exposed to lethal amounts of radiation during the Zebra bomb or hundreds of other atomic tests has never been accurately determined. The majority of the records regarding how much radiation pilots were exposed to in these early years and who died of radiation-related diseases have allegedly been destroyed or lost. But when the Air Force pilot accidentally flew through the Zebra bomb's mushroom cloud accidentally flew through the Zebra bomb's mushroom cloud, the incident "commenced a chain of events that resulted in manned samplers."

"Manned samplers were simply more efficient," wrote officer Colonel Paul H. Fackler in a 1963 cla.s.sified historical review of atomic cloud sampling made for the Air Force systems command, decla.s.sified in 1986. As the official radiation safety officer a.s.signed to Operation Sandstone, Fackler held sway. Fackler's colleague Colonel Cody also argued in favor of man over drone. Cody said the drone samples were obtained haphazardly by "potluck." A human pilot would be able to maneuver around a cloud during penetration so that the "most likely parts of the cloud could be sampled." It was a case of dangerous semantics; most likely most likely was a euphemism for "most radioactive." For future tests, Air Force officials decided to pursue both manned and unmanned atomic-sampling wings. was a euphemism for "most radioactive." For future tests, Air Force officials decided to pursue both manned and unmanned atomic-sampling wings.

Both kinds of aircraft would be needed for an ultrasecret test that was pending in the Pacific in 1951. Operation Greenhouse would involve a new kind of nuclear weapon that was being hailed as the "Super bomb." It was a thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb, the core of which would explode with the same energy found at the center of the sun. Los Alamos scientists explained to weapons planners that the destructive power of this new kind of science, called nuclear fusion, was entirely unknown. Fusion involves exploding a nuclear bomb inside a nuclear bomb, and privately the scientists expressed fear that the entire world's atmosphere could catch on fire fear that the entire world's atmosphere could catch on fire during this process. Scientists became deeply divided over the issue and whether or not to go forward. The push to create the Super was spearheaded by the indomitable Dr. Edward Teller and cosigned by weapons planners with the Department of Defense. The opposition to the Super was spearheaded by Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and now Teller's rival. Oppenheimer, who felt that developing a weapon capable of ending civilization was immoral, would lose his security clearance over his opposition to the Super bomb. According to Al O'Donnell, the EG&G weapons test engineer who wired many of Dr. Teller's Super bombs in the Marshall Islands, during this process. Scientists became deeply divided over the issue and whether or not to go forward. The push to create the Super was spearheaded by the indomitable Dr. Edward Teller and cosigned by weapons planners with the Department of Defense. The opposition to the Super was spearheaded by Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and now Teller's rival. Oppenheimer, who felt that developing a weapon capable of ending civilization was immoral, would lose his security clearance over his opposition to the Super bomb. According to Al O'Donnell, the EG&G weapons test engineer who wired many of Dr. Teller's Super bombs in the Marshall Islands, what happened to Oppenheimer sent a strong message what happened to Oppenheimer sent a strong message to everyone involved: "If you want to keep your job, don't oppose decisions" on moral grounds. In the end, the weapons planners won, and the world's first thermonuclear bomb moved forward as planned. to everyone involved: "If you want to keep your job, don't oppose decisions" on moral grounds. In the end, the weapons planners won, and the world's first thermonuclear bomb moved forward as planned.

Drones were needed to take blast and gust measurements inside the thermonuclear clouds measurements inside the thermonuclear clouds, and to take samples of radioactive debris inside. During the Greenhouse test series, which did not wind up setting the world on fire, the first drone in went out of control and crashed into the sea before it ever reached the stem of the mushroom cloud. Two other drone missions were aborted after not responding to controls, and a fourth sustained such heavy damage in the shock wave, it lost control and crash-landed on a deserted island called Bogallua crash-landed on a deserted island called Bogallua, where it caught fire and exploded. When the test series was over, the Air Force ultimately concluded that the unmanned samplers were unreliable. "Following Operation Greenhouse, the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission looked more favorably upon manned samplers," wrote a Defense Nuclear Agency historian in 1963. "Greenhouse became the last atomic test series during which drone aircraft were used for this purpose." So when it came time to detonate the world's first full-scale thermonuclear device-an unimaginably monstrous 10.4 megaton bomb code-named Mike-in the next test series, called Operation Ivy in the fall of 1952, it was decided that six human pilots, all volunteers, would fly straight into the center of the radioactive stem and mushroom cloud. Another group of pilots was a.s.signed to fly along the outer edges of the predicted fallout zones. That group included Hervey Stockman That group included Hervey Stockman, who, four years later, would become the first CIA pilot to fly over the Soviet Union in a U-2.

