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Transporting the secret CIA A-12 to Groom Lake

The Challenge of Transporting the A-12's to Area 51.

By Frank Murray, A-12 Pilot andRoadrunners InternationaleHistorian


In the Fall of 2011, it occurred to me that a piece of the development history of one of my favorite airplanes,the Lockheed A-12, had not been recorded for posterity. In the first step towrite this piece,a-12 I asked TD Barnes to ask the Roadrunners members to contactme if they had any information on the transportation of the A-12s from the Skunk Works to Area 51. Several people did respond, Jim Noce, ex CIA Security Officer at Area 51, Bob Murphy,Skunk Works production manager, Sam Pizzo, USAF Navigation Section Chief were the principal respondents. Jim's message to me reads as follows:

To whom it may concern:

My name is Jim Noce, and I recall being on those moves from the "Skunk Works" to the ranch. We left the Area early in the morning taking turns driving until we reached Burbank. When we arrived, the Article was concealed in a huge crate and covered with a tarp on the semi ready to travel.We headed East on the Freeway, and the California State Patrol giving escort.

The CSP had long poles along the route to clear hanging power lines or unpin road signs hinged for clearance purposes. When we reached the CA/NV border we pulled to side of the road and ate sack lunches made-up from the mess hall at the Area. We also had igloo coolers of lemonade and thermos's of hot coffee or chocolate. We also had soda pop. Not bad for the 60's.

After we had lunch, we headed up Highway 95 until we reached Mercury that had security clearance for our entering the Atomic Proving Grounds. I may be wrong but I think that once we reached the Ranch, the Article was uncrated and put on a cart by something like a cherry picker. I do believe the box was broken down and loaded back on the trailer and sent back to Burbank. I never knew of anyone taking pictures from our group. I do recall the incident where a Greyhound bus barely scraped the side of the box, and the bus driver was given cash to fix the few scratches avoiding insurance claims.

Sincerely, Jim Noce

Former CIA agent Area 51.

Bob Murphy took on the work of looking for people with first hand knowledge of the movement of the A-12's to the Area. He told me that many of the people that did that work were deceased now. He was able to identify the names of those involved from living associates. He did relate how the transport boxes were built and by whom.

Sam Pizzo related how he saw the Articles arrive and how the operation went at the Area.


This is a brief history of some of the happenings almost fifty years ago, along the way to develop the Lockheed Family of Blackbirds,the A-12 and YF-12 airplanes, built in the Skunk Works inBurbank, California, then transported many miles to Nevada for final assembly and flight testing. Little has been recorded about these efforts; suffice it to say the transportation endeavor presented many perplexing tasks for Lockheed Corporation. After all, Lockheed is an airplane builder, not a moving company.

Home Base, Area 51.

From the onset of the OXCART Project, the need to test the new airplane in a secure place ruled out the Burbank Airport. Lockheed investigated places around the western states for secure basing, away from inquiring eyes. Lockheed Chief Test Pilot, Tony Levier was responsible for the search for a usable secure test site to test and develop the U-2 airplane His recommendation was to use the Groom Lake area, within the secure area of the then Atomic Energy Agency (AEC) known as Area 51.

This Area had been built up, a runway and some shelter hangars built to provide a test/training base for the U-2 airplane. Area 51 facilities worked well in the mid 50's so further enhancements to support the A-12 development were started in 1960. Two shiftwork crews built a new runway, developed the hangar structures and shop spaces to support the final building of the A-12/YF-12's. Old family quarters (duplexes) were moved from the Naval Ordnance Base at Hawthorne, Nevada. Moving 85 old wooden structures was no mean feat. These buildings originally housed two families each. The buildings were modified by removing the separation wall inside the doorways, removing the kitchen facilities and configuring the living space for one rather spacious living room, two bathrooms, and four or more bedrooms. This author spent most of five years living in one of these houses.

Building the transportation system

As the A-12 airplane was being built in the Skunk Works; the transportation carriages (boxes) were designed and built alongside the A-12. (Photos 1,2,3,4) The Lockheed team that

Photo #1
Photo #1

style="font-size: 12pt">designed the transportation system was led by Mr. Leon Gavett. The construction was done by George Perkle and his crew. The exterior box frames were made off our inch aluminum tubing. The larger box was designed to carry the airplane on its own landing gear. The load carrying frame was made of steel with wheeled suspension and load bearing pads to suit the position of the A-12 landing gear.The airplane would be towed into position on the trailer, locked to that frame, then, the aluminum framework would be lifted into position over the airplane and its trailer. The aluminum frame mainly provided a structure for holding the fabric cover in place. The front of the boxes had metal skins to shield

Photo #2
Photo #2

style="font-size: 12pt"the load from road winds/debris. The larger box was towed by the wider end, the airplane inside with the trailing edge going forward. The large box had steerable suspension wheels located at the narrow end for positioning.

