Groom Lake 1968
Normal recruitment for duty at Area 51 commenced with the CIA scouring the military and corporate establishments for men of certain qualifications. Unlike the early U-2 program, married men were preferred, as they were considered more mature. Those selected for further evaluation were flown to Washington, D.C. for interviews and psychological evaluation. The wife was also interviewed and evaluated, but not told what her husband would be doing. The candidate was sent back to his employer not knowing what the job was or if he had passed or failed. As the selection field narrowed, those still being considered were called back to Washington, D.C. for more intense evaluations. Even then, the candidate or volunteer still thought he was being interviewed for astronaut service or something similar and equally special.
In my case, I had previously worked with the Agency while stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas with a Hawk air defense surface to air missile unit. Having become a specialist in ADA missile ECM and ECCM, I participated in the top-secret Project Palladium where we prodded the Soviets into activating their radar systems being placed in Cuba. Under the guidance of Bud Wheelon of the CIA, the covert objective was to test our missile ECM and ECCM capabilities against those of the Soviet SA-2 missile radar and the ECM and ECCM defenses of their aircraft.
When the Oxcart flights started at Groom Lake, I was working at the Beatty radar site of the NASA High Range, tracking the X-15, XB-70, Lifting Bodies, Lunar Landers, etc. During idle times I often fired up our radar and scanned for something to track. One day I obtained skin track of a high and fast moving target in the direction of Groom Lake. Thereafter, I sneaked a track at every change and monitored the radio frequencies these mysterious missions were using. A few months later I was briefed by NASA that I would be instructed to provide tracking from time to time of an unidentified aircraft of which I was report only to this one contact at NASA. No one at the tracking station was allowed to monitor the tracking of this mysterious plane except me. I didn?t learn what I was tracking until my tracking station was officially invited to participate in the May 1965 speed record flight of the YF-12.
My secret tracking had continued for a couple years when we suddenly started getting cross talk on the HF radio channel we used while talking to the pilot of the X-15. Not realizing the source was the Area 51 facility from which my mysterious planes were originating, I complained to NASA who investigated the source. About a month later NASA told us that the source had higher priority and that we were not to mention it again. Shortly thereafter I was recruited for a highly classified special project of the CIA by a Mr. John Grace with EG&G in Las Vegas. I was not told what or where. Nonetheless, I associated my tracking of the fast targets and the UHF interference to my being invited to join that project, whatever it was. After the speed record run, I of course knew about the Blackbird and assumed that was the project to which I was being recruited. I was wrong. There were 3 separate Mach 3 projects at the time, the XB-70, the Air Force YF-12 project that I knew about, and the CIA's ultrasecret A-12 surveillance plane that I had been tracking and wrongfully assuming to be the YF-12.
At the time I was working under the security classification level of Secret. I could not be told anything about the job until my previous military Top Secret clearance could be reinstated. While waiting for this to occur I was "loaned" to various projects in the area: the NERVA project, 4 or 5 atomic shots, even the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory in Wright Patterson to run tests on the Apollo One space capsule that eventually ignited and killed 3 of our astronauts. Ironically, I received a "Q" security clearance for the AEC side before completion of my Top Secret reinstatement on the DOD side.
I didn't receive reinstatement of my Top Secret clearance until towards the end of the Oxcart program. It wasn't until later that I realized the Agency was gathering qualified contract cadre for follow on projects to Oxcart. Concurrent to my arrival at Groom Lake was the arrival of one of my X-band Nike Hercules radar systems from Fort Bliss for which I'd spent a year in formal training while in the Army. I think it is significant to add that two of us were considered so mission essential in our radar and missile ECM/ECCM specialty that we were forbidden to travel together in the same common carrier, be it by plane or simply the same vehicle headed to the mess hall.
Prior to being accepted, my wife was evaluated almost as much as was I. Once I arrived at Area 51, I learned that each of my fellow special projects team of 30 specialists and their families had undergone the same evaluations. Besides each of us having a specialty needed for Oxcart and the upcoming projects, most of us were married with two children. Another thing we all had in common were our hobbies. About half of us had boats moored on Lake Mead and the other half had cabins on Mt. Charleston. Our common interests created the necessary bonding for what was to come. Our national security concerns created a cohesiveness where we worked together all week and then played together on at the lake or mountain during the weekends. Anyone outside our group was not invited. Even under these conditions, we never talked shop if any of the wives or children were present. We never snooped into what the other had done or was doing. A need to know criteria existed and was adhered to even within our special projects group.
The CIA's special projects cadre at Area 51 was virtually nonexistent, unlike the temporary projects such as the Air Force's 4080th SAS U-2 Project Idealist, the Air Force's 4070th SAS and CIA's early U-2 Project Aquatone at Groom Lake, or the 1129th SAS for the agency's A-12 Oxcart Project at Area 51 and Kadena during Operation Black Shield.
We seldom knew for sure how we were to be transported from Las Vegas to Groom Lake. EG&G Special Projects had a Beechcraft Queen Aire that some of us utilized at times. The Queen Aire was housed in a small, obscure hangar located towards the end of a McCarran International Airport runway. Other sources of transportation were a Twin Otter and a Martin 202 that we boarded and deplaned at Nellis AFB. At Nellis our plane took off from the most secure area of the base.
To access our transportation, we had to enter a secured and heavily guarded area along the runway. We often wondered what the Air Force personnel were told about us, a group of civilians driven into the most secure area of the base by our wives and then boarding an unmarked plane for destination unknown. Anytime we approached any Air Force personnel, they immediately dispersed and went to great lengths to not encounter us. Speaking to us or showing any interest in us whatsoever was unheard of.