In antic.i.p.ation of the Mike bomb's manned sampling mission, the pilots practiced at the airfield at Indian Springs, thirty miles due south of Area 51. These pilots, including Stockman, then flew sampling missions Stockman, then flew sampling missions through the kiloton-size atomic bombs being exploded at the Nevada Test Site as part of a spring 1952 test series called Operation Tumbler-Snapper. "Up to this time," Stockman explains, "the through the kiloton-size atomic bombs being exploded at the Nevada Test Site as part of a spring 1952 test series called Operation Tumbler-Snapper. "Up to this time," Stockman explains, "the scientists had put monkeys in the c.o.c.kpits scientists had put monkeys in the c.o.c.kpits of remotely controlled drone aircraft [at the test site]. They would fly these things through the [atomic] clouds. Then they began to be interested in the effects of radiation on humanoids. They realized that with care and cunning they could put people in there." of remotely controlled drone aircraft [at the test site]. They would fly these things through the [atomic] clouds. Then they began to be interested in the effects of radiation on humanoids. They realized that with care and cunning they could put people in there."

The Air Force worked hard to change the pilots' perception of themselves as guinea pigs, at least for the historical record. According to a history of the atomic cloud sampling program, decla.s.sified in 1985, by the time Stockman and his fellow pilots left Indian Springs for the Marshall Islands to fly missions through megaton-size thermonuclear bomb clouds, the men accepted that they "were doing something useful...not serving as guinea pigs as they seriously believed when first called upon to do the sampling." as they seriously believed when first called upon to do the sampling."

Stockman offers another perspective. "In those days, I didn't think much about the moral questions. I was young. The visual picture when these things go off is absolutely stunning. I was very much in awe of it," Stockman recalls. "The [atomic bombs] that were going on in the proving grounds in Nevada were minute in comparison to these [thermonuclear bomb] monsters out there in the Pacific. Those were big brutes. When they went off they would punch right through the Earth's atmosphere and head out into s.p.a.ce."

After finally arriving in the Pacific, pilots flew "familiarization flights and rehearsals" in the days leading up to the Mike bomb. But nothing could prepare an airman for the actual test. Stockman's colleague Air Force pilot Jimmy P. Robinson was one of the six pilots Jimmy P. Robinson was one of the six pilots who "volunteered" to fly through the Ivy Mike mushroom cloud. Because the physical bomb was the size of a large airplane hangar, it couldn't be called a weapon per se. The bomb was so large that it was built from the ground up, on an island on the north side of the atoll called Elugelab. Given the extraordinary magnitude of the thermonuclear bomb, it is utterly remarkable to consider that shortly after Robinson flew his F-84G straight through its mushroom stem, he was able to radio back clear thoughts to his commanding officer, who was located twenty-five miles to the south, on Eniwetok. "The glow was red, like the inside of a red hot furnace," the record states Robinson said. He then described how his radio instrument meters were spinning around in circles, "like the sweep second hand on a watch." After going inside the cloud a second time, Robinson reported that his "airplane stalled out and gone [ who "volunteered" to fly through the Ivy Mike mushroom cloud. Because the physical bomb was the size of a large airplane hangar, it couldn't be called a weapon per se. The bomb was so large that it was built from the ground up, on an island on the north side of the atoll called Elugelab. Given the extraordinary magnitude of the thermonuclear bomb, it is utterly remarkable to consider that shortly after Robinson flew his F-84G straight through its mushroom stem, he was able to radio back clear thoughts to his commanding officer, who was located twenty-five miles to the south, on Eniwetok. "The glow was red, like the inside of a red hot furnace," the record states Robinson said. He then described how his radio instrument meters were spinning around in circles, "like the sweep second hand on a watch." After going inside the cloud a second time, Robinson reported that his "airplane stalled out and gone [sic] into a spin." His autopilot disengaged and his radio cut out, but the courageous pilot flew on as instructed. He flew around in circles and finally he flew back into and out of the mushroom stem and the lower part of its cloud-for nearly four more hours. Only when it was time for Robinson to refuel did he realize that the electromagnetic pulse from the thermonuclear bomb had ruined his control beacon. This meant that it was impossible for him to locate the fuel tanker.