Two boxes were built, one much larger to carry the mostly complete airframe and a smaller box to carry there movable parts such as the outer wing/nacelles and the rudders and other smaller parts. Engines were transported separately. The boxes were towed by Lockheed company tractors and drivers. Tom Richey and Stan Grants drove the trucks pulling the boxes.

Uploading the A-12.

The A-12 was prepared for loading into the transportation box as follows. The rudders and outer wing panels and outer nacelles were

Photo #3
Photo #3

style="font-size: 12pt"removed and stowed in the smaller trailer, the airplane nose section in front of the windshield was removed as well. A transportation fixture was built to support/steady the nose of the airplane in the box.This fixture is shown attached in photos #5 & #5a.

Photo #4
Photo #4

The landing gear provided the necessary shock support for the ride on the highways. After the airplane was secured in the box, the aluminum tube frame was hoisted into position and secured to the trailer frame.Then the side and top covers were installed and the tractor could then be attached to move the box out of the Skunk Works and onto the road. Depicted inthe photo #3 is an A-12 loaded on the box for a fit check. Note the small box behind the loaded big box.

The team required to move this convoy consisted of the following:
*Two California Highway Patrol (CHP) cars with at least two officers.

*The Lockheed truck drivers.

* Five Lockheed mechanics to handle obstacle removal duties, general support.

Photo #5
Photo #5

*Two CIA Security officers for surveillance, these people came from Area 51.

Note: CHP escort ended at the Nevada state line North of Baker, CA. Nevada Highway Patrol did not escort the convoy.

Getting ready to roll.

Photo #5
Photo #5a

The travel route was preplanned with coordination of the California Highway Patrol. Lockheed transportation leader Dorsey Kammerer and Bud Rice started investigating the travel route in June 1961 to ascertain the obstacles to movement, mainly of the larger box which measured 105 feet long and 35 feet wide. Kammerer and Rice configured a pick-up truck with a set of adjustable spreader and height poles to ascertain the needed clear path.

It was obvious early on that many sign posts along the planned path

Photo #6
Photo #6

style="font-size: 12pt"must be removed to allow movement of the convoy, as well as some grading of road sides. Many such posts were cut off and reinstalled with hinges to allow free movement, then replaced to upright after the convoy passes by.

A team of Lockheed mechanics accompanied the convoy to move obstacles to clear the path. The route to be used to transport the airplanes is shown on the attached map, Fig 1. The distance to be traveled oneway is approximately 260 miles.

Photo #7
Photo #7

Consider that numerous trips were planned in order to deliver the fifteen A-12's and the three YF-12's. In all,eighteen trips were needed to carry these valuable cargos to the Area.

The first convoy with Article 121onboard departed the Skunk Works on 26 February 1962. The convoy arrived at Area 51 that day. A truly difficult task moving outsize cargos along existing roadways. Pictures 7and 8 show the convoy working its way along the route near Cajon Pass on

Photo #7a
Photo #7a

style="font-size: 12pt"Interstate 15.

Traffic following this convoy must have been exasperated by the slow pace; little did they know that the fastest airplane in the world was in the slow moving convoy. Picture 8 shows the wide load of the bigger box moving across a narrow roadway overpass.

Once the convoy moved out to more wide open spaces it must have been better for the drivers of these loads. Several months passed before the convoy reconvened to move the next A-12.

Photo #7
Photo #8

Article 122 was moved to the Area on 26 June 1962, followed by Article 123 in August 1962. The two-seat trainer, Article 124 got to the Area in November 1962, then Article 125 before Christmas1962. The other A-12's and the three YF-12's all arrived by mid 1964. After each delivery, the boxes were reconfigured into smaller packages for easier return to the plant in Burbank without Highway Patrol escort.

Downloading at Area 51.

The final leg of the journey to Area 51 was from Mercury, Nevada, the headquarters area for the then Atomic Energy Commission (AEC),

Photo #7
Photo #9

style="font-size: 12pt"on to Area 51. The main road thru AEC territory passes through historic nuclear weapons testing areas of Frenchman's Flat, Yucca Flat and on to the North gate post. Once outside the AEC controlled areas, the road winds eastward until you arrive at Area 51. The workers at the Nevada Test Site of AEC must have wondered what such a convoy would be carrying. Once at the Area, the boxes would proceed to the main hangar complex. These hangars were the ones that had been removed from some Navy Air base,

Photo #10
Photo #10

style="font-size: 12pt"disassembled and reassembled at the Area for use as factory assembly points for the Blackbirds. Picture 9 shows the box entering the hangar at the Area. Picture 10 shows the fabric covering being removed. After this the tubular framework could be lifted clear and the airplane could be freed from the trailer and towed off the transporter.

