Tonopah Test Range

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. — Eric Hoffer

One clear Nevada evening in the late 1980s, I wheeled my government vehicle out of the

Yucca Flats at night...back in the day.

Yucca Flats at night…back in the day.

Area 6 parking lot located on the ridge between Yucca Flats and Frenchman Flats on the Nevada Test Site. Thinking that this job had become less of a job and more of a lifestyle, my main concern was to slide into Mercury before the cafeteria closed and I was forced to make an evening meal of Cheetos and Coca-Cola out of the machines one more time. My egocentric meanderings abruptly ended as I noticed helicopters, a lot of them, lined up and hovering along the ridges. Something very cool was up so I eased my vehicle onto the first available off-the-road flat spot, stopped, lit a cigarette, and settled in to wait.

The stars fairly danced a jig in the dry, clear desert air and the seven sisters of the Pleiades constellation sparkled

Pleiades: Dance of the seven sisters

Pleiades: Dance of the seven sisters

like sunlight playing off of water. Once again, I examined the curiosity that kept getting me in trouble. And once again, I found that it didn’t matter to me whether or not I got into trouble for asking too many questions. I loved what I was doing, the toys were astounding, winning the Cold War was important, and very smart people were doing very interesting things, which brought me back to the helicopters. I decided to try to count them. By the time I got to twenty-five helicopters, a large, black, triangular flying machine came roaring across the ridge between the flats at an incredible speed. “Well, hello”, said I. 

The last thing I saw was a V-shaped tail as it topped the hills and dropped into the Nellis AFB

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

bombing range. It was, of course, the F-117 stealth fighter developed by Lockheed Martin.  Popular Mechanics magazine knew about the F-117, and published an article or two on it long before the tunnel rats of Area 6, like me, knew. The approach direction indicated it either came from Area 52, the Tonopah Test Range, or Area 51, Groom Lake. By that time the cafeteria was closed, which made the decision to wait for the airplane’s return easy. After a bit, the helicopters peeled off and I gave up watching. My bed in Mercury was calling me and the memory slipped into a dream.

In the mid-1990s, I returned from DOE’s Pacific Operations to the Nevada Test Site. A new job and an altered set of responsibilities meant I had a different ‘need to know’. Being

Panama Viejo. The landing zone for U.S. forces is at left center.

Panama Viejo. The landing zone for U.S. forces is at left center.

responsible for managing the contractor engineer, constructor, scientist, and technician workforce, I felt sure I could finally figure out what had been going on way back in the 1980s.  While I never did find out with certainty where that flight originated, I think it must have been the Tonopah Test Range. The F-117s were first used during Operation Just Cause, the Panama incursion to get General Noriega in the late 1980s.  However, the stealth fighters really earned their service stripes on the front lines of the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield/Storm. And, now, they are deactivated. My, how time flies.

The Tonopah Test Range (TTR) covers a large area north and west of the old Nevada Test Site.  The original Memorandum of Understanding established 525 square miles but its

An F-117 Nighthawk with a T-38 Talon chase plane flying over Tonopah Test Range Airport.

An F-117 Nighthawk with a T-38 Talon chase plane flying over Tonopah Test Range Airport.

operator, Sandia National Laboratory (SNL), acknowledges only 280 square miles. (SNL operates TTR on DOE’s behalf).  It is possible that the difference in square miles may have been returned to the Nellis range but I could find no modified facilities agreements. Geography is Destiny as they say and it was for TTR. Its parallel mountain ranges, hidden valleys, and sparse vegetation attracted the DOE in the 1950s.  Traditionally, TTR tested weapons systems like rockets and artillery. The structural integrity of nuclear weapons was tested but key components were removed so they would not go ‘nuclear’. If the weapons broke up, however, there was radioactive contamination. Several people I worked with had, in years past, struggled to retrieve some very bad stuff with only half shields to protect them. Half shields are made of materials that allow workers to stay longer in highly contaminated areas. They cover the soft tissues and organs. Hands and feet can take a higher level of radiation over a longer period of time than can the core of the body. In general, this type of shield is heavy and very difficult to work with and there is still a considerable radiological hazard.

MV5BMTY3ODg4OTU3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjI1Nzg4._V1_SX640_SY720_TTR, in the bygone era of the Cold War (1947-1991), was also the site of choice for testing and back engineering ill-gotten treasures such as the MiG 23, a versatile Soviet airplane that could be used in dogfights. It is rumored that the MiG-25 Foxbat (YF-116); MiG-29 Fulcrum (YF-118) and Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter (YF-112) were also flown at TTR[1].  Local lore has it that the Top Gun school at Miramar was started to hone U.S. pilots’ skills against enemy aircraft as a result of the TTR testing.

The Lockheed F-117 stealth fighter development at TTR was a challenge for the contractors.  I can testify to that fact. All of the supporting design and construction for the housing and feeding of the F-117 was conducted without any knowledge of the product. Designers were provided meager design criteria such as size, weight, and interesting phenomena like vortex velocities. Still they built the support infrastructure that was needed. There was more than one snicker about the photographers and conspiracy buffs that used their telescopic lenses to photograph the facilities. The last laugh was on us, the contractors, though. Popular Mechanics published some surprisingly accurate pieces well before most worker bees knew the F-117 scoop.

TTR is one more piece of Cold War (1947-1991) infrastructure looking for a mission. TTR is home to an outstanding airfield and air transportation terminal that can handle all major

HAVE DOUGHNUT, (MiG-21F-13) flown by United States Navy and Air Force Systems Command during its 1968 exploitation.

HAVE DOUGHNUT, (MiG-21F-13) flown by United States Navy and Air Force Systems Command during its 1968 exploitation.

aircraft. Located close to the main runway are: dining facilities;  overnight housing for site personnel;  range control office; fire stations; maintenance shops;  petroleum, oil and lubricants; aggregate quarries[2]. SNL maintains a staff of 113 employees as they search for a way to use and pay for the facilities as budget dollars are shifted from infrastructure to social programs. Ajoy Moonka, senior SBL manager of the Stockpile Support and Test Group stated, “They are very dedicated to the mission and make the best of rather old equipment, facilities, and infrastructure that exists due to lack of investment for over a decade.”[3]

DOE and its laboratories are filled with very bright, learned people who are well-equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.  It is their fault but they are not to blame. The mechanisms of a large federal bureaucracy do not allow for any operational agility so options for change and growth are almost nonexistent. The federal government prefers to

Bobwhite Quail

Bobwhite Quail

buy another 339,000 acres somewhere else to do something new rather than use the acreage they already own and cannot afford to maintain. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service procured over 600,000 acres in Southern Arizona for habitat and reintroduction of the Bob White quail (an occasional visitor). The acreage includes the same range of habitat as that of the old NTS and TTR. Why not use what the government has in stock rather than displace more people for another range they cannot maintain or manage?



[3] SANDIA LAB NEWS; Bill Murphy; March 12, 2010

  • jaycee

    well i really like your story and i thank you for all the neat information

    • solidus

      Thank you, TTR is a very neat place. It is beautiful and many interesting things have happened there. The range also has a wide variety of wild life.