Soviet satellite coverage of the Groom Lake area was very intense during this period of the Cold War. Somehow the Soviets always knew the day we were to conduct activities outdoors and would launch a barrage of satellites the night before, which prevented our conducting outdoor activities until one of the satellites dropped from orbit, thus providing us with a window of opportunity to conduct whatever we needed to do without being seen by the Soviets. Consequently, we had to be available at all hours should such a window of opportunity afford itself. As we had in Project Oxcart, we stayed at Groom Lake the entire week, going home on Friday evening. After the first 8 hours we would go on time and a half for 4 hours and then on double time pay straight through until we arrived back in Las Vegas on Friday evening.
To accommodate us, the base had a small combination BX containing snacks and various personal hygiene items, swimming pool, exercise room, softball diamond, putting green, and poolroom. This facility was called "Sam's Place." Some of the CIA pilots and members of the 1129th SAS took up flying model airplanes. For some, that remains their hobby today. We were each assigned a room in a row of duplexes. Each duplex had a small living room where we played poker and watched 8mm movies played on a movie projector. Our special projects group usually banded in two groups even for our housing. One group was the boating enthusiasts, and the other being the Mt. Charleston cabin dwellers. Other personnel staying at Groom Lake, such as Air Force, Lockheed, Hughes, Pratt and Whitney, and our customer the CIA were all housed in similar duplexes, but clustered apart from the others. Very little association existed outside your group.
Ask anyone who worked at Groom Lake during the CIA era of the 1960s what he or she remembers most about their time at Area 51 they will tell you it was the quality of the food served at the mess hall. There's not a hotel in Las Vegas whose food quality even comes close to matching that we enjoyed at Groom Lake while the CIA was running the show.
We referred to those for whom we conducted any type of service as the customer. We all knew we were working for the CIA, but that didn't mean that the guy evaluating our data wasn't from Lockheed, Pratt and Whitney, or some other contractor of the CIA doing so as part of their assignment. Since we didn't ask questions, anyone with authority and clearance to watch or evaluate our work was the customer as far as we were concerned. In a security departmentalization sense, we embraced a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
After the departure of the last A-12 in June 1968, we concentrated on special projects of the Foreign Technology Division of Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) who led the exploitation utilizing expertise from U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC), Air Defense Command (ADC), National Air & Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), Strategic Air Command (SAC), Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD), Tactical Air Command (TAC), Navy Weapons Center (NWC). The scope of our explortation projection included Radar Cross Sections (RCS) evaluations and other technical evaluations of the Soviet MiG-17F FRESCO C fighter-interceptor code-named: Have Drill. Tactical evaluations of the MiG-17 were code-named: Have Ferry. We conducted similar evaluations on the MiG-21F-13 Fishbed E fighter-interceptor code-named: Have Doughnut.
Projects Idealist, Oxcart, Have Drill, Have Ferry, and Have Doughnut are the only programs in which I participated that have been declassified. Though there are some that I can name without violating my security oath, I cannot discuss any technical aspects of any other programs within Area 51.
A comment about security. From the onset I was given two contacts for emergencies. One was a resident CIA employee and the other a lieutenant based at Nellis AFB. The latter was in the event of an emergency at home; my family could get word to me through this lieutenant. We could call home from Groom Lake any time we desired, but could not reveal where we were calling from.
One day I called my wife and could instantly tell she was extremely upset. Seems my call was made immediately following her getting an obscene phone call from someone who knew her name. She had hung up and feared it was the caller calling back. I immediately informed security at Groom. Within minutes my home, my wife and both our daughters were under protective surveillance. This continued for about two weeks until all were comfortable that the call was not intended as a threat aimed at me because of where I worked. We never learned who made the call.
|Have Drill MiG-17||Have Ferry MiG-17||Have Ferry MiG-17||
Have Ferry MiG-17
|Have Doughnut MiG-21||Have Doughnut MiG-21|
I left Area 51 in the early 1970s to form a business in Oklahoma. For 5 years after leaving Area 51 and Nevada, the FBI routinely visited the town in which we resided where they inquired of local businesses as to our business and personal status. The focus of these FBI visits was to determine if my family and I were experiencing any problems, financial or otherwise, that would make us a target for blackmail or extortion aimed at learning what I had done while at Area 51. After a week or so, the investigator will schedule an interview with me and my wife to determine if anyone had contacted us seeking such information.
Follow the links on the area51specialprojects.com site to learn what has been declassified about these projects. You will find a brief story about each project accompanied with photos and film clips. As you tour the site, think of and join me in a salute to the heroic men and women who maintained the front lines on the battlefields of the Cold War.
>Drawing by Sammie Gamble depicting the reaction of the EG&G Special Projects team to the CIA announcing the termination of Project Oxcart
|Ralph "Jim" Freedman||T.D. Barnes|
|Babjack, R.J.||Dockter, Marvin R.||Heaps, Kenneth L.||Luker, Bobby V.||Thomas, Jeff D.|
|Barnes, Thornton D.||Evans, Paul M.||Hunt, Lee D.||McGlothen, Willie||Vittetoe, Dennis E.|
|Beahm, Glen M.||Freedman, Ralph J.||Jenkins, Wesley G.||McLeod, William F.||Washam, Charley P.|
|Becherer, Charles B.||Gamble, Sammie L.||Kirchhoff, Robert T.||Owens, Elridge W.||Watson, Galen E.|
|Christensen, Calvin D||Haen, David B.||Leonardi, John||Starry, Clifford E.||Weed, James F.|
|Dawson, Cowan F.||Hardy, Leroy C.||Long, James E.||Swenson, Marvin L.|