Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Roadrunners from secret city meeting in Sin City

A piece of history will be made in a Las Vegas museum this week, as a platoon of Cold War veterans edge out of the shadows and into Sin City's neon lights. For the first time, members of Roadrunners Internationale - the veterans' association for the 1129th Special Activities Squadron, which includes men who worked on the U-2, A-12 and F-117a projects at Groom Lake - will meet and answer questions from the public during two panel discussions being held at the Atomic Testing Museum this Wednesday and Thursday (October 7/8). Yet as test pilots rub shoulders with low-observables theoreticians, and military security personnel reminisce with former CIA operatives, the occasion will be as remarkable for those choosing not to attend as those it attracts.

The Roadrunners gets by on membership dues and donations, and the costs of its bi-annual reunions are borne entirely by members. None of the corporate entities that employed Roadrunners during their time at Groom Lake will have anything to do with the association - something that their President, Thornton "T.D." Barnes, says rankles deeply with members.

"It's been a very major disappointment to us, and an embarrassment to the people who worked for the corporations," says Barnes of the continued lack of presence from the companies that employed the pilots, technicians and other workers during their clandestine operations in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. "Our members feel let down."

While there are a number of corporations that operated at Groom Lake and employed Roadrunners members, the one that looms largest in both the popular consciousness and the minds of Roadrunners themselves is Lockheed Martin, which built the U-2, the A-12 and the F-117a.

"Lockheed plain told us, 'You guys are history, and we're looking to the future'," says Barnes. "We had an event in Mobile, Alabama, to honour Jack Weeks" - a CIA pilot whose A-12 overflights of North Korea in January and February 1968 established the location of the USS Pueblo, and who was killed flying the Kelly Johnson-designed aircraft in June of the same year - "and they refused to participate."

A long campaign by the Roadrunners to have their work honoured in permanent form bore fruit in 2007 when one of the eight surviving A-12 airframes was mounted on a pylon at CIA headquarters. Roadrunners members were invited to the dedication ceremony, which took place during the Agency's 60th anniversary; but even here, the veterans were unable to get help from the aircraft's manufacturers.

"I felt uncomfortable preparing a list of who to invite from among the Lockheed people and the other corporations because I might miss someone," says Barnes, a former radar specialist who arrived at Groom Lake just as the A-12 program - codenamed Oxcart - was winding down. "So we contacted Lockheed and the different companies and asked them to send us lists of who they felt should be there. Not a single one of them provided a list, so none of the Lockheed test pilots, who certainly should have been there, was invited.


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