April 03, 2014

Photo Essay: The Hidden Ruins of the Super-Secret Spy Plane Test Project, Suntan

The area north of Edwards Air Force base was famously used by test pilots to fly experimental aircraft, many missions of which were doomed and failed into a fiery crash.

Those sites have been mostly so picked-over, there's nothing left. You're lucky if you can find even one single, rusty bolt, or one tiny piece of scorched metal.

But there's one spot in the Mojave Desert where you can find something, off Highway 58 near California City:

...the site of the super-secret Suntan Project.

In the 1950s, the Air Force was trying to develop a high-altitude aircraft program...

...using liquid hydrogen to fuel a turbojet engine.

The aircraft – the Lockheed CL-400 – was tested here...

...amongst these weird, Aztec-looking ruins...

...which are now a haven for vandals and squatters.

A dangerous mission – perhaps more dangerous than the other flight tests nearby –

...the Suntan Project lost its funding because of budgetary restrictions...

...and was shut down after only three years.

Although $95 million had originally been allocated for the project, only $32 million was ever eventually made available for it – a sign from the beginning that Suntan was doomed.

It was not, however, all for naught. After this research, liquid hydrogen (in large volumes) was subsequently successfully used as rocket fuel for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.

The mere existence of the CL-400 was kept a secret until the 1973...

...when NASA publicly described how hydrogren-fueled aircraft could achieve directional stability even at supersonic speeds.

The CL-400 was meant to be the spy plane successor of the Lockheed U-2...

...a single engine, high altitude reconnaissance aircraft used not only by the Air Force but also the CIA to gather intelligence...

...most notably during the Cold War...

...and throughout the decades that followed, to present time.

The CL-400 – considered more dangerous – was comparatively short-lived, since the U-2 is actually still in service.

Although the CL-400 itself was ill-fated... was capable of attaining a speed of Mach 2.5...

...and surpassing an altitude of 30,000 meters.

It was a big boy, at three meters in diameter and 40 meters long, just under the width of a football field.

Lockheed studied the possibility of spy planes under the Suntan Project with lengths as long as a football field.

The CL-400 never made it out of the testing program.

Its use would be impractical given existing airfield facilities, which would need to expand in order to accommodate the unusual fuel.

In the end, it's not even clear how much money was spent on Suntan, since the project was painstakingly camouflaged both externally and internally, with many activities covered up, and expenses redirected and attributed to other projects.

And to the modern day visitor, it's not clear what exactly happened at this site, or why these buildings still remain.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Test Pilot Crash Sites in the Mojave Desert
Photo Essay: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena

Liquid Hydrogen As a Propulsion Fuel, 1945-1959 (NASA)

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