How Area 51 Works

Area 51 Projects

The MiG-21 is one of several Soviet aircraft allegedly tested at Area 51.
The MiG-21 is one of several Soviet aircraft allegedly tested at Area 51.
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There are other, murkier rumors about secret aircraft that may or may not have been tested at Area 51.

  • TR-3A Black Manta: This is a rumored project that secret aircraft buffs have been talking about for decades, though nobody seems to really know what it is, or even it if actually exists. In 1993, a newsletter publisher named Steve Douglass published a purported image of the mysterious speculative aircraft, captured and enhanced from video that he shot near White Sands, N.M. [source: Patton]. The Federation of American Scientists Web site describes it as a "subsonic stealthy reconnaissance aircraft" but little other information has emerged [source: Pike].
  • Aurora: Back in 1985, the code name Aurora accidentally was leaked in an unclassified budget document, which depicted it as a ramjet-powered reconnaissance and strike aircraft capable of flying at least Mach 5 and deploying anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Engineer and aircraft-recognition expert Chris Gibson reportedly observed a formation of U.S. military aircraft over the North Sea in 1989 that included an unidentified delta-shaped plane. It fit the profile described in unclassified studies of high-supersonic aircraft [source: Sweetman]. It's unclear what happened to the Aurora program.
  • Brilliant Buzzard or Mothership: Yet another rumored project at Area 51. This large jet would carry a smaller vehicle, perhaps an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The smaller vehicle is designed to launch from the larger jet while in midair.
  • Blackstar: In 2006, the industry publication Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that the U.S. military had funded the development and testing of a small orbital space plane in the 1990s. The two-seater Blackstar vehicle possibly made more than one orbital mission, before being quietly put into mothballs for budgetary or operational reasons [source: Oberg].

What new projects could be underway at Area 51 today? Apart from the continued focus on UAV technology, secret project theorists suggest a few possibilities. One is a transport aircraft with stealth technology designed to move troops in and out of conflict areas without being detected. Many see a need for a vehicle with effective and stealthy vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities. (The V-22 Osprey has this capability, but critics say the vehicle is not effective at meeting military objectives.) Another likely research project is a stealth helicopter. Though some people say stealth helicopters already exist and are in use, they haven't been revealed to the public.

Some theorists see a need for a stealth plane that is designed specifically to neutralize ground targets. To date, most stealth aircraft are either surveillance vehicles or designed for air-to-air combat. There is also a need for aircraft that can rapidly deploy to any location worldwide in as short a time as possible. Projects like the rumored Aurora plane and other hypersonic vehicles fall into this category. Other rumored research projects range from cloaking technology to proton beams to antigravity devices.

Of course, these projects are only the tip of the rumored iceberg. Area 51 is arguably better known for its connection with aliens and UFOs than with any of these aircraft.