Information acquired from HowStuffWorks
Area 51 owes its very existence to secret aircraft projects. The original purpose for Area 51 was a testing facility for Lockheed’s U-2 spy plane. Lockheed put Kelly Johnson in charge of establishing a base of operations for testing and training facilities. Here are some of the known and suspected projects at Area 51.
The U-2 Spy Plane is a confirmed Area 51 project. Lockheed worked with the CIA to develop a plane that could fly at a high altitude and spy on other nations. The U-2 could fly at altitudes of 70,000 feet and was effective in reconnaissance missions for several years. During the development of the U-2, the CIA and Lockheed realized they would soon need more advanced aircraft because the Soviet Union’s missile technology was rapidly catching up. In 1960, the USSR shot down a U-2, confirming this concern.
Engineers designed a plane–called the Suntan–to be a successor to the U-2. It could fly at speeds up to mach 2.5 (almost 2,000 miles per hour). The Suntan used liquid hydrogen for fuel, which was its ultimate downfall. Engineers decided that it would be too expensive to create a fuel infrastructure to support the Suntan’s flights, and the government canceled the project.
The A-12 , which was later known as the SR-71 “Blackbird,” became the actual successor to the U-2. The A-12 was a prototype model that gradually evolved into the SR-71. These planes could fly up to mach 3 (2,300 miles per hour) and could fly at altitudes of 90,000 feet.
Tacit Blue and Have Blue were the first successful attempts at creating stealth aircraft. Tacit Blue had an odd, whale-like shape, inspiring onlookers to call it “Shamu.” It was designed to fly low over battle operations as a reconnaissance vehicle. Have Blue was a prototype for the F117-A Stealth Fighter. Have Blue first arrived at Area 51 in 1977. The Stealth Fighter remained a secret until the Air Force officially unveiled it to the public in 1990.
The Bird of Prey takes its name from a class of ships in Star Trek. The plane is a bomber with stealth technology. The design looks very strange, and some say that it is very unstable at low speeds due to the odd wing design.
One rumored project at Area 51, the TR3A Black Manta, could be a potential successor to the Stealth Fighter, or it may be one of many kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Currently, there is a lot of interest in UAVs because they provide the military with methods of gathering information without endangering the lives of pilots or soldiers.