In 1968, 31-year-old hypersonic flight specialist Thornton "T.D." Barnes reported to Groom Lake, the remote Southern Nevada military base also known as Area 51.
He began work on the CIA's top-secret Project OXCART. Over the next seven years, he and many of his colleagues knew one another only by aliases. For additional secrecy, several of them lived in California, commuting to work each day by plane.
Barnes' cover permitted him to go home to nearby Beatty, Nevada, but he couldn't tell his wife, Doris, what he did at work. She only knew that it was top-secret. His children knew even less. "They got used to it," he recalls. "They grew up not expecting me to talk shop when I came home. None of them knew until two years ago, when it was declassified."
He means the CIA's September 2007 declassification of its Groom Lake aircraft testing, new information in spite of which questions remain. To say the least. Area 51 still is heard in the same breath as Roswell, Amityville and Loch Ness.
Aerospace historian Michael Schratt suspects that extraterrestrial technology was utilized at Area 51 and remains secret "because it will make every man, woman and child on the planet energy independent." Schratt's theories gained some prominence in July 2007 when he produced the following photograph:
During a recent interview, Schratt told me that the picture in fact is "a computer-generated forensic composite" that he commissioned. Here is the undoctored original photo:
Here’s another "computer-generated forensic composite."
But there were UFOs at Area 51, according to Barnes.
"We were the UFOs," he says. "We were, to a great extent, the sightings being reported."
The flying objects in question include the family of spy planes known as Blackbirds, technological marvels that could fly at heights of 90,000 feet (or about three times the altitude of DC-9s more commonly seen in that era) and speeds near 2,500 mph (think ten football fields in a second), figures that decimated prior records and enabled U.S. reconnaissance photography that arguably tipped the balance of power in the Cold War. Also of note: Although conceived in the 1950s, the sleek jets would not look out of place in the latest George Lucas offering.
So it's little wonder that they were unidentifiable.
Says Barnes, "This posed a great problem to investigators having to explain a sighting without revealing it to be a super secret CIA or Air Force project."
Barnes and company were forced to conceive all manner of cover stories.
Now, with the declassification, he can tell the truth.
Currently President of the Area 51 alumni group Roadrunners Internationale, Barnes has started a website dedicated to the legacy of OXCART and the ensuing Operation Black Shield. "I am trying to make it possible for a lot of people who never got to tell their stories to do so now that the Oxcart project has been declassified," he told me.
For the same reason, he's spearheading an oral history project at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, enabling his fellow Roadrunners to share their experiences in great detail.
Like Barnes, many Roadrunners have children and grandchildren unaware of what they did for a living, let alone their heroics. When the tape starts to roll, Barnes relates, "A lot of them, on finally getting to share their stories, do so with such pent-up emotion that they literally break down in tears."