There is nothing more fascinating in the aviation world than the “black projects” – aircraft programs that are so secret that even those with the highest security clearance may have no idea they exist. But occasionally the veil of secrecy is accidentally lifted – or projects are declassified – offering a fleeting glimpse into this shadowy world. Here we take to the air with six different planes – some now released into the public domain, others still highly classified or even non-existent.
TR-3A Black Manta
Allegedly active during the 1980s and ’90s, little is known of the TR-3A Black Manta beyond rumour and hearsay. Popularly embraced as a subsonic stealth aircraft manufactured by Northrop Grumman (famed for its “flying wing” designs), the TR-3A was rumoured to have been used in the Gulf War in conjunction with F-117A stealth fighters, but little evidence exists to support this. Another theory – again unsubstantiated – holds that the vehicle identified as the TR-3 was a prototype for the B-2 Spirit.
Two 1977 designs from Teledyne Ryan, a firm specialising in unmanned aerial vehicles, have been linked to the TR-3A. This stems in part from the fact that “TR” stands for Teledyne Ryan – a fanciful connection considering “TR” is well known to denote “tactical reconnaissance. Teledyne Ryan was purchased by Northrop Grumman in 1999, adding fuel to the fire of conspiracy theory. But aside from a patent (below) that is said to resemble the configuration of whatever aircraft has been identified with the TR-3A, there is little, if any, credible evidence linking it to Teledyne Ryan.
(Image: United States Patent 4019699)
The designation “TR-3″ likely came about due to confusion with another black project, Tier III, which led to the RQ-3 Darkstar. Another theory holds that the aircraft dubbed the TR-3 may have grown out of the Tactical High Altitude Penetrator (THAP) studies, of which little exists in the public domain. This article discusses THAP’s potential mission as a recon-strike platform, which could account for a plethora of sightings throughout the 1980s and ’90s. However, there is significant debate over whether THAP progressed to the flight testing stage. If THAP was not responsible for the “TR-3A” sightings, it’s possible another secret demonstrator associated with the A-12 Avenger programme (below) could have been…
Flying Triangle dubbed “TR-3B”
The online world is buzzing with information about the alleged “TR-3B“, from rumours of its fantastical capabilities to intriguing video footage. Yet despite numerous sightings suggesting the existence of a large triangular aircraft that can fly slowly and quietly, little information exists about this rumoured black project. Like the TR-3A above, the designation “TR-3B” is almost certainly a misnomer.
The most dramatic claims frame the “TR-3B” as a nuclear powered tactical reconnaissance aircraft capable of disrupting gravity. But a more likely – and in many ways more interesting – argument for these strange flying triangles, is that they’re lighter-than-air vehicles or some sort of stealthy troop transport aircraft. Given the technologies proven by Have Blue and Tacit Blue in the 1970s and ’80s and the number of projects that have allegedly been tested at Groom Lake since that time, it’s not impossible to think that some of these flying triangle reports may have some substance to them, if not under the designation TR-3B.
A-12 Avenger II (and the Mysterious Jet that May Have Preceeded it)
The A-12 Avenger II was envisioned by McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics as an all-weather, carrier-based stealth bomber for the U.S. Navy and Marines. Shrowded in secrecy at the time of development in 1983, the A-12 reportedly gained the nickname “Flying Dorito”. Concept drawings and mock-ups show a flying wing design in the shape of an isosceles triangle, with the cockpit near the apex.
Development of the A-12 was hampered by problems. The project was cancelled in January 1991 by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney when the estimated price of each plane allegedly hit $165 million. The cancellation was said to be a breach of contract, resulting in years of legal wrangling. In 2009, a court finally ruled in favour of the government and ordered the contractors to pay more than a $2 billion in charges, but the battle ranges on to this day.
After the cancellation of the A-12 Avenger II the Navy purchased the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. While there was never a full scale prototype, an earlier (1976 – 1984) classified General Dynamics technology demonstrator called Model 100 (funded under the Have Key program) may have paved the way for the cancelled A-12. It has been suggested that this aircraft remains secret due to the ongoing legal issues. The A-12 has also been linked to a secret plane called Sneaky Pete, which may or may not be the Model 100, or a development thereof. We were able to locate one A-12 mock-up thanks to those savvy online explorers at Virtual Globetrotting.
The X-44 Manta was a conceptual design by Lockheed Martin, based on the original F-22 Raptor (below). The X-44 was essentially a tailless Raptor with large delta wing and advanced thrust vectoring nozzles replacing normal aerodynamic control surfaces. Benefits would be a more stealthy, light airframe, with increased fuel volume and maneuverability. The plan was to convert an early F-22 prototype but the program was allegedly terminated in 2000. The X-44 render looks similar to the proposed FB-22, reportedly cancelled in 2006.
It’s hard to know what to make of many alleged black projects. Could some of these exotic aircraft be one and the same? How much disinformation is out there? The X-44 was essentially a flying wing design with a name similar to the TR-3A “Black Manta”, although in the X-44’s case, MANTA apparently denoted Multi-Axis No-Tail Aircraft. Could this be a case of one black project’s name being mistakenly attributed to another, like TR-3 and Tier III? In 2005, GlobalSecurity.org reported that the X-44 designation may be reserved for a possible NASA full-scale manned tailless flight control demonstrator.