How I Took Photos of Groom Lake's Front
Door from the Back Door
Groom Lake - How I Took Photos of Groom Lakes Front Door from the Back Door
by John Lear January 31, 2018 ~ Posted on Facebook ~ First Post Jan 25th Here
The Groom Lake photo starts in Hawthorne airport near LAX in California in 1964. I was working as a flight instructor for Progressive Air Service. Barney South was my boss. One day we were chatting about Northrop Aviation which was directly across the runway from us. We were wondering about what secret airplanes they had in store. One of the students mentioned that he worked for an electronics company and that they delivered to a POB in Bakersfield. Years later that turned out to be Oildale where the Skunkworks were making parts for the SR-71 Blackbird.
I was still publishing my aviation newspaper called Aero News and I put a little blurb about a secret airplane being flown at Edwards. I didn't know the name 'Groom Lake' for another 12 or 13 years.
Anyway I went from flight instructing to selling pots and pans door to door where I thought I could make more money. Wrong! I was a miserable failure.
I then went to work for Norman Larson Beechcraft at Van Nuys and heard that Flying Tigers had bought a Learjet. I had previously been turned down as a pilot for Tigers because of a low Stanine score. That was a test all airlines gave applicants to see if you were suited to be a pilot. The same thing happened when I applied to United Air Lines. Got turned down there too. I was unsuitable for a job as a pilot with UAL.
But I went over and talked to Bob Prescott the president of FTL and he hired me to fly copilot for their charter company which was separate from the airline. They had a pilot who was a long time old friend of Bob''s and he had given him a job flying their Aero Commander 680E. His name was Paul Kelly and he was not a very good pilot. But when Tigers bought the Learjet, Paul was the guy who ended up flying it.
After going through a series of other jobs I ended up in Las Vegas where a friend of mine (who was also doing my gorgeous French wife, unbeknownst to me, but that was ok because she was also doing all of my other friends but there seemed to be enough to go around for all of us) owned Carco. Carco in those days flew personnel up to Groom Lake. I was chatting one day with one of the Carco pilots and he told me about this place he flew called Groom Lake and about a really long runway.
Having hung around the Skytrails restaurant and legendary bar in Van Nuys a couple of the Blackbird pilots used to come in and sit at the 'infamous ' 'pilots table'. They never said anything but we all knew who they were and what they flew.
Ever Monday morning 3 Lockheed Constellations would depart Burbank for a secret destination and all 3 returned Friday evening. That was how Lockheed got their pilots and engineers up to Groom Lake.
I started ferrying airplanes to Viet Nam for 4 years, then went to Cambodia as a pilot on a Convair 440 then went up to Laos to fly for Continental Air Services, Inc. the counterpart of Air America. After a few months of that I ended up in Seattle Washington flying Boeing 720's for a charter company.
I then went to Lebanon to fly 707's for Trans Mediterranean Airlines for a couple of years and ended up back in Vegas where I flew DC-3 Nevada Airlines and tri-motor Fords for Scenic Airlines. Instead of working my way up flying better and newer airplanes I was working my way back down flying older and worse planes.
I then flew for a start up airline called “Bonanza” Airlines who had the same name as a real airline that was bought by Howard Hughes. We flew DC-3's from Vegas to Aspen.
One day on the evening news on Channel 8 in Vegas there was a news story that said, “Security Leak at Groom Lake?. I thought that was pretty interesting and called up the news director Bob Stoldau who eventually became the main guy at Channel 8 who approved George Knapp to work on the Lazar story.
I went to lunch with Stoldau and asked him how he was able to mention Groom Lake and that I thought it was supposed to be a big secret. He said, “Not anymore, AP and UPI are going in on foot this month to do a story on Groom Lake.
Well I thought shoot. I want to do that. So the next Monday I grabbed a couple of my pilot friends from Bonanza and at 5 am headed up to Groom Lake. I neglected to tell them where we were going, I said it was just a secret mission. I had found out about the road off of Highway 375 that led into the secret base. We turned off the main highway onto the dirt road and after a few miles started up the mountain range that was on the north east side of Groom. We wound around until we came to the top and there was Groom Lake stretching out for miles in the distance.
It was enthralling. I was looking at Groom Lake. The infamous, mysterious, above top secret Groom Lake. My eyes feasted. I was seeing the whole thing. From as far south to as far north. I had defeated their entire security system, I had entered and was looking at the most secret air base in he US. Actually, I had not seen one sign or seen one security guard or one camera. So I hadn't defeated very much.
We followed the road down to the edge of the dry lake which was full of water from a recent rainfall and came to a chain across the road strung between 2 posts. There was a small guard station but no one was in it.
We parked and I set up my tripod and mounted my Nikon on top. I took consecutive photos from the extreme south end of the lake bed to as far north as I could. Then I attached a huge 500mm telephoto lens to the camera and started taking closeups of the hangars across the lake bed. In all I took 28 photos.