Robinson radioed the control tower on Eniwetok for help. He was told to head back to the island immediately. "Approximately ninety-six miles north of the island, [Robinson] reported that he'd picked up a signal on Eniwetok," according to the official record, decla.s.sified in 1986 but with Robinson's name redacted. At that point, he was down to six hundred pounds of fuel. Bad weather kicked in; "rain squalls obstructed his views." Robinson's fuel gauge registered empty and then his engine flamed out. "When he was at 10,000 feet, Eniwetok tower thought he would make the runway, he had the island in sight," wrote an Air Force investigator a.s.signed to the case. But he couldn't glide in because his aircraft was lined with lead to shield him from radiation. At five thousand feet and falling fast, Robinson reported he wasn't going to make it and that he would have to bail out. Now Robinson faced the ultimate challenge. Atomic-sampling pilots wore lead-lined vests Atomic-sampling pilots wore lead-lined vests. How to land safely and get out fast? Fewer than three and a half miles from the tarmac at Eniwetok, at an alt.i.tude of between five hundred and eight hundred feet, Robinson's aircraft flipped over and crashed into the sea. "Approximately one minute later [a] helicopter was over the spot," the Air Force investigator wrote. But it was too late. All the helicopter pilot could find was "an oil slick, one glove, and several maps." Robinson's body and his airplane sank to the bottom of the sea like a stone. His body was never recovered, and his family would learn of his fate only in 2008, after repeated Freedom of Information Act requests were finally granted by the Air Force.

Back on Elugelab Island, the dust was settling after the airplane-hangar-size Mike bomb had exploded with an unfathomable yield of 10.4 megatons-nearly twice that of its predicted size. Elugelab was not an island anymore. The thermonuclear bomb had vaporized the entire landma.s.s, sending eighty million tons of pulverized coral into the upper atmosphere to float around and rain down. One man observing the bomb with high-density goggles was EG&G weapons test engineer Al O'Donnell. He'd wired, armed, and fired the Ivy bomb from the control room on the USS Estes, Estes, which was parked forty miles out at sea. O'Donnell says that watching the Mike bomb explode was a terrifying experience. which was parked forty miles out at sea. O'Donnell says that watching the Mike bomb explode was a terrifying experience. "It was one of the ones that was too big," "It was one of the ones that was too big," says the man who colleagues called the Triggerman for having wired 186 nuclear bombs. The nuclear fireball of the Ivy Mike bomb was three miles wide. says the man who colleagues called the Triggerman for having wired 186 nuclear bombs. The nuclear fireball of the Ivy Mike bomb was three miles wide. In contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima In contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a fireball that was a tenth of a mile wide. When the manned airplanes flew over ground zero after the Ivy Mike bomb went off, they were horrified to see the island was gone. Satellite photographs in 2011 show a black crater filled with lagoon water where the island of Elugelab once existed. had a fireball that was a tenth of a mile wide. When the manned airplanes flew over ground zero after the Ivy Mike bomb went off, they were horrified to see the island was gone. Satellite photographs in 2011 show a black crater filled with lagoon water where the island of Elugelab once existed.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

