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.
HALO (High Altitude Low Observability) / BAE Replica
(Image: Stridus, public domain)
Like other black projects, Britain’s effort to create a stealth demonstrator remains shadowy, despite cancellation in the 1990s. The Replica program was a BAE Systems design study tied in with the RAF’s now defunct Future Offensive Air System (FOAS). It is known to have run from 1994 to 1999, with a full-sized mock-up subjected to rigorous testing to determine its radar cross section (above).
FOAS set out to replace the RAF’s Tornado GR4 jets with a range of manned and unmanned platforms by 2017. The program was cancelled in June 2005 after the UK joined the U.S. Joint-Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) program, which was itself cancelled the next year but later revived as the Navy-only UCAS-D program. After the termination of FOAS, knowledge gained from Replica was poured into the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Initial arguments over Britain’s access to the JSF source code prompted Britain to consider a potential alternative. While likely referring to an adapted Eurofighter Typhoon, Replica remains in the shadows, despite public acknowledgement of the program and photos of the full scale mock-up stored at BAE Warton. This could be due to the ongoing use of Replica’s technology in forthcoming projects, such as the JSF, but also Taranis, a BAE unmanned demonstrator. Again publicly acknowledged, Taranis is set to fly next year although sightings suggest it – or perhaps something else – flew in 2009, which the British government vehemently denies.
Aurora – Hypersonic Spyplane
The Aurora spyplane is the world’s most famous top secret aircraft, and a reliable photograph would be one of the most coveted finds in the history of classified aviation. Historically presented as a hypersonic replacement for the ageing SR-71 Blackbird spyplane (below), there’s considerable evidence available in the public domain to suggest no specific aircraft called “Aurora” ever existed.
The name “Aurora” reportedly slipped out in the 1985 US budget alongside an allocation of $455 million for “black aircraft production”. Excited journalists, writing in the March 1990 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology, linked “Aurora” to the reported black aircraft, and later to a family of exotic aviation projects, claiming that by 1987 funding had reached $2.3 billion. Ben Rich, former director of the Lockheed Skunk Works (which built the F-117, below), said there never was a hypersonic Blackbird follow-on and claimed Aurora was the name given to the B-2 Stealth Bomber competition funding.
Helping to fuel the Aurora legend was a disjointed catalogue of sightings and mysterious sonic booms. The most compelling sighting came in August 1989, when Chris Gibson, an engineer aboard the Galveston Key rig in the North Sea, observed a strange isosceles triangle-shaped aircraft refuelling from a KC-135 Stratotanker, escorted by two F-111 bombers. Gibson, a member of the Royal Observer Corps and trained aircraft recognition expert, could not identify the mysterious plane.
In the early 1990s, the disclosed “Aurora” designation and the “North Sea sighting” were linked to several other reports that helped perpetuate the story of a top secret SR-71 follow-on. One was a report of an aircraft over Amarillo, Texas, with an engine described as emitting a “strange, loud pulsating roar”. Caught on film was an alleged “donuts-on-a-rope” contrail that has become synonymous with the Aurora myth. While some attribute this to a potential pulse wave detonation engine, others have argued the contrails could have been made by ordinary jet aircraft.
Finally, a series of bizarre sonic booms heard over California up until 1993 were attributed to Aurora after seismologists concluded they did not characterise earthquakes, but indictated “something at 90,000 feet, Mach 4 to Mach 5.2″. Intriguingly, each unexplained sonic boom came on a Thursday morning between 6 and 7am. In addition, Groom Lake (Area 51) has a six mile long runway, now closed, that some say would be a requirement for testing a high speed, mach 5 plus, aircraft.
It’s telling that, more than 20 years after Aurora debuted in aviation and popular science publications, no solid evidence has been found to support its existence, despite the hype and hordes of investigators digging for information. At this point it seems likely that the top secret aircraft known as Aurora stems from sightings of various aircraft (some potentially black projects) and not necessarily a single airframe. That said, Chris Gibson’s sighting and the strange skyquakes remain a mystery to this day.
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