After we were there about 15 or 20 minutes we saw a dust trail leaving the hangar area coming around the north end of the lake bed. I qujckly rewound the film, removed it from the camera and put it under the ashtray in the door armrest in my Lincoln Mark 4. I then reloaded the camera and went out and shot the identical photos and about that time 2 vehicles showed up. We stood there expecting the worst. There was a car and and a truck. A guy got out of the truck and let the chain down and waved goodbye to the guy in the car.
We weren't 20 feet away from the vehicle but no one had seen us yet. The guard hooked the chain back up and turned to go back to his truck and jumped about a foot. He had noticed us. Me, my friends, my black Lincoln Mark 4 and the tripod with the camera on top. The first words out of his mouth were, “Are you guys from the news?”
I told him no, we were just 3 airline pilots out for a drive and had followed the dirt road, having seen no signs whatsoever and ended up here. He said, “Wait right here” He got on his radio.
After a minute or two he came back over and asked us where we had come from. Then, for the next 10 or 15 minutes I told this guy the history of the Blackbird, about the 3 Constellations that left Burbank every Monday morning and came back on Friday evening. About the POB in Oildale near Bakersfield and about the Blackbird pilots that sat at the pilots table with us at the Skytrails.
Halfway through the conversation I saw another dust trail across the lake heading around to the north and obviously on his way to where we were.
After I finished briefing the guard another truck shows up. A black guy with a red cap got out, walked over to us and started yelling.”What are you guys doing here? You don't have permission to be here, you are in violation of security regulations.. “ after about 2 minutes of this tirade the first guard interrupted him and said, “They know everything.”
The guy with the red hat then started taking our drivers license and social security numbers. I reached over to the Nikon and started rewinding the film. The guard says, “Did you take any pictures?” I said yes and handed him the roll of film. I guess you'll probably want my film. He took the film out of my hand and put it in his pocket.
Just them a twin engine Beechcraft with a huge camera window on its belly flew over at about 100 feet. A couple of months later at an aviation get together a friend came up to me and said, “John, that was me in the twin Bonanza taking your picture.”
After about 2 hours of interrogation and checking, the guy in the red hat said. OK, here's whats going to happen. You guys are going back to Vegas and you will be contacted next week and given a briefing and then a debriefing. So now you need to be on your way. And don't come back.
Over the next 20 years or so I was stopped near Groom Lake 3 additional times. The last time they said, “John, thats enough. You are not going to get another chance.” He didn't explain what 'that meant. But I have never been very close since. I've been to the black mailbox and Rachel but never down again down the dirt road.
+The three of us drove back to Las Vegas. My 2 friends were in total shock. On the long stretch of road between Alamo and Apex we were stopped by the Highway Patrol for speeding. We all had our Bonanza Airlines ID'sId around our necks which the Officer apparently thought were Groom Lake ID's . He knew that if anyone who worked there was cited even for a parking ticket they were instantly terminated from employment. So the officer told me that after I sped up to pass another car I should slow down.
About 20 years later, the same officer stopped me for speeding in Hawthorne. After he looked at my drivers license he said, “You know, I stopped a John Lear years ago for speeding near Alamo.” I didn't comment and he let me off with a warning.
We got back to Vegas and resumed flying for Bonanza. None of us were ever contacted. We were neither briefed or debriefed. The only time it ever came up was when I was being read in for my “Q' clearance for my flying with DOE. And I was asked about it.
When I was flying DC-8's for Connie Kalitta and we were doing a lot of cargo transport during the Gulf War between McGuire AFB and the Gulf I was always stopped at Zaragoza, Spain and turned around back to McGuire. I never got to fly 'down range'. All of the other Captains got to continue on 'downrange' where all of the excitement was. I always suspected Pete Ames (Tech.Sgt) who was Deputy Director for Program Security for Special Projects at the Pentagon for denying me clearance to go downrange. Ames disliked any civilian caught near Groom Lake. Ames' boss at the Pentagon was Col.Barry Hennessy who was John Andrews, VP Testors Corp. contact when John was designing the F-19 model. I think his F-19 was the largest selling model of all time. When John died I rented a helicopter with Jim Goodall and we flew up to the edge of the Groom Lake restricted area and dropped his ashes. I got on their tower frequency and said, “Dreamland, Dreamland, this is John Lear and Jim Goodall dropping John Andrews. He should be arriving on the lake bed in about 10 minutes.” I got no response but we were buzzed by security in their Beechcraft turboprops.
The only other time I radioed Dreamland was the day before Christmas 1993. I was flying the US Postal Service Christmas Contract for Kalitta from Blythville to Oakland in a DC-8 and asked ATC to route me just north of Dreamland. I arrived about 7 in he evening and Dreamland had all their runway lights on. Over their tower frequency I said, “Dreamland, Dreamland, this is John Lear and Bob Lazar wishing you a Merry Christmas.” There was no response.
