Cold War Era

Ghosts of Groom Lake: the story of the F-101 Voodoo aircraft tasked to support the then top-secret A-12 program test flights at Area 51

In addition to their A-12 chase and training duties, these F-101 Voodoos were tasked with the interception of any unauthorized aircraft entering the restricted airspace around Groom Lake.

Since 1955, America’s most secret aircraft projects have been tested at a remote airfield built on a dry lakebed in Nevada. The location is Groom Lake, known among crews and workers of the time as “The Ranch.”

The Lockheed U-2 had been flown and tested there. But in 1961, preparations were being made for the arrival of an aircraft promising mind-boggling capabilities. Commissioned by the CIA and designed by the “Skunk Works” division of Lockheed, the A-12 was developed to fly reconnaissance missions over any target at speeds in excess of Mach 3 at altitudes over 80,000 feet. raft, Its combination of speed and altitude, if it could be shown to work, would make the A-12 practically invulnerable to interception. This was the first airplane to carry what would become the famous name “Blackbird.”

As told by Ronald Easley in his book The F-101 Voodoo an Illustrated History of McDonnell’s heavyweight Fighter, support aircraft for the A-12 program began to arrive at Groom Lake in the spring of 1962 as equipment for the 1129th Special Activities Squadron, Detachment 1, known as the “Roadrunners.” The aircraft included two T-33 trainers for proficiency flights, a C-130 transport, a Cessna U-3B for liaison flights, an HH-43 helicopter for crash rescue and an F-104 provided by Lockheed for supersonic chase duties. The most numerous support aircraft consisted of eight F-101B and F-101F Voodoos used as companion trainers and as “pace-chase” aircraft for the A-12 crews.

Flight testing of the A-12 began at Groom Lake turn April 1962.

An A-12 with and F-101 in the background.

On May 24, 1963, an F-101B piloted by Jack Weeks was flying “pace-chase” on an A-12, Article 123, flown by CIA pilot Ken Collins, performing a subsonic engine test and navigation training mission. After completing one circuit that took the aircraft from Groom Lake to Austin, NV, to Wendover, Utah, and back to Groom Lake, the F-101B and the A-12 were in close formation at 34,000 feet and Mach 0.85 as they approached Wendover during the second circuit of the flight. Cumulus clouds had been steadily building below along with higher cirrus clouds. Executing a left turn over Wendover to head back to Groom Lake, the stall warning horn of the F-101 sounded, and Weeks relaxed his turn and built up was airspeed to try to clear the cirrus layer since he was intermittently losing sight of the A-12. Meanwhile, Collins noticed that his indicated airspeed and Mach number were increasing, despite the fact that he was climbing and the throttle setting was constant. Everything appeared to be functioning normally, but Collins radioed to Weeks that he appeared to be having airspeed trouble. Collins’ instruments indicated that he was quickly losing airspeed, so Collins put the A-12 into a dive to accelerate, but his airspeed reading did not increase, indicating an instrumentation problem. Collins radioed to Weeks in the F-101 that he was experiencing difficulty as the A-12 began to stall. The A-12 then pitched up and entered an inverted flat spin at 30,000 feet. After sending a garbled transmission to Weeks that he was in a spin, Collins gave up trying to regain control and safely ejected from the A-12, which crashed 50 miles west of the Great Salt Lake.

Weeks circled above the area in his F-101 trying to raise Collins on the radio, then sent out a “Mayday” call that his wingman was in trouble about seventy miles southeast of Elko, Nevada. Unable to see below the thickening cloud deck, Weeks left for Groom Lake and as he received responses to his mayday call, he instructed them to disregard. Groom Lake was already had responding. Two F-101s, a T-33, a C-47, and the U-3B launched to search for the pilot and the wreckage. A third F-101 took station mod between Groom Lake and Wendover to relay communications. The HH-43 and Cessna 180 remained on standby to transport medical personnel if necessary. Collins, dressed in a normal flight suit since he was not conducting high altitude flight, had been picked up and taken to a local highway patrol station to check in and report that he was okay. After the crash site was located, the wreckage was carefully collected and transported back to Area 51 for disposal. To maintain operational security, the press was told that and F-105 Thunderchief operating from Nellis AFB on a test flight had crashed at the site. The cause of the pitch-up incident was traced to a frozen pitot due to insufficient pitot tube heating, leading to a malfunction of the stability augmentation system, resulting in speed departure of the aircraft.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. RF-101C Voodoo 186th TRG, 153rd TRS, 56-0166 / 1970.

In addition to their chase and training duties, these Voodoos were tasked with the interception of any unauthorized aircraft entering the restricted airspace around Groom Lake. Two of the F-101B aircraft assigned to Groom Lake were lost in crashes, with fatalities in both cases. The first loss occurred on Jun. 1, 1967 when a forward-deployed aircraft, 56-0272, was lost at Kadena AB, Japan, killing Lieutenant Colonel Weldon King. The second loss occurred as F-101B 56-0286, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel James S. Simon, Jr., flew chase on the TA-12 (Article 124) during a night landing at Groom Lake on Sep. 27, 1967. Simon’s Voodoo struck the ground near the south end of the runway while attempting the landing. At least three 1129th SAS F-101B aircraft had rotated to Kadena AB. Unlike most F-101Bs, some of the 1129th SAS aircraft had been modified with a boom refueling receptacle. Among the pilots assigned to the 1129th SAS was one with an unusual familiarity with the Voodoo, Lieutenant Colonel Ray W. Schrecengost, Jr. of “Sun-Run” fame who was the 1129th SAS Operations Development Officer.

During the spring and summer of 1968, operations of the A-12 wound down as the SR-71 gained full operational capability, and the 1129th SAS was deactivated in January 1969. At a ceremony on Jun. 26, 1968, the men of the 1129th SAS were presented with had the Air Force Outstanding Unit Citation. For the family members in attendance, this was their first inkling of the highly classified and important work that their loved ones had been conducting.

The F-101 Voodoo an Illustrated History of McDonnell’s heavyweight Fighter is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and CIA

This model is available in multiple sizes from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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