Top secret aircraft, even those that have been publicly disclosed, remain mysterious long after emerging from the black world. When – and if – secret planes are declassified, they’re treated differently from other military aircraft, and the specifics of their hardware may remain under wraps for decades. While some ultimately go to museums, others are placed into storage well away from prying eyes, awaiting a fate that may take years to arrive.
One such fate that has befallen crashed, retired or failed projects over the decades is burial. Aircraft have literally been dragged into deep pits miles from public land, often near the enigmatic Groom Lake test site in Nevada, famously known as Area 51. Not only does Groom serve as a testing ground for the U.S. government’s most advanced programmes, it also serves as the final resting place of many of its most secret aircraft. Some of these classified planes have never been publicly acknowledged.
Stealth Tombs at Tonopah
Despite its retirement in 2008, the famous F-117 Nighthawk ‘Stealth Fighter’ has been spotted flying again over the Nellis Test Range in Nevada. It’s believed six airframes have been reactivated (four flying and two spares), perhaps as low observable test platforms for the next generation of stealthy U.S. aircraft. The rest of the fleet, meanwhile, rests at the shadowy Tonopah Test Range Airport near Area 51. Unlike other retired military aircraft that go to ‘the Boneyard’ at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona, stealth planes contain both toxic and sensitive technologies that make them harder to dispose of. One option, therefore, is burial.
(Images: Paul Crickmore; US Air Force, public domain)
Four pre-production YF-117s are displayed at museums across the United States. A fifth was scrapped at Palmdale in April 2008 to test effective methods of destroying F-117 airframes. Meanwhile, rumours persist that the mothballed fleet is in the process of being dismantled and buried at Tonopah, miles from public land. According to AviationIntel.com: “Some have even said the jets will get their own headstones with their unique names inscribed on them for posterity sake, although USAF officials have never corroborated such a claim.” If true, it marks a strangely eerie departure from the traditional aircraft graveyard, though underscoring an ongoing respect for the deactivated F-117s.
Unmarked Aircraft Graves at Groom Lake
The Nighthawks may be the latest airframes to be entombed in the desert, but the practice is hardly new. More than 12 aircraft wrecks are known to have been buried in unmarked graves at Groom Lake since the 1950s. These include four U-2 spy planes, several A-12s (predecessors of the SR-71 Blackbird), an F-101 chase plane (crashed 1965), a Russian-built MiG-23 that had come into U.S. possession (crashed 1984) and two Lockheed Have Blue proof-of-concept aircraft that crashed near Area 51 while demonstrating technology for the F-117 in the late 1970s.
When they crashed, these aircraft were still highly classified. Lockheed engineers have since searched fruitlessly for one of the Have Blue aircraft (above), which was said to be relatively intact. But the search was terminated when diggers allegedly began unearthing other classified projects. The Have Blue’s final resting place, thought to be south of the main hangar complex, has now reportedly been paved over.
(Image: Google Earth; Have Blue burial site rumoured to be in above vicinity)
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