A Visit to America's Factory for Top Secret Aircraft
The legendary U-2 spy plane was built here. So was the SR-71 Blackbird, the B-2 bomber, and the F-117 Stealth fighter/bomber. And odds are that even more incredible secret aircraft are currently being built inside Plant 42 near Palmdale, California.
Plant 42 began life in 1940 as an Army Air Force base, and was converted by the then-new Air Force into a facility for the construction of jet aircraft in 1950. I was officially named Plant 42 in 1953. According to an Air Force press release, "Air Force Plant 42's production test flight installation is specifically tailored to the production, flight testing, modification, and depot maintenance of the nation's most advanced aerospace systems built under goverment contract." Approximately 8500 people now work at Plant 42.
Plant 42 is not a single plant, but rather several different facilities and buildings behind a common security fence/perimeter. While the facilities are under control of the Air Force, most are privately owned and operated by such companies as Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Northrup-Grumman. The Space Shuttles were also built at Plant 41 and undergo periodic refurbishing there.
Plant 42 is reached by driving in Highway 14 north from Los Angeles and then taking the exits for either Avenue M or Avenue N when Palmdale is reached. You might be curious why the Air Force decided to locate a plant for building top secret aircraft in the middle of such suburban sprawl, and the answer is that the area was just isolated open desert until the mid-1980s when the spillover from Los Angeles reached the area. You'll find Plant 42 easy to spot----it's the collection of large, hanger-like buildings behind a security fence----and road signs point it out.
You won't find too many Top Secret sites that make it this easy to locate them!
Unfortunately, Plant 42 is pretty dull from the outside------just a collection of large, hanger-like buildings surrounded by a security fence.
In my visits to Plant 42, I have found the security to be very proactive even when you're on public property. Shortly after taking the photos above, I was approached by a security guard in a Jeep who reminded me that it was against the law to take any photographs of the facility. In retaliation, I took the photo below:
My revenge: I took a photo of a "no photography allowed" sign!
You do have to be careful when traveling the roads around Plant 42, as the transition from public road to restricted road can be abrupt. The guardhouses and security checkpoints are often located well inside the restricted areas, meaning it is possible to accidentally travel inside the Plant 42 perimeter------and finding yourself subject to detention and arrest-----if you aren't careful. The best clues that you are approaching the Plant 42 boundary are fences that can be closed across the road and changes in the color of the surface pavement ahead of you.
Note how far inside the Plant 42 perimeter the guardhouse is------if you're not paying attention, it's easy to accidentally find yourself inside and in a lot of trouble!
Some of the most interesting stuff at Plant 42 happens late at night. Air Force C-5 and C-141 transport planes depart from the adjacent airport carrying disassembled aircraft bound for places such as Area 51 and White Sands. Large flatbed trucks carrying covered loads also depart at night for nearby Edwards Air Force Base. During the nornings and evenings, you can sometimes see "JANET" (Joint Air Network for Employee Transportation) jets arriving and departing from the Plant 42 airport. These are unmarked whote passengers jets with a single red stripe along their sides, and are used to transport works on classified projects between different sites. JANET is mainly famous as the transportation system taking workers from Las Vegas to Area 51, and it's believed the flights carry some Plant 42 workers to and from Area 51. Normal engineering practice would call for key design engineers to be present when a new aircraft is undergoing tests, so a heavy volume of JANET flights would likely indicate that a new product of Planet 42 is undergoing tests at Area 51.
And what are those "new products"? The best bets are new generations of Stealth aircraft, advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance and combat purposes, and perhaps even a secret military manned spaceplane, similar to the old X-15 rocket plane, that Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine reported was operational in a 2006 report. Onre thing is for certain: if it's an advanced, still-secret aircraft design, this is where it's being built!