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Exclusive Area 51 Pictures: Secret Plane Crash Revealed
Published: 6:59 AM 6/3/2011

Area 51 Spy Plane, Intact

Area 51

Photograph from Roadrunners Internationale via Pangloss Films

Suspended upside down, a titanium A-12 spy-plane prototype is prepped for radar testing at Area 51 in the late 1950s. After a rash of declassifications, details of Cold War workings at the Nevada base, which to this day does not officially exist, are coming to light—including never before released images of an A-12 crash and its cover-up.

Area 51 was created so that U.S. Cold Warriors with the highest security clearances could pursue cutting-edge aeronautical projects away from prying eyes. During the 1950s and '60s Area 51’s top-secret OXCART program developed the A-12 as the successor to the U-2 spy plane.

Nearly undetectable to radar, the A-12 could fly at 2,200 miles an hour (3,540 kilometers an hour)—fast enough to cross the continental U.S. in 70 minutes. From 90,000 feet (27,400 meters), the plane's cameras could capture foot-long (0.3-meter-long) objects on the ground below.

But pushing the limits came with risks—and a catastrophic 1963 crash of an A-12 based out of Area 51.

A rapid government cover-up removed nearly all public traces of the wrecked A-12—pictured publicly for the first time in this gallery, thanks to the CIA's recent declassification of the images.

—Brian Handwerk

Stranded Far From Area 51

Area 51

Photograph from CIA via Pangloss Films

Remnants of a crashed A-12 spy plane—including two engines and the shattered rear fuselage—litter the ground near Wendover, Utah, in a 1963 picture recently declassified by the CIA and published here for the first time.

Things went horribly wrong for test pilot Ken Collins (flying under his Area 51 code name Ken Colmar) when testing the plane's subsonic engines at low altitude. At 25,000 feet (7,620 meters), "the airplane pitched up and went up and got inverted and went into a flat incipient spin," Collins says in the new National Geographic Channel documentaryArea 51 Declassified.

(The Channel is part-owned by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.) From such a position, "you just can't recover. So I thought I’d better eject, so I ejected down, because I was upside down."

U.S. officials later asked Collins to undergo hypnosis and treatments of sodium pentothal (a "truth drug") to be sure he relayed every detail of the incident truthfully and correctly.

Cover-up Crew

Area 51

Photograph from CIA via Pangloss Films

An aerial photo shows a massive rapid-response team at the site of the A-12 crash near Wendover, Utah, in 1963.

After pilot Ken Collins had parachuted to the ground, he was stunned to be greeted by three civilians in a pickup, who offered to give him a ride to the wreckage of his plane. Instead, Collins got them to give him a ride in the opposite direction, by telling them the plane had a nuclear weapon on board—a prearranged cover story to keep the Area 51 craft a secret.

Soon a team of government agents appeared to direct a complete cleanup—and cover-up—operation. By the next morning, recovery crews had begun loading the wreckage on trucks for the return trip to Area 51 in Nevada.

No one else approached the wreck site or even learned of the crash during the next half century.

Removing the Evidence

Area 51

Photograph from CIA via Pangloss Films

A government "sanitation" team uses heavy equipment, including bulldozers and cranes, to remove all traces of the A-12 spy plane from a 1963 crash site in the Utah desert.

"There was some debate over whether to dynamite the large sections of wreckage, to make identification by unauthorized personnel more difficult," said independent aerospace historian Peter Merlin.

Today that secrecy has outlived its use, according to CIA historian David Robarge, explaining why the crash photos have been declassified.

"CIA records managers review [information requests] case-by-case to determine whether the information sought is still sensitive on national-security grounds. In their judgment, the photos of the 1963 crash no longer are, and so they were declassified and released," Robarge told National Geographic News.

"In 2007 the CIA declassified over a thousand documents related to the OXCART program and published an unclassified history of it in conjunction with the acquisition from the Air Force of one of the nine remaining A-12 airframes," now on display at CIA headquarters, Robarge added.

Loading Spy-Plane Debris

Area 51

Photograph from CIA via Pangloss Films

A crane hoists A-12 debris onto a flatbed truck at the site of the 1963 A-12 crash in Utah. Part of an engine nacelle and an exhaust ejector are visible at left.

Though the CIA has released some photos of the incident, officials remain mum about exactly who was involved in the cover-up and how it was carried out. "There’s nothing I can tell you about how [this or] any other incidents were or are handled," CIA historian David Robarge said.

Aerospace historian Peter Merlin, who has examined this crash site and several others involving secret aircraft, said he's pieced together at least part of the cover-up story.

"The A-12's fuselage and wings were cut apart with blowtorches and loaded onto trucks along with the tails and other large pieces," he said. "Smaller debris was packed in boxes."

Wreckage Under Wraps

Area 51

Photograph from CIA via Pangloss Films

Before the cleanup, after pilots from Area 51 had reported that the wreck in Utah was still identifiable, crews quickly covered all large pieces with tarps.

"At the time of the crash, the OXCART program was a very closely kept secret, and any exposure of it—such as through a crash that got publicized—could have jeopardized its existence," the CIA's Robarge said.

"If U.S. adversaries used that disclosure to figure out what the program was about, they might have been able to develop countermeasures that would make the aircraft vulnerable.

"The U.S. government had to make sure that no traces of the 1963 crash might be found and give hostile powers insights into the engineering and aeronautical advances the program was making."

Pieces Left Behind

Area 51

Photograph from Pangloss Films/NGT

Shards of titanium from the wrecked A-12 scatter the crash site as aerospace historian Peter Merlin recently searches the debris field with a metal detector.

Merlin's research into recently declassified documents on the OXCART project unearthed a memorandum that reported that all traces of the plane had been removed from the crash scene in 1963.

"My experience with crash sites, however, is that there is always something left," Merlin says in the Area 51 documentary.

And in fact recent investigations of the site have turned up parts of the plane's wing structure as well as cockpit remnants still bearing the stamp "skunk works"—the covert department of the defense contractor Lockheed, which worked on the plane.

Upside Down at Area 51

Area 51

Photograph from Roadrunners Internationale via Pangloss Films

In an undated picture, a mock-up of the A-12 spy plane sits perched upside down on a testing pylon at Area 51—part of radar tests to reveal revealed how visible, or invisible, the design was to radar.

Area 51 staff had to regularly interrupt such tests and hurry prototypes into "hoot-and-scoot sheds"—lest they be detected by Soviet spy satellites.

The Soviets unwittingly provided raw materials for the unprecedented plane. The A-12 was about 93 percent titanium, a material then unheard of for aircraft design. Most of the men who built the craft are still wondering today how that metal was secretly sourced from inside the U.S.S.R., according to the new documentary.

Next Generation

Area 51

Photograph courtesy NASA

Flying intelligence missions from 1966 to 1990, the U.S. Air Force's SR-71 Blackbird (pictured: dual-cockpit version, for training) was in many ways a product of Area 51 testing and an evolution of the A-12, which was decommissioned in 1968.

Compared to the A-12, the SR-71 was larger, carried more fuel, and featured sharp sides to improve both stability and stealth. Such advances led to numerous world records for altitude and speed—including a 64-minute flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 1990. (Related: "'Hitler's Stealth Fighter' Re-created.")

Today experts at Area 51 are likely working on the next generation of aircraft. But don't expect any information to emerge for several decades—despite the recent declassifications, CIA's Robarge still won't confirm the base exists. "Sorry," he said, "I can’t say anything about it."

ON TV: Area 51 Declassified premiered on the National Geographic Channel.

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