Dr. Michael W. Hankins
Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Area 51 has long been a source of fascination, intrigue, and conspiracy theories. It has also inspired popular culture from television and film to 2019's widely publicised (but barely attended) Facebook-based attempt to 'storm the site. However, those familiar with the military aviation world have long known that Area 51 is little more than a US Air Force (USAF) (formerly Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) facility where experimental aircraft are tested. This includes everything from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117 stealth fighter. T.D. Barnes, who worked with the CIA during its formative years at Area 51, attempts to set the record straight with this new book covering the CIA's activities in the Nevada desert during the early and mid-Cold War. The result is a profoundly informative work that reveals new stories and will please enthusiasts. Still, the size of the book and its challenging organisation might be overwhelming for casual readers.
From the early origins of Station D, which only much later became known as Area 51, Barnes traces the major CIA aviation programs based there. These include the U-2, the A-12 (and associated Blackbird 'family' aircraft of the YF-12, SR-71, and M-21), and the MiG exploitation programs that evaluated and flew captured Soviet aircraft. Some side projects associated with these significant programs are explored as well, most notably Project PALLADIUM, which provided valuable intelligence on Soviet radar capabilities. The details of these programs will already be known to many readers. For example, the Blackbird family programs are well documented by works such as Paul Crickmore's Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (revised edition, 2016) or Richard Graham's The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird (2015). However, Barnes' work reveals fascinating new details about even these well-covered topics. Barnes presents both familiar and new stories from the perspective of the CIA rather than from the USAF or industry contractors. The Palladium program is particularly interesting, involving complicated, world-ranging plots to send fake signals in the direction of the Soviet Union to see what their radars could detect. Barnes does a good job of tracing the story from field teams collecting information to how information was analysed and used in technological and strategic decision-making at the highest levels.
This fresh perspective is also wide-ranging. At times, Barnes zooms out to discuss broad historical topics and focuses on minute details of a particular program. As a result, readers will find a wealth of immense detail, as well as many photographs, some of which have not been published before (although some of the photos are of low resolution and appear pixelated on the page). Although technology is often at the centre of these stories, Barnes also sheds interesting light on the institutional histories; seeing the organisational evolution and institutional rivalries from the CIA's perspective is an interesting and welcome lens on this material. For example, Barnes traces the various tensions between the CIA and the USAF, from high command to individual personnel.
The individual level is where the book really shines. Barnes gives a true, "on the ground" account of many of these programs, not only showing how the CIA's efforts affected the Cold War, but depicting what it felt like to live there, to work there, and the realities of day-to-day life inside a top-secret facility working on advanced, world-changing programs. The Blackbirds may have been top-of-the-line, sleek, space-age aircraft. Still, Barnes contrasts that with stories about the trouble getting clearances and badges, the type of housing available on the station, the type of bars that employees frequented, and the games with which personnel and pilots amused themselves. Whether he is telling a detailed technological history or something personal, the focus is on the details of these stories – there is no large historical analysis, nor a broad historical argument made in this book.
As interesting as the material is, some readers have a few barriers to entry. The first is the whopping price tag of US$149. Although this cost might be too high for some readers, it is worth noting the amount of material one gets for the price. The book is heavy and massive, almost unwieldy. It contains nearly 600 oversized, double-columned pages, each of which is almost twice the dimensions of a typical print book. In terms of word count, this is probably about three typical books' worth of material, which might help to justify the cost for some readers. Historians looking for a thesis will not find one, as the work does not seek to make a historical argument. Instead, it is focused on detailed accounts of individual stories. Furthermore, although the book is packed with detail, the immense amount of material might be difficult for some readers to navigate. In addition, it is written in a meandering style, which is sometimes charming, but at other times leads to repetition. In some cases, stories are told and retold, sometimes more than once. Usually, the retellings of stories contain slightly different emphases, but periodically sentences are repeated verbatim, and in some cases, photographs are reused. There are no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. Except for a few instances where a document is referenced directly in the text, readers may have trouble finding sources for information or quotes.
In conclusion, enthusiasts of the U-2, A-12/SR-71, and captured MiG programs will likely find much to like about this book, including newly discovered details and fresh images from a new perspective. Although it is a bit less accessible to casual readers, researchers will find plenty to pore over here.
Dr. Roman Sperl
CEO, Reiser Simulation and Training (RST)
The book "CIA Station D: AREA 51" by T.D. Barnes offers deep insights into the history of Area 51. The mysterious secret base in the middle of nowhere is the center of many myths and attracts again and again the aviation geeks out there, trying to catch a glimpse of a new secret aircraft and those who believe in extraterrestrial life on our planet.
The reader interested in CIA's military facility will find detailed information on the projects that materialized in the area and TD Barnes reveals many secrets which he was not allowed to share until now.
The book turns back time even further and we also learn about the genesis of the CIA. The aviation geeks among us will appreciate the part dedicated to aerial reconnaissance and the aircraft used for this purpose.
