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Since 1955, America’s most secret aircraft projects have been tested at Area 51, a top-secret military installation hidden in the desert northwest of Las Vegas, 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.”
Given that the CIA wanted to keep the A-12 project secret, remaining out of the public eye was only half the battle. As told by Peter W. Merlin in his book Dreamland The Secret History of Area 51, the 1129th Special Activities Squadron ‘Roadrunners’ still had to contend with military training activities over the Nellis Air Force Range and within the boundaries of Yuletide Special Operating Area (SOA, later renamed Dreamland).
One notable incident occurred on Oct. 8, 1963, when a flight of three F-105 fighter jets led by British Royal Air Force (RAF) exchange pilot Anthony “Bugs” Bendell was on a practice nuclear weapon delivery sortie about 80 miles north of Las Vegas. When one of the aircraft suffered an oil pressure malfunction, Bendell ordered the third airplane to return to Nellis while he led the stricken craft to the nearest airfield-Area 51.
After circling once over Groom Lake with no response to distress calls, Bendell advised the other pilot to make his emergency landing on the long concrete runway. Once assured his wingman was safely on the ground, Bendell prepared to head for Nellis.
Suddenly, however, he found himself boxed in by two F-101s while a voice on the radio tersely requested his nationality. Upon learning that he was a British citizen, Bendell was ordered to land immediately. He was instructed not to look to his left while taxiing along the airstrip, but it was too late. Bendell had already spotted a sleek, futuristic craft with enormous engines and inwardly canted tail fins.
After parking near the southern end of the airfield he was met by two security guards and Area 51 Commander Col. Robert Holbury, then hastily escorted to a small, dark room where he underwent an intensive interrogation to verify his identity, and his story. The other pilot underwent a similar de-briefing in a separate room.
As the session drew to a close, Bendell was admonished in the strongest possible terms not to discuss what he had seen at the secret base. “I gave my word as an RAF officer that I would remain silent,” he later recalled, but that didn’t seem to impress his interrogators, who still seemed suspicious about his reasons for diverting to Area 51.
While the hapless fighter pilots were being questioned, security guards Jim Noce and Tim Zarrella grabbed a Polaroid camera from their office and drove down the flight line to where the F-105s were parked. Noce picked up one of the pilots’ flight helmets and posed for a few photos beside the planes. A short while later, Bendell was escorted to the defective airplane, with instructions to make a ground check of the engine. If the oil pressure remained steady, he planned to swap aircraft with his student and the two would return to Nellis together.
After a few minutes the oil pressure began to fluctuate, indicating that the airplane needed more-extensive maintenance. Bendell flew south in his original aircraft, leaving the student stranded until he could return to Las Vegas aboard the Area 51 commuter shuttle.
The incident caused quite a stir at Nellis. Brig. Gen. Boyd Hubbard (commander of the 4520th Combat Crew Training Wing at Nellis) was very unhappy about a foreign national landing at Area 51, but Bendell’s commanding officer Maj. Warren Foss, supported his actions. After his experience the student pilot was so overawed by events that he scarcely spoke a word to his colleagues. Bendell noted that “even after two weeks, it was difficult to get a civil Good morning out of him.”
Dreamland The Secret History of Area 51 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, CIA and A. Bendell
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