Since its establishment in 1955, the Groom Lake airfield at Edwards Air Force Base—better known as Area 51—has hosted the development of some of the most exotic and advanced aircraft the world has ever seen. These so-called black projects, named for their ultra-classified nature, have produced planes like the SR-71 Blackbird, which is still the fastest and highest-operating aircraft ever built (that we know about); the F-117 Nighthawk, the world's first stealth attack aircraft; and the RQ-170, a mysterious and seldom-seen aerial reconnaissance UAV.
It's not hard to see why many of these aircraft have been mistaken for unidentified flying objects. Their extreme performance is a direct result of their outlandish designs. Just look at the D-21. This Mach 3+ recon drone looks more like the A-12 Oxcart's engines that it rides upon than any conventional UAV.
"Some of the most exotic aircraft developed and/or test-flown at Area 51 can certainly be mistaken for UFOs and indeed were reported as such on occasion, especially before the existence of these aircraft was public knowledge," Nick Pope, a journalist and author who used to investigate UFOs for the British government, told Engadget. "Some of these sighting reports came from pilots who, when confronted by something flying at heights and speeds they thought impossible, didn't know what else to think."
Pope explains that these reports often worked to the benefit of the Defense Department, as such incredulous tales would prevent Soviet intelligence analysts from prying into its beyond-top-secret projects. "It's the ultimate irony that, far from covering up the truth about UFOs (as conspiracy theorists allege), the US government may have played a large part in creating the phenomenon."
Of course, the mystery surrounding many of these projects—not to mention their reputed links to unexplainable phenomena—aren't nearly as mind-boggling for the folks actually involved in their development. Retired Air Force colonel Kenneth Collins is one of a handful of pilots who flew the A-12 Oxcart during its testing phase at Groom Lake, but he doesn't remember much hubbub regarding UFO sightings near Area 51. "The Oxcart program and Area 51 were very classified and very secret; we pilots were only given the information needed to fly the aircraft," Col. Collins said. "We never received any outside reports ... I never heard anything on the news about lights in the sky or anything unusual."
"The strangest thing for me was," Col. Collins continued, "I was in the area near my quarters and got a call from operations. So I raced over [to the airfield], got into my pressure suit, and they launched me in the A-12 to go chase down a Russian surveillance balloon that had floated over. I don't know what they thought I was going to do at Mach 3 while chasing a balloon. I went by it so quick I wasn't able to see anything. But someone had the wild idea to try it, and I was more than happy to fly."
[lede image credit: Lockheed Martin]