Drama in the Desert Before he became president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson liked to ride through rural Texas in his convertible Lincoln Continental with the top down. According to his biographer Randall B. Woods, Johnson also liked to keep a loaded shotgun in the seat next to him, which allowed him to pull over and shoot deer easily. On the night of October 4, 1957, the then senator was entertaining a group of fellow hunting enthusiasts at his rural retreat, in the dining room of his forty-foot-tall, gla.s.s-enclosed, air-conditioned hunting blind air-conditioned hunting blind that Johnson called his "deer tower." All around the edge of the lair were powerful spotlights that could be turned on with the flip of a switch, blinding unsuspecting deer that had come to graze and making it easier to kill them. that Johnson called his "deer tower." All around the edge of the lair were powerful spotlights that could be turned on with the flip of a switch, blinding unsuspecting deer that had come to graze and making it easier to kill them.

It was an important night for Johnson, one that would set the rest of his life on a certain path. October 4, 1957, was the night the Russians launched Sputnik, and the senator began an exuberant anti-Communist crusade. That very night, once the guests had gone home and the staff of black waiters had cleaned up, Johnson retired to his bedroom with newfound conviction. "I'll be dammed if I sleep by the light of a Red Moon," he told his wife, Lady Bird. if I sleep by the light of a Red Moon," he told his wife, Lady Bird.

At the time, Lyndon Johnson was not just any senator. He was the Democratic majority leader, which made him the most powerful legislator in the United States. Within hours of Sputnik's launch, Johnson seized on the Red Moon moment for political gain. The Russians were a threat to America's existence, he declared: "Soon they will be dropping bombs on us from s.p.a.ce like kids dropping rocks onto cars from Freeway overpa.s.ses." bombs on us from s.p.a.ce like kids dropping rocks onto cars from Freeway overpa.s.ses."

For many Americans, Johnson's reaction was easier to comprehend than President Eisenhower's seemingly muted response. Before he was president, Eisenhower had spent his career as a soldier. He was a five-star general. As former commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower had faced many a deadly threat. He had led the invasion at Normandy and commanded the Allied Forces in the last great German offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, which meant he and his men shot at a lot more than blinded deer. In October of 1957, he believed that the 184-pound Russian satellite called Sputnik was not a cause for panic not a cause for panic or alarm. or alarm.

The nation felt quite different. The public consensus was that Sputnik gave reason for serious concern. The orb was seen as ominous and foreboding, a visual portent of more bad things to come from the skies, with 4 percent of Americans claiming to have seen Sputnik with their own eyes. In reality, explained historian Matthew Brzezinski, "What most actually saw was the one-hundred-foot-long R-7 rocket casing that [Sputnik's designer Sergei] Korolev had craftily outfitted with reflective prisms. It trailed some 600 miles behind the twenty-two-inch satellite," which in reality could only be seen by a person using a high-powered optical device. Motivated by the public's alarm, Senator Lyndon Johnson provided a foil to Eisenhower's nonconfrontation, demanding a "full and exhaustive inquiry" from Congress to learn how the Russians had beaten the Americans into s.p.a.ce. In doing so, Johnson cemented his persona as being tough on Communists. In turn, this made him an inadvertent advocate for missile defense and the military-industrial complex. Ultimately, it forced him to be a proponent for the Vietnam War. was the one-hundred-foot-long R-7 rocket casing that [Sputnik's designer Sergei] Korolev had craftily outfitted with reflective prisms. It trailed some 600 miles behind the twenty-two-inch satellite," which in reality could only be seen by a person using a high-powered optical device. Motivated by the public's alarm, Senator Lyndon Johnson provided a foil to Eisenhower's nonconfrontation, demanding a "full and exhaustive inquiry" from Congress to learn how the Russians had beaten the Americans into s.p.a.ce. In doing so, Johnson cemented his persona as being tough on Communists. In turn, this made him an inadvertent advocate for missile defense and the military-industrial complex. Ultimately, it forced him to be a proponent for the Vietnam War.

