A Defense Technology Blog
See All Posts
  • Roadrunners Go Public, But Lockheed Martin Remains Quiet
    Posted by Sean Meade 2:10 PM on Oct 06, 2009

    Angus Batey writes

    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."

    Lockheed Martin's Palmdale office released a statement to Ares, explaining that they view the Roadrunners as "primarily social in nature" and that the organization does not meet the company's published criteria for financial support. "Lockheed Martin supports philanthropic requests and is an active community supporter of organizations that align with our focus areas: education, customer and constituent relations and community outreach," the statement continues. "Our policies prohibit us from providing monetary support to social clubs or social events sponsored by social clubs. We have, though, provided some historical photographs in support of the upcoming Roadrunner Internationale Las Vegas gathering."

    This appears to be a considerable misreading of the Roadrunners' changing role. In recent years, as more of their work has been declassified, the association and its extensive, richly detailed website has become a first port of call for historians, authors, and academics, as well as families of deceased veterans who may only now be finding out about their loved ones' clandestine work during the Cold War. And Barnes denies that any photographs have been supplied. "Other than providing the webmaster with a CD containing photos of the A-12 in 2002, Lockheed Martin has refused to be associated with the Roadrunners in any fashion," he says.

    A cynic might suggest that Lockheed may not, at this precise moment, want to remind us that more than four decades ago it could engineer three variants of a mould-breaking aircraft, bring them in under budget and have them flying within eight years of contract award. But all joking aside, the company - and the others the Roadrunners worked for - seem to be missing a PR trick. Certainly, there is one entity that is heavily involved in the Roadrunners' work, and in many ways it is the least likely.

    While relations between the veterans and the corporations are frosty, the Roadrunners' links with the CIA - the "customer" for the U-2 and A-12 - have strengthened as the programs have been progressively declassified. The 2007 Reunion saw the launch of a CIA history of the A-12 program, and its author - CIA historian Dr David Robarge - is taking part in one of the panel discussions at the Atomic Testing Museum. The Agency also sent staff, and inventory from its employee gift store, to the reunion in 2007 - the first time CIA memorabilia had been made available outside Langley.

    blog post photo

    The "Spook Store" returns again this year, with items including several specially created to honour the Oxcart program. And the panel sessions will not only be recorded and form part of the University of Nevada Las Vegas's ongoing Cold War oral history project - which has been interviewing Roadrunners members in recent years, and surely meets Lockheed's definition of an educational "focus area" - but will be filmed by C-Span and National Geographic, who are joining online, local and print media in giving the Roadrunners' coming-out party the sort of publicity a company like LM would have to pay an awful lot of money to buy. It's a party the company behind those iconic aircraft would have been more than welcome to attend: why it has opted to ignore the invitation is a mystery worthy of any in Groom Lake's occluded history.

    Tags: ar99, Roadrunners, LockheedMartin

  • Recommend
  • Report Abuse

Comments on Blog Post