This part of the world produced aircraft that even today look like they were beamed to us from a future so distant, such as the A-12 or the drone carrier variant M-21. The book is dedicated to even the smallest technical details and sophistications with a special attention to the men and women who made it all happen. TD Barnes also discusses the technical history of Russian aircraft from the Cold War era that were tested under camouflage at Area 51.
And those of you interested in whether there's life outside our planet, may find the right answers to all your questions towards the end of the more than 600 pages strong masterpiece of TD Barnes.
CBS 8 News Now
For most of his life, T.D. Barnes was a keeper of secrets, a trusted CIA employee working at the most classified base in the world. But in more recent years, Barnes has emerged as the most important historian and revealer of secrets about Area 51. He personally led the charge to declassify and unveil more photos, files, code names, and personal recollections of Groom Lake's once-secret programs than any other person, living or dead. The world owes him a debt of gratitude for lifting the veil on SOME of the amazing technology that was developed out in the Nevada desert, and his new book "CIA Station D: Area 51" is a fascinating and deeply sourced account of the secret programs that helped keep the world safe…..and still do.
Dr. Greg Elder
Adjunct Professor of Intelligence, Johns Hopkins University
For decades, the public has heard of the highly classified programs originating at Area-51 situated to north of Las Vegas, Nevada. In CIA Station D: Area-51, TD Barnes provides an important and definitively unique glimpse into the history of the critical government facility and the programs and people that so influenced U.S. national security. Although other authors have written about Area-51, it is TD's unique personal history as a CIA employee stationed there, as well as his long-standing relationships with Area-51 pioneers that make his work so readable and critical in preserving the history.
One of the most interesting parts of Barnes' book is the discussion surrounding the challenges of creating Area-51. Supplemented with images, such as those of post-atomic tests at the adjacent Nevada Atomic Proving Grounds, the book vividly details the complications of working in such a remote, austere habitat – including getting employees safely to work every day at such a secure location. He then expands on his previous research on the U-2 Dragon Lady, SR-71 Blackbird, and stealth programs. It's here that Barnes' makes the contribution to Cold War history. Barnes not only relates how these programs came into existence, he introduces the reader to the individual pilots and puts them in the cockpit through some of their most important missions over Cuba, the USSR, China, and Vietnam.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. has suffered virtually no air-to-air combat losses. CIA Station D breaks new ground in detailing one of the most important factors in this success – the exploitation of adversarial aircraft and weapon systems. From the technical breakdown to the tactical evaluations of systems like the Soviet-manufactured MiG-21 Fishbed, the intelligence gathered at Area-51 profoundly impacted the direction of U.S. research and development. The book provides the most expansive account yet of these efforts and clearly articulates the single most important finding that impacted U.S. aerial combat in the future…..sorry, you'll need to read the book to find this out.
Another strength of CIA Station D is the space devoted to the often-overlooked logistics and support efforts that were essential to the successful development of special programs. For example, the developmental YF-12 / A-12 / SR-71 prototype aircraft consumed enormous quantities of fuel, requiring the establishment of a new fuel tank farm. Area-51 also required a multitude of support aircraft and transport vehicles. The establishment of the facility came with many unknowns, requiring flexibility and frequent infusions of funding.
The books great strength is the specific details that can only come from access to the personnel and pilots who contributed to these events. One shortfall, however, is the limited visibility in some cases, such as the exploitation of adversary technologies, of the organizations and resources that supported the efforts. Although this does not detract from its historical value, it does lead to the overemphasis of some organization's contributions at the expense of others.
TD Barnes deserves a good deal of credit for what is known today about the important work done at Area-51. His wealth of personal experience and array of contacts cannot be matched. Those looking to learn more about the vital role Area-51 played in the Cold War would benefit greatly from reading CIA Station D: Area-51.
Dr. Angella Raisian
Flight Test Engineer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
The book, "CIA Station D: AREA 51" by TD Barnes, gives a detailed accounting of CIA's activities at Area 51 since its inception in 1955, the CIA's political struggles to maintain its presence both at the Area and in the aerial reconnaissance world, and a technically comprehensive description of the many secret projects conducted at the Area until CIA’s departure in 1979.
TD Barnes provides an insider's account of recently declassified programs he was unable to discuss until now, even though he was personally involved in most of the Special Projects described in the book. Never before has such a complete accounting of all CIA activities at the Area been published. Being the last living member of the CIA’s Special Projects team at Area 51, Barnes ensures that this book can be used as a comprehensive reference source of the untold history of CIA's activities at Station D. The most engaging parts of the book are recounts of many personal and work-related stories told by the individuals stationed there, who are no longer with us, as well as hundreds of never-before-seen photographs from the CIA's, NASA's, Lockheed's, and USAF's collections, also previously classified.
