(Image: Google Earth)
Groom Lake, the highly classified US government test site in the Nevada Desert, known as Area 51, is one of the world’s most intriguing and best known military facilities. But despite its popularity among aviation enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists, what goes on there remains top secret and firmly under wraps. Essentially, though, it equates to the discreet testing of next-generation aircraft and related technologies.
But the question remains, what happens to these classified planes when their development or technology demonstration programmes come to an end? It’s a matter of public knowledge that various secret projects have been buried within the Nellis Test Range over the years – one example being Lockheed’s low observable Have Blue proof-of-concept aircraft, which paved the way for the groundbreaking F-117 Stealth Fighter. The more fortunate airframes, however, are thought to be retired to a mysterious hangar known as ‘Dyson’s Dock’, where they await their eventual fate – declassification or disposal.
What is Dyson’s Dock?
(Image: CIA, public domain – Lockheed A-12s while in secret storage at Palmdale, CA)
Dyson’s Dock’s precise function remains unclear, but the most likely explanation suggests that it’s a storage facility for projects that have run their course but aren’t ready to be unveiled publicly. Its location is thought to be within Area 51’s massive Hangar 18 complex (top), possibly in a lower bay beneath office space on the west side of the building.
Some references to Dyson’s Dock point to a classified museum, where base workers with the appropriate security clearance can view past projects in all their glory – essentially a warehouse full of planes that you and I will never get to see, despite many of them likely being rather conventional in design. Others, however, assert that projects remain segregated, and that few people are cleared to view all of them.
(Image: US Air Force – F-117s stored at Tonopah Test Range)
But if the thought of a classified museum seems a bit far-fetched, a more plausible explanation holds that Dyson’s Dock is a place where high ranking US officials visiting Groom Lake can witness retired projects that successfully achieved their objectives.
Commenting on a previous Urban Ghosts article about top secret aircraft graveyards, respected contributor ‘Shadowhawk’ wrote on the ATS forum: “I have heard testimony from multiple sources (including former high ranking base command staff) about the “secret museum” in which examples of classified aircraft were preserved for VIP show-and-tell.”
What’s inside Dyson’s Dock?
(Image: USAF via Stratosphere Models – Lockheed FDL-5 replica)
It’s impossible to know for certain what aircraft, manned or unmanned, sit collecting dust in Dyson’s Dock. Multiple sightings of strange and unidentified planes over the decades offer tantalising clues, though their reliability is often questionable. Two articles written by Aviation Week’s Bill Scott, however, about a rumoured spaceplane sighted at Kadena AFB and a triangular aircraft seen flying with F-117s, may offer some insight.
Other aircraft inhabiting ‘the Dock’ may include a late ’70s/early ’80s General Dynamics spanloader designated Model 100 (aka Sneaky Pete), a less stealthy aircraft than its contemporary, Have Blue, that may have tested technologies later used in the ill- fated A-12 Avenger II; a manned aircraft from the 1990s identified as the YF-24, thought variously to be a classified demonstrator, a foreign aircraft under secret evaluation, the misidentification of a Boeing project known as Model-24F, or a straightforward typo on a test pilot’s biography (read more about it here); and a pair of optionally manned flying wing demonstrators known as Tier 3. Whether these aircraft really are in Dyson’s Dock, or indeed whether they were built and flown at all, remains a topic of debate for which we may never know the answer.
It is telling that since the late 1980s, only three manned black projects (excluding the F-117A) have been unveiled – Lockheed Have Blue, Northrop Tacit Blue and Boeing Bird of Prey (above). Of these, only the latter two are publicly displayed, while the wrecks of both Have Blue airframes were buried within the Nellis Test Range following crashes that both pilots thankfully survived.
Lockheed officials reportedly searched unsuccessfully for the more intact of the Have Blue demonstrators, which is supposedly buried under what is now a taxiway to the south of the Groom Lake installation. Others, meanwhile, have speculated that the wreckage would be a good fit for Dyson’s Dock, though there is no solid evidence to suggest it’s in there.
Another highly successful project directly descended from Have Blue was the F-117 Nighthawk. Of these, only four YF-117 full scale development aircraft are on display, with the exception of a few pieces of wreckage in a Belgrade museum and a hybrid airframe outside the Lockheed Skunk Works plant in Palmdale (above). The remainder of the retired fleet sits in secure storage at the shadowy Tonopah Test Range Airport near Groom, though a small number have been seen flying again over the Nellis Range. Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that one of these could find its way into Dyson’s Dock?
Black Projects Past
Based on the likelihood that space is of a premium, however, the F-117 theory may not hold water. Tacit Blue was retired from flying duties in 1985 and allegedly sat in Dyson’s Dock for 11 years before it was finally declassified in 1996. The story goes that the aircraft was set to be disposed of, by scrapping or burial, but those that made the project a success lobbied for its preservation. It can now be seen at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
Meanwhile, Bird of Prey, a company-funded project, sat in the Dock from 1999 until 2002. It was eventually unveiled by Boeing due to the technologies that it helped mature becoming industry standard. Like Tacit Blue, the Bird of Prey can be seen hanging from the ceiling of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton.
It stands to reason that as modern test aircraft are retired, older x-planes must be cleared out to make room. The fact that only three manned black projects have been disclosed in the last 25 years doesn’t bode well for aviation enthusiasts eager to discover what else is out there, or merely confirm their suspicions. While we’re not likely to get a glimpse inside Dyson’s Dock any time soon, we can but hope (perhaps unrealistically) that a few more engineering marvels are revealed in the not too distant future.
But only time will tell whether they’re wheeled out intact, or come in the form of a grainy photograph of a battered demonstrator long since bulldozed into a deep hole miles from public land – no doubt the fate of many long abandoned black projects that may never be disclosed despite their vintage, their success or indeed their failure.