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