Now, six years and one month after Sputnik, Lyndon Johnson was president. Seven days after Kennedy was shot dead, Johnson sat in the Oval Office with CIA director Johnson sat in the Oval Office with CIA director John McCone being briefed on Oxcart and Area 51. Johnson loved the idea of the Agency's secret spy plane, but not for the reasons anyone expected. Johnson seized on one detail in particular: the aircraft's speed. At the time, the world was under the impression that the Russians held the record for airspeed, which was 1,665 miles per hour. When Johnson learned the men at Area 51 had repeatedly beaten that record, he wanted to make that fact publicly known. What better way to begin a presidency than by one-upping the Russians? John McCone being briefed on Oxcart and Area 51. Johnson loved the idea of the Agency's secret spy plane, but not for the reasons anyone expected. Johnson seized on one detail in particular: the aircraft's speed. At the time, the world was under the impression that the Russians held the record for airspeed, which was 1,665 miles per hour. When Johnson learned the men at Area 51 had repeatedly beaten that record, he wanted to make that fact publicly known. What better way to begin a presidency than by one-upping the Russians?

In reality, outing the most expensive secret spy plane program ever undertaken in order to win a compet.i.tion with the Russians did not make the best national security sense. Surfacing Oxcart would compromise the Agency's technological pole position in the overhead espionage field. Oxcart was singularly capable of flying "any place in the world," McCone explained. It was almost "invisible" to Soviet radar, with a "radar cross section in the order of 1/1000 of [a] normal aircraft." If McCone had had a crystal ball, he could have told the president that the Oxcart was so far ahead of its time, it would hold aviation records it would hold aviation records for sustained height and speed through the end of the century. Also in the room were Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, the administration's most powerful trio. Conveniently for the Pentagon, all three men agreed with President Johnson that for sustained height and speed through the end of the century. Also in the room were Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, the administration's most powerful trio. Conveniently for the Pentagon, all three men agreed with President Johnson that outing the Oxcart was a terrific idea outing the Oxcart was a terrific idea.

The reason for the trio's desire for transparency was that the Air Force had clear designs on cutting the CIA loose from the business of spy planes once and for all. Outing a program made the need for cover obsolete. Before Kennedy's a.s.sa.s.sination, the Air Force high command had been writing secret proposals arguing for ways in which they could take over Oxcart they could take over Oxcart. Four months earlier, Air Force commander General Schriever wrote a memo to Eugene Zuckert, secretary of the Air Force, suggesting that "an incident during the flight test program could force a disclosure." The CIA had gotten lucky with Ken Collins's Oxcart crash, General Schriever said, but if another one of the Agency's secret spy planes were to crash "it would be extremely difficult to avoid some public release." The subtext being that maybe there was a way that the Air Force could help facilitate this public disclosure. There was a final option, one that involved getting "the President on board." A few weeks before Kennedy's death, the Air Force had gone to him with a proposal to make Oxcart public; Kennedy had said to sit tight. Now it appeared that President Johnson was going to be much easier to manipulate.

To counter Air Force demands McCone tried a different approach McCone tried a different approach, one that involved money. He told the president that more than half of Oxcart's budget had already been spent producing fifteen airplanes. To expose Oxcart now was a terrible idea, McCone said, not just in terms of national security but because it would be a colossal waste of money. Johnson agreed. But the president still wanted to one-up the Russians, so he settled on a slightly different plan. Through a veil of half-truths, he would out the Air Force's attack version of the Oxcart, the YF-12, as the speed-breaker. The YF-12 would be given a false cover, the fict.i.tious name A-11 the fict.i.tious name A-11. Respecting McCone's national security concerns, the actual A-12 Oxcart program-its true speed, operational ceiling, and near invisibility to radar-would remain cla.s.sified top secret until the CIA decla.s.sified the Oxcart program, in 2007.

