In her new book "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base," author Annie Jacobson uncovers some of the best-kept secrets in military history — including how a general's fatal joyride in a captured enemy fighter jet almost uncloaked the entire base.
n October of 1979, construction for an F‑117 Nighthawk support facility at Tonopah began inside Area 52. Tonopah was so far removed from the already far removed and restricted sites at Area 51 and the Nevada Test Site that no one outside a need-to-know had ever even heard of it. The facility at Area 51 served as a model for the facility being built at Area 52. Similarly styled runways and taxiways were built, as well as a maintenance hangar, using crews already cleared for work on Nevada Test Site contracts. Sixteen mobile homes were carted in, and several permanent support buildings were constructed. Sandia didn't want to draw attention to the project, so the Air Force officers assigned to the base were ordered to grow their hair long and to grow beards. Sporting a hippie look, as opposed to a military look, was less likely to draw unwanted attention to a highly classified project cropping up in the outer reaches of the Nevada Test Site. That way, the men could do necessary business in the town of Tonopah.
Ten thousand personnel had managed to keep the F‑117 program in the dark
The two facilities, Area 51 and Area 52, worked in tandem to get the F‑117 battle-ready. When a mock attack at the guard gate at Area 51 occurred, in 1982, test flights of the F‑117 - which only ever happened at night - were already in full swing. For some weeks, a debate raged as to how an act of idiocy by a small group of Wackenhut Security guards nearly outed a billion-dollar aircraft as well as two top secret military test facilities that had remained secret for thirty years. An estimated ten thousand personnel had managed to keep the F‑117 program in the dark. There was a collective mopping of the brow and succinct orders to move on, and then, two years later, the program was nearly outed again when an Air Force general broke protocol and decided to take a ride in one of Area 51's prized MiG fighter jets.
The death of Lieutenant General Robert M. Bond on April 26, 1984, in Area 25 of the Nevada Test Site was an avoidable tragedy. With 267 combat missions under his belt, 44 in Korea and 213 in Vietnam, Robert M. Bond was a highly decorated Air Force pilot revered by many. At the time of his accident, he was vice commander of Air Force Systems Command at Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, which made him a VIP when it came to the F‑117 program going on at Area 51. In March of 1984, General Bond arrived at the secret facility to see how things were progressing. The general's visit should have been no different than those made by the scores of generals whose footsteps Bond was following in, visits that began back in 1955 with men like General James "Jimmy" Doolittle and General Curtis LeMay. The dignitaries were always treated in high style; they would eat, drink, and bear witness to top secret history being made. Following in this tradition, General Bond's first visit went without incident.
The MiG-23 "was squirrelly. Hard to fly. It could kill you if you weren't well trained."
But in addition to being impressed by the F‑117 Nighthawk, General Bond was equally fascinated by the MiG program, which was still going on at Area 51. In the fifteen years since the CIA had gotten its hands on Munir Redfa's MiG‑21, the Agency and the Air Force had acquired a fleet of Soviet-made aircraft including an MiG‑15, an MiG‑17, and, most recently, the supersonic MiG‑23. Barnes says, "We called it the Flogger. It was a very fast plane, almost Mach 3. But it was squirrelly. Hard to fly. It could kill you if you weren't well trained."
On a visit to Area 51 the following month, General Bond requested to fly the MiG‑23. "There was some debate about whether the general should be allowed to fly," Barnes explains. "Every hour in a Soviet airplane was precious. We did not have spare parts. We could not afford unnecessary wear and tear. Usually a pilot would train for at least two weeks before flying a MiG. Instead, General Bond got a briefing while sitting inside the plane with an instructor pilot saying, ‘Do this, do that.'" In other words, instead of undergoing two weeks of training, General Bond pulled rank. Just a few hours later, General Bond was seated in the cockpit of the MiG, flying high over Groom Lake. All appeared to be going well, but just as he crossed over into the Nevada Test Site, Bond radioed the tower on an emergency channel. "I'm out of control," General Bond said in distress. The MiG was going approximately Mach 2.5. "I've got to get out, I'm out of control" were the general's last words. The MiG had gone into a spin and was on its way down. Bond ejected from the airplane but was apparently killed when his helmet strap broke his neck. The general and the airplane crashed into Area 25 at Jackass Flats, where the land was still highly contaminated from the secret NERVA [nuclear rocket] tests that had gone on there.
eneral Bond's death opened the possible exposure of five secret programs and facilities, including the MiG program, the F‑117 program, Area 51, Area 52, and the nuclear reactor explosions at Jackass Flats. Unlike the deaths of CIA pilots flying out of Area 51, which could be concealed as generic training accidents, the death of a general required detailed explanation. If the press asked too many questions, it could trigger a federal investigation. One program had to come out of the dark to keep the others hidden. The Pentagon made the decision to out the MiG. Quietly, Fred Hoffman, a military writer with the Associated Press, was "leaked" information that Bond had in fact died at the controls of a Soviet MiG-23. The emphasis was put on how the Pentagon was able to obtain Soviet- bloc aircraft and weaponry from allies in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. "The government has always been reluctant to discuss such acquisitions for fear of embarrassing the friendly donors, but the spotlight was turned anew on the subject after a three-star Air Force general was killed April 26 in a Nevada plane crash that was quickly cloaked in secrecy," Hoffman wrote, adding "sources who spoke on condition they remain anonymous have indicated the MiG‑23, the most advanced Soviet warplane ever to fall permanently into U.S. hands, was supplied to this country by Egypt."
With this partial cover, the secrets of Area 51, Area 52, Area 25, and the F‑117 were safe. It would be another four years before the public had any idea the F‑117 Nighthawk existed. In November of 1988, a grainy image of the arrowhead-shaped, futuristic-looking craft was released to an awestruck public despite the fact that variations of the F-117 had been flying at Area 51 and Area 52 for eleven years.
Editor's note: The site of the MiG-23 crash was memorialized with a small black granite marker, flush with the surrounding desert and deep within U.S. government property. Its inscription reads: "BOBBY BOND APRIL 26, 1984. HE WAS A MAN OF GREAT STRENGTH A WARM AND FAITHFUL FRIEND, WHO GAVE HIS LIFE FOR THE COUNTRY HE LOVED"
This story originally appeared in "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base," and was republished with permission from Little, Brown.
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