The task of transporting an airplane was complete and the boxes could be disassembled and reconfigured for return to the Skunk Works without need for Police escort.

The last time the TransportationSystem was used was in 1964 when it was used to move the first three SR-71's to Palmdale for final assembly and Flight test. The mission of this system was now completed and so ends my rendition of the enormous efforts put forward to move these airplanes in secrecy without a hitch.

The people that did this work are some of the unsung heroes of the OXCART Program.

Fig #1

Figure 1

The Search for A-12 Article #125

Walt Ray

A-12 (60-6928 / 125) was lost on 5 January 1967 during a training sortie flown from Groom Lake. Its pilot, Walter L. Ray became the first CIA Project OXCART A-12 pilot killed in the line of duty and is so honored in the "Book of Honor", CIA Headquarters at Langley, Va. CIA pilots lost at Groom Lake prior to Ray are: CIA U-2 pilots Rose Grace and Carey were killed in 1956. CIA U-2 pilot Buster Edens in 1965 in Project AQUATONE.

More about Walt Ray is posted at: Walt Ray< .a>

A-12 (60-6928 / 125) was lost on 5 January 1967 during a training sortie flown from Groom Lake. Its pilot, Walter L. Ray became the first CIA pilot killed in the line of duty and is so honored in the "Book of Honor", CIA Headquarters in McLean, Va.

In 1997, Jeremy Krans, a resident of the state of Wisconsin realized that no memorial had ever been erected at the crash site of Walt Ray and A-12 Article #125. He researched the location of the crash site, a site that remained secret for many years. If the location was every known, it had become long lost to the public over the passage of time. Krans made several trips to the high desert of Nevada in search of the site. Each time, his expedition grew in size as his family and friends joined to show their patriotic respect to a secret warrior of the Cold War. Krans and all concerned, are to be commended for this gallant show of American gratitude to the memory of Walt Ray.

Crash Site of Walt Ray and A-12 Article 125

2011desert11.jpg walt_ray_crash_marker.jpg walt_ray_crash_marker_chopped.jpg

Photos of the expeditions can be viewed at: Story and Photos

SR-71 Pilot Buddy Brown Blackbird in Trouble



Bill Weaver Mach 3+ Blackbird Breakup


Among professional aviators, there’s a well-worn saying: Flying is simply hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. And yet, I don’t recall too many periods of boredom during my 30-year career with Lockheed, most of which was spent as a test pilot.

By far, the most memorable flight occurred on Jan. 25, 1966. Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight test reconnaissance and navigation systems specialist, and I were evaluating those systems on an SR-71 Blackbird test from Edwards AFB, Calif. We also were investigating procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high-Mach cruise performance. The latter involved flying with the center-of-gravity (CG) located further aft than normal, which reduced the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.

We took off from Edwards at 11:20 a.m. and completed the mission’s first leg without incident. After refueling from a KC-135 tanker, we turned eastbound, accelerated to a Mach 3.2-cruise speed and climbed to 78,000 ft., our initial cruise-climb altitude.

Several minutes into cruise, the right engine inlet’s automatic control system malfunctioned, requiring a switch to manual control. The SR-71’s inlet configuration was automatically adjusted during supersonic flight to decelerate air flow in the duct, slowing it to subsonic speed before reaching the engine’s face. This was accomplished by the inlet’s center-body spike translating aft, and by modulating the inlet’s forward bypass doors. Normally, these actions were scheduled automatically as a function of Mach number, positioning the normal shock wave (where air flow becomes subsonic) inside the inlet to ensure optimum engine performance.

Without proper scheduling, disturbances inside the inlet could result in the shock wave being expelled forward–a phenomenon known as an “inlet unstart.” That causes an instantaneous loss of engine thrust, explosive banging noises and violent yawing of the aircraft–like being in a train wreck. Unstarts were not uncommon at that time in the SR-71’s development, but a properly functioning system would recapture the shock wave and restore normal operation.

On the planned test profile, we entered a programmed 35-deg. bank turn to the right. An immediate unstart occurred on the right engine, forcing the aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. I jammed the control stick as far left and forward as it would go. No response. I instantly knew we were in for a wild ride.

