First Person: T.D. Barnes
As told to Angus Batey
Published: October 17 2009 00:42 | Last updated: October 17 2009 00:42
Area 51 is a military base in Nevada where the Air Force, the CIA and aerospace manufacturers test the machines they don’t want anyone to know about. By the time I started working there, I was already used to keeping secrets, even from those closest to me. I think that’s typical of military families: they’re not in the habit of quizzing each other about day-to-day details.
I’d had 10 years in the army, and was highly trained in radar operation. After my discharge in 1964, I was hired at the Nasa High Range at Beatty, Nevada, as a hypersonic flight support specialist. On days when nothing much was happening, I’d fire up the radar and see if I could find anything. One day I picked up something travelling at over 2,000mph near a local dry lake. It wasn’t one of ours and we were told to forget we’d seen anything, but shortly afterwards the Beatty station was asked to provide radar support for these flights. I was the only person allowed in the radar room during these missions.
I was approached about a secret, unspecified job shortly afterwards. I’d worked for the CIA when I was in the army, so I knew the recruitment drill. I arrived at Area 51 in 1968, just as the CIA was winding down a programme codenamed Oxcart. This was the A-12, a surveillance aircraft that flew at three times the speed of sound, right on the edge of space. It was the aircraft I’d tracked at Beatty.
Even though most of my career had been in classified projects, the big difference at Area 51 was the threat of Soviet spies. Their satellites sometimes kept us pinned down and unable to fly missions for months at a time. So in some ways it was the most boring job I ever had.
They started declassifying our work in about 1990, but we still wouldn’t talk about it. Our veterans’ association, the Roadrunners, held reunions every two years, but even that was pretty clandestine. Gradually, though, more information was declassified, and a few years ago I set up RoadrunnersInternationale.com, so we could start telling people about what we’d done. Our work was very important, and if we don’t talk about it, no one will ever know.
I think the key thing in getting our members to open up was when David Robarge, the CIA’s own historian, called because he needed information from us he couldn’t get from anyone else. So now our members have realised that it’s OK to tell their stories – in fact, that it’s desired for the sake of history.
For a lot of us, what you did during the cold war at Area 51 is stuff that’s been bottled up, without even being able to tell your family – so finally talking about it can be a very emotional thing. The US air force had a plane, the SR-71, which was a two-seat version of the A-12, and throughout its life, there were no losses of aircraft or pilots and that was because we’d taken the risk out of it for them. During the A-12 programme, we lost 30 per cent of our planes and 20 per cent of our pilots – all without anyone outside being allowed to know.
I get messages almost daily now. Usually it’s a granddaughter who’s run across something on the website, and they’re so tickled because they know that their grandpa did something very important that he wasn’t allowed to talk about. Often he’s deceased already and they’re only finding out the truth now.
It came full circle for me: my daughters followed in my footsteps and got jobs at the Area. To this day I don’t even think they’ve ever looked at the website – they have polygraph tests every six months out there and they’d be afraid they’d have a flare-up if they were asked whether they’d discussed Area 51 with anyone. Even though it’s innocent, it could cause a problem, so we just don’t talk about it.