Video Shows U-2 Construction and “Watertown” Test Area Before It Became “Area 51”.
Before there was a “Storm Area 51” movement, before the F-117 and the Oxcart and SR-71, before all of the hype and sensation about the worst kept secret in history- before all of that, there was “Watertown” and the “The Angel”, the code name for the secret CL-282, the development of the Lockheed U-2 strategic reconnaissance plane.
This fascinating 1957 CIA documentary called “The Inquisitive Angel” by Jim Jarboe and Don Downie, tells the story of the beginnings of one of the world’s worst-kept secrets, and the now heavily restricted Groom Lake testing area most commonly called Area 51. The 16mm film, produced by Hycon Mfg. Co. in August, 1957, showcases the development of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane and the establishment of the not-so-secret testing area that has become legend. Declassified in 2006, the film now resides on the official CIA YouTube channel, linked here.
“The Inquisitive Angel” was intended to show selected, security-vetted dependents of workers at Watertown, detailed insights into the origins of the site and some of its activities related to U-2 development and testing.
The film is a wonderful historic core-sample of the seriousness of the U-2 development in its early stages. The narration is packed with superlatives, telling the viewer that security at Watertown was, “The highest yet to be maintained in this country. Even higher than that of the Manhattan Project”.
In reality, the site has always been a poorly kept secret. Even before tour buses started taking Vegas hotel guests to see the “secret” Janet Airline 737s flying out of McCarran International Airport to the Nevada National Security Site, Area 51 subject matter expert and author Peter W. Merlin wrote on dreamlandresort.com that, “The base that ‘doesn’t exist’ has always been public knowledge”. But the projects that have been developed there are another matter.
“The Inquisitive Angel” is packed with fascinating insights on the development of one of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson’s most famous projects, the U-2 spy plane. The film reveals the details of Lockheed’s truly top secret 26-man special projects group, the elite engineering team that took only 8 months to build the first U-2 and became known as the “Skunk Works”.
There are specific references to the U-2’s weight saving priorities, with its non-powered, manually opened canopy, unusual tandem landing gear and “pogo” supports on the outer wings. We get a great look at the innovative control surfaces of the U-2, including the upward tilting flaps that could reconfigure the wing’s aerodynamics completely for different parts of the U-2’s extreme operational envelope. We even hear that the U-2’s aerodynamics were not developed using conventional wind tunnel testing. This project was likely the first application of an early version of modern day, computer-generated computational fluid dynamics or “CFD”, an aerodynamic engineering diagnostic and testing method now nearly universal in aerospace engineering.
The fascinating film goes on to discuss the flight characteristics of the U-2, noting its remarkable “25.6:1 glide ratio”, claimed to be the highest at the time for any powered aircraft. If a U-2 lost its single engine thrust at 70,000 feet, she could glide an astonishing 300 miles without power to a safe landing area.
There are insights on engine development and upgrades, from the original J57-37 engine used on the B-52, to a hybrid version called the J57-31. Interestingly, the documentary tells us that the U-2 operates “at full power for the duration of its flight”. That means the aircraft gulps 9,000 pounds of fuel per hour at sea level, but sips only 700 pounds of fuel per hour at 70,000 feet. There’s even a discussion of the U-2’s special LF1A fuel, dubbed “lighter fluid”, developed by Shell Oil to be super in-volatile.
Some of the workers shown in “The Inquisitive Angel” apparently believed they were being transported to the desert to work on a non-existent atomic powered airplane in 1957. The inconspicuous DC-3s that flew workers to the area, which came to be known as “Paradise Ranch”, are predictive of today’s Janet 737s.
Finally, the visuals of the U-2 doing test flights with 1957 vintage chase cars on the ground seems remarkable considering chase cars are still used 63 years later in current U-2 operations.
All these rich insights add a remarkable visual record to the ever-expanding lore of both the U-2 program and the legends surrounding Groom Lake, Area 51 and the phantom lands north of Las Vegas in the vast Mojave Desert.
Who knew? Perhaps one of the weirdest facts about Area 51 and its previous iteration as “Watertown” was that, it was never initially a “classified” national security site.
H/T David McDonell for the heads-up!