Three months later, on February 29, 1964, Johnson held a press conference in the International Treaty Room at the State Department. "The world record for aircraft speed, currently held by the Soviets, has been repeatedly broken in secrecy by the... A-11," President Johnson declared from the podium, thrilled to give the Russians a poke in the ribs. At Area 51, caught off guard by the requirement to do a presidential dog-and-pony show, the 1129th Special Activities Squadron scrambled to get an airplane to Edwards Air Force Base in California for a press junket, which was called for immediately after the president's grand announcement. Two YF-12s belonging to the Air Force but being tested at Area 51 were quickly flown in from Groom Lake and driven into a special hangar at Edwards. The airplanes' t.i.tanium surfaces were so hot they set off the hangar's sprinkler system, which mistook the high-temperature metal for a fire. When the press junket began, the aircraft were still dripping wet the aircraft were still dripping wet. Never mind; no one noticed. Like the president, the reporters were enamored by the notion of Mach 3 speed. Of much more significance was what the event meant to the CIA. The rivalry between the Agency and the Air Force for control over Oxcart was hotter than ever.

With the two departments' gloves off, the fate of Oxcart now hung precariously in the balance. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara snidely told CIA director John McCone that he doubted the Oxcart would ever be used. If it was used, McNamara said, it would "probably have to be done without the specific knowledge of the President without the specific knowledge of the President," alluding to the Gary Powers shoot-down. Never again could a president be linked to a CIA aerial espionage mission. John McCone shot back that he had "every intention of using Oxcart and had so advised the President." McNamara may have won the battle by getting President Johnson to surface part of the Oxcart program, but McCone was letting him know on behalf of the Agency that the Pentagon hadn't yet won the war.

A second Air ForceAgency debate that involved the fate of the Oxcart, which in turn involved the fate of Area 51, centered on improvements in satellite and drone technology. McNamara told McCone that these two platforms would eventually eliminate the need for the Agency's expensive, c.u.mbersome Oxcart program. And yet both men knew that for the time being, Oxcart could deliver what satellites could not, and on two separate but equally important counts. In the six years since Sputnik, satellites had advanced to the degree that their spy images were good, though not great. But satellites had an inherent limitation in the world of espionage: they worked on fixed schedules. This would forever negate any element of surprise. The average satellite took ninety minutes to circle the world, and overflight schedules were easily determined by a.n.a.lysts at NORAD. The ironically named Oxcart was an attack espionage vehicle: quick and versatile, nimble and shrewd, with overpa.s.ses that would be totally unpredictable to any enemy. But most of all, in terms of clear photographic intelligence, nothing could compete with what Oxcart was about to be able to deliver to the president: two-and-a-half-foot blocks of detail made clear by film frames shot from seventeen miles up.

While McNamara and McCone fought, a presidential election loomed for Johnson. Nikita Khrushchev, ever the antagonist, decided to make things difficult for the saber-rattling Texan. During the campaign summer of 1964, the increasingly bellicose Khrushchev declared that any U-2s flying over Cuba would be shot down. The CIA saw the threat by the Soviet dictator as an opportunity to let Oxcart show its stuff, and McCone pushed President Johnson for an official mission. Finally, the president approved the Oxcart for Operation Skylark approved the Oxcart for Operation Skylark, a plan to fly missions over Cuba if Khrushchev showed signs of putting missiles in Cuba again. Skylark provided a terrific opportunity for the CIA to flex its overhead muscle and gain an edge on the Air Force. The only problem was that out at Area 51, the Oxcart wasn't quite ready.

Kenneth Collins sat in the c.o.c.kpit of the world's fastest aircraft as it climbed through sixty thousand feet. On this particular flight, navigators had him flying north to the border of Canada, where he was to turn around and head back. Flight-testing the Oxcart was the best job in the world, according to Ken Collins according to Ken Collins. Most jobs came with a daily routine, and for Collins each day of work at Area 51 meant another performance field to tackle-anything but routine.

For months, the pilots had been testing the hydraulics, navigation system, and flight controls on the aircraft. After each flight, the data from flight recorders was a.n.a.lyzed by a team of Lockheed engineers. Changes were made daily at Groom Lake. The wiring continued to be problematic until replacement materials that could withstand 800 degrees were finally located. Another problem that took forever to solve involved the buildup of the liquid chemical triethylborane (TEB) that had been preventing the engine afterburners from starting. Finally, that too was solved. But one dangerous problem remained, and that was the dreaded un-starts.