To help readers understand why the American government needed a military outfit to be run by a civilian organization, in order to provide plausible deniability of military involvement in the aerial reconnaissance over the enemy territory, this book also delves into the world events that led to the establishment of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the Cold War. It provides background information on all of the organizations mentioned in the book, and has extensive biographies of CIA, USAF, and Lockheed personnel mentioned.
Barnes explains how and why the CIA was established, and CIA's constant political battles with the Air Force to maintain its presence in the "non-military" flight test and air reconnaissance activities. In the end, even though the CIA was pushed out of the aerial reconnaissance world by the Air Force, its innovative programs have produced two of the fastest jet-piloted aircraft in the world, an A-12 and the SR-71, a record that still stands to this day.
The book continues to provide a highly technical description of not only the well-known reconnaissance aircraft development, such as U-2, its successor A-12, and the more widely known SR-71, but it also discusses in great technical detail much lesser-known projects with codenames such as GENETRIX, AQUILINE, HAVE DOUGHNUT, CONSTANT PEG, HAVE PAD, and others. A compilation of such information with many personal recounts and highly technical details, was never before, and will never again, be published all in one place.
Many tragic losses of human life and aircraft, discussed in the book, involved the author's personal friends, but were mostly unacknowledged by the government until recently. Barnes describes recovery efforts with an amount of detail only available to those who had first-hand knowledge of these events, now brought to light by Barnes in an effort to honor the named and unnamed heroes who perished, and to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice they made for their country.
Towards the end of the book, Barnes addresses UFO sightings by the civilians and the military, and his personal thoughts on the subject.
Even though this 500+ page book could easily be used as an "encyclopedia" of CIA's projects and activities at Area 51, it is highly engaging and hard to put down. Due to Barnes being personally familiar with the personnel involved and the projects described, this book is more like a compilation of personal accounts and secret CIA project details that the Area 51 personnel were only able to share amongst themselves in the past.
Colonel Charles P "Chuck" Wilson
Chairman of the Board- The Cold War Museum®; U-2 Pilot & 2X U-2 Commander; NASM DOCENT
In writing CIA Station D: Area 51, Thornton D. "TD" Barnes provides the reader with a true CIA insider’s story on twenty-nine-plus years (1955-1979) of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) activities at this extremely sensitive location known as “Area 51.” TD Barnes was a member of the special projects team at Area 51 for the Central Intelligence Agency for many of those years. This, along with TD Barnes' research of the recent CIA declassification of secret documents, make for a well-illustrated and comprehensive history of Area 51 during this period.
Those declassified documents identified the facility as “CIA Station D-Area 51” and was the most "secretive and power projection venue for testing secret, high-flying spy planes, developing stealth technology, conducting aerial reconnaissance, and exploiting acquired US adversaries' military assets." TD Barnes continues with tremendous detail about the development, building, programs, and operation of the then most sensitive location in the United States. There is a considerable amount of information in his book that has not been revealed before, even by the "agency" today.
Barnes outlines the astonishing array of names, nicknames, and code names used for the base since the CIA first chose it in 1955 as the perfect spot to secretly flight-test the highly classified U-2 spy plane. Here TD Barnes describes the some of the challenges in detail.
The struggle between the US Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency for aerial reconnaissance responsibility had to be overcome with a tenuous partnership between the agencies to evolve. The author describes the interagency (CIA-USAF) challenges in aircraft selection, with Lockheed Skunkworks' U-2 being chosen. The genesis of Area 51 (1955) was for the development and testing of high-flying U-2 spy plane.
A few years later and in the early 1960s, the CIA high flying Mach 3, A-12 Blackbird was developed and flew at Area 51. The A-12 was the precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird. (The SR-71 did not flight-test out of Area-51, but out of Edwards AFB, CA. In fact, the Air Force did not know about the A-12 until the SR-71 arrived at Kadena AB, Japan to replace it) Additionally, the beginnings of the Navy Top Gun Weapons School and the Air Force Red Flag exercises also began in this area.
In addition to the Soviet Union, TD Barnes reveals the creation and test flying U-2 aircraft for operation in/around Japan, Turkey, China, and in Europe; plus, twenty-nine A-12 Blackbird spy missions over Vietnam and North Korea. This is very revealing in that the CIA worked Area 51 as a worldwide spying operation.
As time went on, Area 51 work increased with multiple "Special Projects" unfolding. Each with its own "need to know." Along the way, there were many, many challenges, sacrifices, and accomplishments by all who served at Area 51 and that helped make both the CIA and the United States the world leader in science and technology.
TD Barnes describes the story of the pilots and aircrews who lost their lives along with thousands of Americans that help launch the Central Intelligence Agency into the world of overhead reconnaissance. It has been said, "these Americans whose patriotism, ingenuity, and willingness to take on projects considered impossible back then allowed the U.S. to penetrate the Iron Curtain and win the Cold War."
In all, TD Barnes' CIA Station D: Area 51 is the most comprehensive, illustrated, "Go to" reference book on the early years of Area 51. Highly recommended for your reference library.