For a closer look at the exotic aircraft the Air Force might be cooking up at Area 51, launch the photo gallery.
On a trip to las vegas in 2004, observing from my east-facing hotel room in the pyramidal Luxor Hotel at daybreak, I watched a fleet of six unmarked 737s make commuter flights to nowhere. These aircraft depart every weekday morning from a tidy, anonymous terminal on the western side of McCarran International Airport. A long line of cars pours into a 1,600-spot parking lot as the jets pull away from the terminal, taxi to the runways, and head out into the desert sky. At the end of the day, the shuttle flights return and the lot empties. The passengers go home and tell their families nothing about what happened at work that day.
Cut to April 4 this year. San Diego is hit by a rumbling shock that isn't an earthquake. It is ruled out by the media as a sonic boom after military operators claim it is not one of their aircraft. San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Alex Roth does some digging and comes up with six puzzlingly similar incidents around the country since 2003.
Fast-forward to July, at the Farnborough International Airshow in southeastern England. Frank Cappuccio, the avuncular vice president of Lockheed Martin's secretive Skunk Works division, opens a press conference by introducing what he calls a promotional video, "something to show the kids and families about what we do." Two minutes into the show, a gray, cockpit-less airplane that nobody has seen before-it looks like a B-2 bomber's chick-soars over a backdrop of stony, barren hills and mountains.
All these events are linked. They are the visible signs of an invisible, parallel world within the universe of aerospace and defense: the classified, or "black," world of secret military programs. Those unmarked 737s were ferrying employees to the flight-test center near Groom Lake, Nevada, known to the public as Area 51. The gray airplane is Polecat, a next-generation stealth unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-Cappuccio's video was his sly way of unveiling the program. Those earthquakes? Quite possibly sonic booms from a long-suspected hypersonic attack vehicle, a sleek aircraft that has consumed the imaginations of black-project enthusiasts and military analysts, including me, for two decades. Though seemingly dormant in recent years, the program appears to be on the move again, and with a renewed vigor that has me feeling, somewhat unsettlingly, a bit like the aerospace industry's own Ahab.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.