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Area 51 Black Jets

3 March 2014

Area 51 Black Jets

Area 51 Black Jets: a history of the aircraft developed at Groom Lake, America’s secret aviation base, Bill Yenne, 2014, ISBN 9780760344262, 192 pp.

Area 51 Black Jets: a history of the aircraft developed at Groom Lake, Americas secret aviation base by Bill Yenne

Area 51 Black Jets: a history of the aircraft developed at Groom Lake, America’s secret aviation base by Bill Yenne

Whether you know it as Dreamland, Paradise Ranch, Groom Lake or Area 51 it is a facility shrouded mystery. Shedding light of many of the dark projects there, as well as many others less in the dark, author Bill Yenne also takes the reader through their history and importance. This book only just published Area 51 Black Jets begins in 1940 with the designation of an inhospitable 3,000,000 acres of land in southern Nevada as an Army bombing and gunnery range before describing a complicated evolution where areas where pieced out for a variety of government programs. The advent of the Cold War and nuclear weapon experiments brought increasing secrecy to the vast areas as well as the specified area for aeronautical experimentation as well as testing, Area 51.

Yenne blends detail and historical overview pleasingly with passion and excitement. He has a lot to tell from which must have been an immense research effort. Once through with the book it is amazing to realize there were only 192 pages as it seems like so much more must have been read given the context and revelations regarding the aircraft and programs described within. Yenne also includes 140 color photos, 90 b/w images as well as 18 diagrams in this richly made book with so many of the pages possessing background images or textures. Many sources were used for the photos but particularly those from the author’s collection as well as those of Tony Landis and Terry Panopalis underscore the finer points and are not commonly seen elsewhere.

No less than 21 aircraft are discussed (see the table below) with many more mentioned to lesser extent. Program names (sometimes shifting program names) as well as designers and pilots are there to see. Importantly, the impetus of the research as well as the resulting importance of the results are told by Yenne so one can synthesize the merits of each program into a final analysis not only the statistics. 

Area 51 has seen aircraft developed for high speeds, high altitudes, low observable technology (“stealth”) as well as long endurance. Key chapters for most are likely to be the ones on the U-2, A-12, SR-71 and F-117 and they do not disappoint. The difficulties and successes of each program are there to read as well as their niches in history. Aside from the major aspects there are many intriguing details given by Yenne which underscores his deep knowledge of these subjects, like:

  • How “Dragon Lady” came to be the nickname of the U-2/TR-1 (and not likely what the reader may expect) as well as the dynamics of the destruction of the U-2 Gary Powers piloted that fateful day

  • The ugly bureaucratic nature of the SR-71’s retirement

  • Why the F-117 was designed as a flat panel aircraft and the technological limitations which would be overcome for the curvilinear nature of future designs

 There is so much more than these chapters than these aircraft and so many historical aspects are discussed:

  • The novel mission, design philosophy and all-round stealth (as opposed to only the front) of the Northrop Tacit Blue (nicknamed “The Whale”)

  • The program start which began the Red Eagles (who flew MiGs for air combat maneuvering assessment) and migrated to the close cousin of Area 51, the Tonopah Test Range

  • The D-21 Tagboard Mach 3+ 5 ton drone launched from a modified A-12

  • UFO sightings and probable causes

  • The deep dark Aurora program

  • Several unmanned aircraft systems including those of today and the near future 

Aircraft Addressed in Area 51 Black Jets

Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady”

Lockheed D-21 Tagboard

Have Doughnut MiG 17 Fresco

Lockheed A-12 Oxcart/Archangel

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

Have Ferry MiG 17 Fresco

Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird”

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator

Have Drill MiG 21 Fishbed


Boeing X-51A Waverider

Boeing X-45 UCAV and J-UCAV

Northrop Tacit Blue “Whale”

Lockheed Martin RQ-3 Dark Star

Northrop TR-3A “Black Manta”

Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel “Beast”

DARPA Vulture

Northrop McDonnell Douglas YF-23 “Gray Ghost”

McDonnell Douglas X-36 Tailless Fighter Agility Research Aircraft

Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2)

Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)

More aircraft are addressed though to lesser extent

This book is equally suited for the aviation enthusiast as well as the historian. Area 51 Black Jets addresses so many of the seemingly innumerable as well as fantastic aeronautical advancements accomplished there. It is an incredible story told well by Bill Yenne.


As is the publishing business custom, Zenith Press and On-line Bookstore provided a copy of this book for an objective review.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 March 2014 10:58

    I am curious. What did the book say about the name “Dragonlady”?

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      3 March 2014 21:25

      Yenne relates that in 1956 the US Air Force decided to also fly the U-2 (which were CIA aircraft at the time) so they code named the program “Dragon Lady” which became the U-2 and TR-1 unofficial nickname decades later. Sometimes bureaucracy can be artful and creative — though without realizing it, of course 😉

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