I attempted to tell Jim what was happening and to stay with the airplane until we reached a lower speed and altitude. I didn’t think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 ft. were very good. However, g-forces built up so rapidly that my words came out garbled and unintelligible, as confirmed later by the cockpit voice recorder.

The cumulative effects of system malfunctions, reduced longitudinal stability, increased angle-of-attack in the turn, supersonic speed, high altitude and other factors imposed forces on the airframe that exceeded flight control authority and the Stability Augmentation System’s ability to restore control.

Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion. I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only 2-3 sec. Still trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces. The SR-71 then literally disintegrated around us. From that point, I was just along for the ride.

My next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream. Maybe I’ll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I could not have survived what had just happened. Therefore, I must be dead. Since I didn’t feel bad–just a detached sense of euphoria–I decided being dead wasn’t so bad after all. AS FULL AWARENESS took hold, I realized I was not dead, but had somehow separated from the airplane. I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s face plate had frozen over and I was staring at a layer of ice.

The pressure suit was inflated, so I knew an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to my parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen, but also pressurized the suit, preventing my blood from boiling at extremely high altitudes. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become my own escape capsule.

My next concern was about stability and tumbling. Air density at high altitude is insufficient to resist a body’s tumbling motions, and centrifugal forces high enough to cause physical injury could develop quickly. For that reason, the SR-71’s parachute system was designed to automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing chute shortly after ejection and seat separation. Since I had not intentionally activated the ejection system–and assuming all automatic functions depended on a proper ejection sequence–it occurred to me the stabilizing chute may not have deployed.

However, I quickly determined I was falling vertically and not tumbling. The little chute must have deployed and was doing its job. Next concern: the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically at 15,000 ft. Again I had no assurance the automatic-opening function would work. I couldn’t ascertain my altitude because I still couldn’t see through the iced-up face plate. There was no way to know how long I had been blacked-out or how far I had fallen. I felt for the manual-activation D-ring on my chute harness, but with the suit inflated and my hands numbed by cold, I couldn’t locate it. I decided I’d better open the face plate, try to estimate my height above the ground, then locate that “D” ring. Just as I reached for the face plate, I felt the reassuring sudden deceleration of main-chute deployment. I raised the frozen face plate and discovered its uplatch was broken. Using one hand to hold that plate up, I saw I was descending through a clear, winter sky with unlimited visibility. I was greatly relieved to see Jim’s parachute coming down about a quarter of a mile away. I didn’t think either of us could have survived the aircraft’s breakup, so seeing Jim had also escaped lifted my spirits incredibly.

I could also see burning wreckage on the ground a few miles from where we would land. The terrain didn’t look at all inviting–a desolate, high plateau dotted with patches of snow and no signs of habitation. I tried to rotate the parachute and look in other directions. But with one hand devoted to keeping the face plate up and both hands numb from high-altitude, subfreezing temperatures, I couldn’t manipulate the risers enough to turn. Before the breakup, we’d started a turn in the New Mexico-Colorado-Oklahoma-Texas border region. The SR-71 had a turning radius of about 100 mi. at that speed and altitude, so I wasn’t even sure what state we were going to land in. But, because it was about 3:00 p.m., I was certain we would be spending the night out here.

At about 300 ft. above the ground, I yanked the seat kit’s release handle and made sure it was still tied to me by a long lanyard. Releasing the heavy kit ensured I wouldn’t land with it attached to my derriere, which could break a leg or cause other injuries. I then tried to recall what survival items were in that kit, as well as techniques I had been taught in survival training.

Looking down, I was startled to see a fairly large animal–perhaps an antelope–directly under me. Evidently, it was just as startled as I was because it literally took off in a cloud of dust.

My first-ever parachute landing was pretty smooth. I landed on fairly soft ground, managing to avoid rocks, cacti and antelopes. My chute was still billowing in the wind, though. I struggled to collapse it with one hand, holding the still-frozen face plate up with the other.

“Can I help you?” a voice said. Was I hearing things? I must be hallucinating. Then I looked up and saw a guy walking toward me, wearing a cowboy hat. A helicopter was idling a short distance behind him. If I had been at Edwards and told the search-and-rescue unit that I was going to bail out over the Rogers Dry Lake at a particular time of day, a crew couldn’t have gotten to me as fast as that cowboy-pilot had.

The gentleman was Albert Mitchell, Jr., owner of a huge cattle ranch in northeastern New Mexico. I had landed about 1.5 mi. from his ranch house–and from a hangar for his two-place Hughes helicopter. Amazed to see him, I replied I was having a little trouble with my chute. He walked over and collapsed the canopy, anchoring it with several rocks. He had seen Jim and me floating down and had radioed the New Mexico Highway Patrol, the Air Force and the nearest hospital.

