Rumoured Top Secret Aircraft That Probably Never Flew

classified-jet (Image: Henrickson, cc-sa-3.0)

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

Images via Area51ZONE

Images by Adrian Mann

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…


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