For the past 50 years, the military has shrouded its most clandestine operations in the remote deserts of California and Nevada, producing aircraft that pushed the limits of technology and
military intelligence. With evocative names such as Dreamland, the Ranch, Area 51 and Groom Lake, these secluded test sites served as launching pads for aeronautical innovation, not to mention several waves of UFO hysteria. It was commonly known that "something strange was going on in the desert," but accounts in the media ranged from partial truths to complete fabrications.
In "Dark Eagles: A History of Top Secret U.S. Aircraft" (Presidio Press, 400 pp), aviation historian Curtis Peebles doggedly extracts fact from a mountain of speculation and conjecture that festered during the Cold War. Sifting through volumes of declassified military documents, he chronicles the development of a series of "black" airplanes -- planes tested and operated under deep secrecy -- and the fundamental changes in airpower and military strategy that resulted from such efforts.
The book opens at the dawn of the jet age with a detailed explanation of the XP59A, the first black airplane produced and tested in the early 1940s. Peebles then focuses on the United States' quest for information about the Soviet Union during the 1950s and developments in reconnaissance aircraft, especially the U2. He uncovers the earliest beginnings of stealth technology and the success Lockheed Corp. reached with the Have Blue 1001, a plane virtually invisible to ground radar, and the phased out ultrasecret A-12, one of the most exotic aircraft ever built. Jet and stealth technology then converge to produce the F-117A Senior Trend, the aircraft credited with the swift Allied victory in the Persian Gulf War.
Laden with technical detail, Dark Eagles appeals more to the aerospace aficionado than the curious layman. Peebles painstakingly presents the development of each aircraft textbook style -- replete with footnotes. The book's cast of characters changes with the crew of each new plane, and readers unfamiliar with military history may find it difficult to appreciate the author's finer points. For example, each chapter begins with a quote from Sun Tzu, a fourth century B.C. military strategist and reputed author of the great Chinese classic Ping-fa (The Art of War), although Sun Tzu is never identified in the book.
If the reader is patient enough, however, Dark Eagles offers intriguing anecdotes: narrow escapes in enemy territory, botched flights and lost planes, secret reconnaissance missions and Cold War hostilities. The F-117A project was so clandestine that the pilots could fly only at night -- like vampires, they were indoors before sun up.
"There was one thing wrong with flying higher than any other man had flown," says U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. "You couldn't brag about it."
But efforts to keep the eagles in the dark did not go unchecked. Peebles focuses on the adversarial relationship between the press and the military and reiterates a debate that fomented during the Cuban Missile Crisis and resurfaced during the gulf war: "What is more important -- the public's right to know or national security?" Peebles' opinion is undeniably clear. He criticizes the fourth estate's attempt to shed light on the black aircraft during the Cold War -- reports that informed the American people but also gave clues to the Soviets that helped them develop their own spy planes.
In the final chapters, Peebles grows increasingly impassioned, lauding the successes of the dark eagles and lamenting the public's obsession with the Aurora, a rumored stealth aircraft that is believed to achieve Mach 5 (3,800 mph) and reach altitudes of more than 100,000 feet. Despite several formal denials by Pentagon officials, antigovernment hysteria has linked the Aurora to sightings of flying saucers.
In fact, Peebles has written about the Aurora and UFOs extensively, most recently in "Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth." Again, he blames the media -- including television shows such as the X-Files and Hard Copy -- for fueling outlandish government conspiracy theories. According to Peebles, no member of the popular press is immune to sensationalism. "The media at all levels increasingly slips into a tabloid mentality," he writes in Dark Eagles, "and coverage is often presented as entertainment, where the 'story' becomes more important than the facts, and the truth becomes irrelevant."
Certainly, Dark Eagles makes no attempt to resemble a Tom Clancy thriller. Instead, it offers an informative if academic glimpse into the military's most closely guarded secrets -- those Peebles believes will carry aeronautical innovation into the 21st century. "Out in the desert at a place whose name is never spoken," he concludes, "the future of military aviation technology awaits."
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