Extracting myself from the parachute harness, I discovered the source of those flapping-strap noises heard on the way down. My seat belt and shoulder harness were still draped around me, attached and latched. The lap belt had been shredded on each side of my hips, where the straps had fed through knurled adjustment rollers. The shoulder harness had shredded in a similar manner across my back. The ejection seat had never left the airplane; I had been ripped out of it by the extreme forces, seat belt and shoulder harness still fastened.

I also noted that one of the two lines that supplied oxygen to my pressure suit had come loose, and the other was barely hanging on. If that second line had become detached at high altitude, the deflated pressure suit wouldn t have provided any protection. I knew an oxygen supply was critical for breathing and suit-pressurization, but didn’t appreciate how much physical protection an inflated pressure suit could provide. That the suit could withstand forces sufficient to disintegrate an airplane and shred heavy nylon seat belts, yet leave me with only a few bruises and minor whiplash was impressive. I truly appreciated having my own little escape capsule. After helping me with the chute, Mitchell said he’d check on Jim. He climbed into his helicopter, flew a short distance away and returned about 10 min. later with devastating news: Jim was dead. Apparently, he had suffered a broken neck during the aircraft’s disintegration and was killed instantly. Mitchell said his ranch foreman would soon arrive to watch over Jim’s body until the authorities arrived.

I asked to see Jim and, after verifying there was nothing more that could be done, agreed to let Mitchell fly me to the Tucumcari hospital, about 60 mi. to the south.

I have vivid memories of that helicopter flight, as well. I didn’t know much about rotorcraft, but I knew a lot about “red lines,” and Mitchell kept the airspeed at or above red line all the way. The little helicopter vibrated and shook a lot more than I thought it should have. I tried to reassure the cowboy-pilot I was feeling OK; there was no need to rush. But since he’d notified the hospital staff that we were inbound, he insisted we get there as soon as possible. I couldn’t help but think how ironic it would be to have survived one disaster only to be done in by the helicopter that had come to my rescue.

However, we made it to the hospital safely–and quickly. Soon, I was able to contact Lockheed’s flight test office at Edwards. The test team there had been notified initially about the loss of radio and radar contact, then told the aircraft had been lost. They also knew what our flight conditions had been at the time, and assumed no one could have survived. I briefly explained what had happened, describing in fairly accurate detail the flight conditions prior to breakup.

The next day, our flight profile was duplicated on the SR-71 flight simulator at Beale AFB, Calif. The outcome was identical. Steps were immediately taken to prevent a recurrence of our accident. Testing at a CG aft of normal limits was discontinued, and trim-drag issues were subsequently resolved via aerodynamic means. The inlet control system was continuously improved and, with subsequent development of the Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System, inlet unstarts became rare. Investigation of our accident revealed that the nose section of the aircraft had broken off aft of the rear cockpit and crashed about 10 mi. from the main wreckage. Parts were scattered over an area approximately 15 mi. long and 10 mi. wide. Extremely high air loads and g-forces, both positive and negative, had literally ripped Jim and me from the airplane. Unbelievably good luck is the only explanation for my escaping relatively unscathed from that disintegrating aircraft.

Two weeks after the accident, I was back in an SR-71, flying the first sortie on a brand-new bird at Lockheed’s Palmdale, Calif., assembly and test facility. It was my first flight since the accident, so a flight test engineer in the back seat was probably a little apprehensive about my state of mind and confidence. As we roared down the runway and lifted off, I heard an anxious voice over the intercom. “Bill! Bill! Are you there?”

“Yeah, George. What’s the matter?”

“Thank God! I thought you might have left.” The rear cockpit of the SR-71 has no forward visibility–only a small window on each side–and George couldn’t see me. A big red light on the master-warning panel in the rear cockpit had illuminated just as we rotated, stating, “Pilot Ejected.” Fortunately, the cause was a misadjusted microswitch, not my departure. Bill Weaver flight tested all models of the Mach-2 F-104 Starfighter and the entire family of Mach 3+ Blackbirds–the A-12, YF-12 and SR-71. He subsequently was assigned to Lockheed’s L-1011 project as an engineering test pilot, became the company’s chief pilot and retired as Division Manager of Commercial Flying Operations. He still flies Orbital Sciences Corp.’s L-1011, which has been modified to carry a Pegasus satellite-launch vehicle (AW&ST Aug. 25, 2003, p. 56). An FAA Designated Engineering Representative Flight Test Pilot, he’s also involved in various aircraft-modification projects, conducting certification flight tests.

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