Moving through seventy-five thousand feet now, Collins watched the gauges in front of him. It was 70 degrees Fahrenheit outside with exhaust gas coming out of both engines at 3,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Each one of a pair of specially designed J-58 turbojet engines specially designed J-58 turbojet engines behind him generated as much power as all four of the turbines on the 81,000-ton ocean liner the behind him generated as much power as all four of the turbines on the 81,000-ton ocean liner the Queen Mary. Queen Mary. It was those insanely powerful engines that enabled the aircraft to fly so high and so fast. But the It was those insanely powerful engines that enabled the aircraft to fly so high and so fast. But the Queen Mary Queen Mary carried more than three thousand people; the Oxcart just one. Collins counted on those engines. If anything went wrong with either of them it could mean catastrophe. Carefully, he moved the aircraft through the dangerous window between Mach 2.5 and Mach 2.8, which translates to something around 2,000 mph-as fast as a rifle bullet goes. Getting up to and through that speed asked more of the aircraft than anything else. It was also the place where an un-start was most likely to occur, and why Collins was counting on the aircraft engines to perform. carried more than three thousand people; the Oxcart just one. Collins counted on those engines. If anything went wrong with either of them it could mean catastrophe. Carefully, he moved the aircraft through the dangerous window between Mach 2.5 and Mach 2.8, which translates to something around 2,000 mph-as fast as a rifle bullet goes. Getting up to and through that speed asked more of the aircraft than anything else. It was also the place where an un-start was most likely to occur, and why Collins was counting on the aircraft engines to perform.

To the pilots, there was nothing scarier than an engine un-start. To the engineers, there was nothing to explain the cause of it. Flying at a certain pitch, one of the two J-58 engines could inexplicably experience an airflow cutoff and go dead. At that speed, the inlets were swallowing ten thousand cubic feet of air each second. One engineer likened this to the equivalent of two million people inhaling at once; an un-start was like all those people suddenly cut short of air. During the ten seconds it took to correct the airflow problem-one engine dead, the other generating enough power to propel an ocean liner-a violent yawing would occur as the aircraft twisted on a vertical axis. This caused a pilot to get slammed across the c.o.c.kpit while desperately trying to restart the dead engine. The fear was that the pilot could get knocked unconscious, which would mean the end of the pilot, and the end of the airplane.

As Collins moved through Mach 2.7, the Earth below him hurtled by at an astonishing rate of more than half a mile each second. The aircraft's preset flight path kept it away from urban centers, bridges, and dams for safety reasons, and from Indian burial grounds for political reasons. Once, a pilot flying over semirural West Virginia had to restart an engine at thirty thousand feet. The resulting sonic boom shattered a chimney inside a factory on the ground, and two men working there were crushed to death two men working there were crushed to death. And if a pilot had to bail out, as Collins had in 1963, the aircraft needed significant amounts of remote land on which to crash. At 123,000 pounds, this airplane had about as much glide in it as a tire iron falling from the sky.

Collins pushed the aircraft through Mach 2.8. In another forty-five seconds he would be out of the danger zone. Nearing eighty-five thousand feet, the inevitable tiny black dots began to appear tiny black dots began to appear on the aircraft windshield, sporadic at first, like the first drops of summer rain. Only a few months earlier, scientists at Area 51 had been baffled by those black dots. They worried it was some kind of high-atmosphere corrosion until the mystery was solved in the lab. It turned out the black spots were dead bugs that were cycling around in the upper atmosphere, blasted into the jet stream by the world's two superpowers' rally of thermonuclear bombs. The bugs were killed in the bombs' blasts and sent aloft to ninety thousand feet in the ensuing mushroom clouds where they gained orbit. on the aircraft windshield, sporadic at first, like the first drops of summer rain. Only a few months earlier, scientists at Area 51 had been baffled by those black dots. They worried it was some kind of high-atmosphere corrosion until the mystery was solved in the lab. It turned out the black spots were dead bugs that were cycling around in the upper atmosphere, blasted into the jet stream by the world's two superpowers' rally of thermonuclear bombs. The bugs were killed in the bombs' blasts and sent aloft to ninety thousand feet in the ensuing mushroom clouds where they gained orbit.

