Area 51 Engineer Drops Declassified Photos of the CIA’s Secret Spy Plane

Thorton D. Barnes, used with permission via Facebook

Not many aircraft have breached the Mach 3 barrier, but the short-lived, still-loved A-12 “Oxcart” is one such plane. In fact, the A-12, which started flying in 1963, still holds the record (Mach 3.29 at 90,000 feet) for air-breathing, jet piloted aircraft.

The predecessor to the SR-71 Blackbird, Lockheed’s Skunkworks built the A-12 for the same purpose: strategic, high-altitude reconnaissance. The A-12 was shorter and lighter than the SR-71, but even faster, meant to outrun enemy air defenses and bring back crucial imagery intelligence data. However, the SR-71 featured a considerably longer range, which led to the A-12’s retirement in 1968. (The SR-71, meanwhile, flew until 1999.)

Thornton “TD” D. Barnes worked on the A-12 project at the infamous Area 51 site in Nevada. Today, Barnes is the president of Roadrunners Internationale, an association of Area 51 veterans, and the author of books on Area 51 and the secret work done there.

Barnes recently posted declassified images (originally discovered by The Aviationist) of radar cross section testing on a full-sized wooden mockup of the A-12 inside Area 51. Here, Popular Mechanics shares Barnes’s photos with his permission.

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Area 51

Area 51 and Groom Lake are seen here, likely sometime in the 1960s. “Our special projects work area was the buildings at the edge of the lake,” Barnes explained on Facebook.

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A-12 Radar Cross-Section Testing

According to Barnes, this is a “full-scale A-12 mock-up in its final external configuration with all-moving rudders on stud fins. A piston-activated ram elevated the pole consisting of three battleship propeller shafts welded together to 50 feet with a rotating head for changing the (radar cross section) view.”

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Reducing a Radar Signature with Salt

Barnes and his fellow engineers worked to hide the A-12’s exhaust plumes from radar. Barnes says they ended up “adding radioactive cesium to the fuel that produced a metallic salt that, when vaporized, had a very low ionization potential and produced a plasma cloud, reducing its radar reflectibility [sic].”

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Tail Shot of the A-12 Mockup

According to Barnes, the engineers eventually had to shield the pole itself from radar waves, in order to properly gauge the A-12’s radar return.

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The “Swimming Pool”

The pylon the A-12 mockup is standing on is inflatable, and is seen here sitting in a pit engineers nicknamed “the swimming pool.”

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Engine Extensions

Here’s the A-12 with visible extensions to the engine exhausts to support radar cross section testing.

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The Nose

Here, the nose and cockpit of the A-12 are tested independent of the fuselage and wings to measure their exact radar cross signature.

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