And thats the story as I remember it about the Groom Lake photos.
I was going to post the entire south to north set of 8 but I'm too lazy to go looking for them all.
I waited several months before I retrieved the film from underneath the ashtray in the armrest and drove to Burbank to my special and only B & W photo printer Isgo Lepejian. I specialized in B & W photography because I am medium red-green color blind and don't like working with color photos. I always carried 2 Nikons, one with black and white usually 125 and one with color. I have literally thousands and thousands of negatives of photos I have taken over the past 40 years around the world.
I also carried a Bell & Howell super 8 movie camera. I have 900 feet of flying in Laos, 900 feet of living and flying in Cambodia and 450 feet of ferrying the O-2's from Wichita to Viet Nam.
Isgo had been a friend for many years and he too specialized in printing black and white. He made some fabulous 15 x 20 enlargements of the hangars at Groom. I haven't looked lately because I don't want to discover that they are missing. He printed a couple of each photo of the 28 I shot standing by the lake bed in 8 x 10 format. I don't know whether or not I still have all of them. I do have a few I kept in a separate file titled 'Groom Lake' and from these I am posting a few for this story.
Enrico Villeta: Hi, John, could you please explain how you discovered that your escapade with Lazar was Adm McConnell's project and that he was MJ-1?
John Lear: He was interviewed by Ron Garner and he told Ron what had happened. Any current list of MJ-12 will show McConnell as MJ-1.
Enrico Villeta: John Lear can I listen in on the interview or read the transcript?
John Lear: Unlikely, Ron passed away several years ago. But I have never found a reason to doubt anything Ron has told me.
Enrico Villeta:Thank you.
January 30 at 7:37am Posted
I am finishing up my Groom Lake photo post. But I need some help. Does anybody remember the POB number and name of the company and the name of the town near Bakersfield California that the Skunkworks used for production of parts for the U-2? I don't think its C&J Engineering (Kelly Johnson) that the Skunkworks used in Encino. I think it is 3 initials. I've just spent 2 hours going through 'Skunk Works' by Ben Rich and 'Kelly' Maggie Smith trying to find it with no success. Thanks.
Ronald Regehr: John Lear, you might try contacting Lee Graham. He worked at that facility.
Bob Glenn: John Lear , that was in Bakersfield channel 23 did a story about that as part of Bakersfields history , I am sure you could contact the tv station and get all of the information thay have .
John Lear: Bob, it is no that important or I would. Thanks for the info.
Bob Glenn: Channel 23 even told the people that worked on the project in Bakersfield, and showed the building where it was built, I remember it being a brick building on the North side of Bakersfield, that area is called Oildale California,
John Lear: Yes, Oildale that was it. And when we were building the Blackbird in total secrecy we had to go to Russia for presses large enough for the titanium wing panels on the Blackbird and sent to Oildale? And the Russians would not have been able to figure out what the panels were for? And we're in a Cold War? Talk about fairy tales!
Bob Glenn: John Lear you are a 100% right ever thing you are saying, at the time that was a super secret project, no one in Bakersfield knew about it but the people working on the project. And the building was just a old building among other buildings in that area , but there was a lot of important people that came and went from that area .
John Lear: Thanks Bob. And the 3 letter company is in one of the books, I just can't find it. But it is not important for my story, just a minor point on how I got interested in the Blackbird.
Bob Glenn: I am sure it's going to be a great book John. I would love to read it, thanks John.
James Tracy: John Lear Norris Road The plant was given the code name Unit 80.
Bob Glenn: John Lear do you remember hearing anything about a U2 crash out East of Bakersfield on Greenhorn Mountain, it was in the late 60s, I remember the Military came in and shut the area down for a week and cleaned it up.
Stefan Gray: NASA PDF Page 27 of 307
Karen Daniels: C&J Manufacturing Company (using Kelly Johnson’s initials), J.E. Ramsey Company (named for Lockheed’s purchasing manager), or B.V. Ward (named for Dick Boehme, Art Vierick, and George Welty) Ive been to Oildale . I've also read the U-2 mfg story. "Grandmother" was substituted for the word "pound" when discussing weight...lol. iI have the production documents on a pdf telling the secretive story if you are interested?
John Lear: Much appreciation Karen.
Ron Schmidt: "The first six aircraft were produced in Burbank, CA but, in 1956, the line was relocated to just outside of Bakersfield, CA, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, where they were assembled, functionally checked, disassembled and trucked to Bakersfield airport. From there, they were loaded into a C‑124 and flown to a remote test site. SOURCE
Some more nostalgia:
Oxcart - Secret Transfer of 1st A-12 from Skunkworks to Groom Lake
The Challenge of Transporting the A-12s to Area 51 - V.2
By Frank Murray, A-12 Pilot and Roadrunners Internationale Historian
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