Collins was just seconds away from Mach 3, which meant cruising alt.i.tude at last. If there was a brief moment where he might allow himself to relax, maybe even glance outside at the round Earth below and enjoy the cruise, that moment would come soon. But then the un-start happened. In a critical instant, the airplane banged and yawed so dramatically it was as if the airplane's tail were trying to catch its nose. Collins's body was flung forward in his harness. His plastic flight helmet crashed against the c.o.c.kpit gla.s.s, denting the helmet and nearly knocking him unconscious nearly knocking him unconscious. As the airplane slid across the atmosphere, Collins steeled himself and restarted the engine. The aircraft's second engine kicked back into motion almost as quickly as it had stopped.

Things in the c.o.c.kpit returned to normal. Inside his pressure suit, Collins felt his heart beating like a jackhammer in his chest. Fate really is a hunter, he thought. It lurks behind you in constant pursuit. When it will catch up to you and take you is anybody's guess.

Death didn't get him this time, and for that he was grateful. But somebody needed to fix this un-start problem, fast. With his feet firmly planted on the earth again, Collins discussed the issue of the un-starts with Bill Park during his debrief. Park was Lockheed's chief flight-test pilot and he always sat patiently with the project pilots he always sat patiently with the project pilots after their flights, listening intently about what went on during the flight and what needed work. No detail was too small. Park agreed with Collins; the un-start problem was major and had to be fixed before somebody died. Park was the liaison between the project pilots and Kelly Johnson, and Park was directed to Lockheed's thermodynamicist Ben Rich to get the un-start problem solved. Park had experienced his own share of un-starts, and giving Ben Rich an ultimatum was not something he had any problem with. after their flights, listening intently about what went on during the flight and what needed work. No detail was too small. Park agreed with Collins; the un-start problem was major and had to be fixed before somebody died. Park was the liaison between the project pilots and Kelly Johnson, and Park was directed to Lockheed's thermodynamicist Ben Rich to get the un-start problem solved. Park had experienced his own share of un-starts, and giving Ben Rich an ultimatum was not something he had any problem with.

Rich's office was sparely decorated with a few trophies and some plaques on the walls. There were papers everywhere, and pencils with the erasers gone. A hand-cranked calculator and a metal slide rule sat on Rich's desk. Park set his flight helmet down-it had its own crack, similar to Collins's-and pointed to it. "Fix it," Park said "Fix it," Park said. "And I mean the un-start problem, not my helmet. Time to suit up, Ben. Time for you to see how it feels." The pilots figured that the only way to get Ben Rich to understand just how unacceptable this un-start business was would be to have Rich experience the nightmare scenario himself, and there just happened to be a two-seater version of the Oxcart on base. The Air Force was currently testing its drone-carrying version of the Oxcart, the M-21/D-21, in the skies over Groom Lake, and the pilots had seen the two-seater going in and out of the hangar all week. Park told Ben Rich the time had come for him to take a Mach 3 ride.

In a burst of what he would later describe as "a crazy moment of weakness," Ben Rich agreed. Rich was a self-described Jewish nerd. Totally unathletic, he was a kid who never made the high school baseball team. Before joining Skunk Works, Ben Rich had only one claim to fame: being awarded a patent for designing a nickel-chromium heating system that prevented a pilot's p.e.n.i.s from freezing to his urine elimination pipe. He was a design wizard, not an airplane cowboy. He'd never come close to flying supersonic before, and he had absolutely no desire to go that fast. But he was chief engineer for Skunk Works, so fixing the un-start problem was his job. "I'll do it," Ben Rich said.

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Area 51 Part 5 summary

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