I was interviewed for the job at the Guys and Dolls Lounge (now part of Batista's across from Bally's) by Bill Barrett, manager of the EG & G Special Projects at the site. He could tell me nothing other than I would be flying to work every day and it would be interesting plus a 20% bonus for flying, free food and board…if you wanted it. It sounded intriguing and I loved flying so I took the job.
While waiting for my clearances, I worked with a downtown engineer, Jim Labutti, on a bull gear for antenna tracking. After receiving my clearances, I reported to a pair of C-47's parked just south of the Vegas Airmotive facility on the West Side of McCarran. Take off time 6:30 a.m. (later changed to 6:00 a.m.) by married guys in an overwhelming vote against 4 single guys. There were about 45 guys going up everyday. The C-47's looked like they had seen a lot of service. 710Z and 811Z were hot in the summer and cold in the winter, they rode rough in turbulence, but we always took off no matter the weather or wind in Vegas. We didn't always get into Area 51.
When I arrived at the site now called Area 51 (AKA Groom Lake), I was very impressed by what I saw. Who wouldn't be; the Blackbirds (A-12's) and that 60' diameter dish.
I was introduced to Harry Phiffer who was in charge of the engineers at the site and Wayne Pendleton F-Systems (flight) manager and Jim Tarver G-Systems (ground) manager. I was assigned to be responsible for the two radar systems in the antenna building: the S-band radar with the 60' dish and the Navy Radar about (225 Mc). The organization got a little strange after I was introduced to Bill McCloud, Antenna Building lead tech. He and his people reported to Howard Schmit F-Systems senior technical supervisor. (Senior technical supervisor for G-Systems was George Percy).
G-Systems was a model range for detecting radar return hot-spots and F-Systems was to make radar cross-section measurements on the genuine article A-12 (Blackbird) in flight at the threat frequencies.
I shared an office, looking down the runway to the northwest, with Frank Harris, responsible for C-Band, PPA (70 Mc) and Clothesline (155 Mc). The runway at that time was 14,000 feet with a 10,000-foot over-run. You could not help looking up when a “Bird” took off as they rotated at about 211 knots with lots of noise. In late 1965, I witnessed one big explosion of an A-12 from the vantage point of my office window. The Blackbird taking off Northwest, I observed it bank slightly to left, then slightly to the right, then a hard left bank. At that time the pilot ejected, his chute deployed with one swing before he hit the ground. The Blackbird hit the ground with a huge explosion from it being fully loaded with fuel. The test pilot, Mele Vojvodich, flew down to Vegas with us. I believe he had a dislocated shoulder and he told us how his controls were reversed.
I was informed that there wouldn't be much to do for me as we were, and I quote, “window dressing”. All real engineering would be handled by “Downtown” engineers (read better) and the technicians. Of course, this did not sit well with me, so I set out to rectify this arrangement and met with quite a bit of hostility. We eventually got it sorted out and once McCloud was on my side, nobody else was allowed to touch the system without my ok, which was a real shock to the Downtown guys.
The head of Downtown engineering was Don White who was very skeptical of anything done by the people at the site, until I was able to make the measurements on Big Blast, an S-band noise jammer that the Agency requested. Two of the engineers from downtown, Tom Walsh and Lloyd Cohan were great guys and we worked well together.
The main task of F-Systems was to make radar cross-section measurements on the Bird using the S-Band radar and the 60' dish. The Bird was tracked using the Nike Radar with a transponder on the A-12. We calibrated the dish/radar to 1 square meter return, then we measured the returns from the Bird. The data was analyzed for different angles and altitudes and radar absorbing material was put in the chines to try to get reduced radar returns for minimum cross-section. Explaining that we had to calibrate the antenna in a fixed position, myself, McCloud, Cowan Dawson and Pezzini got to thoroughly investigate the Groom mine for several hours.
It was very important to have the smallest cross-section possible to give the gun-laying/missile guidance tracking radar as little as possible to work with. The threat was the Russian built SA-2 (Fansong) Track-While-Scan radar. It had been responsible for downing our U-2's over Russia, Cuba, later in the People's Republic of China and it became very effective over North Vietnam especially in the high-density missile and AAA areas in Route Package 6 (Hanoi/Haiphong). Even with the high speed (Mach 3 plus) and altitude (90,000 feet plus) (the A-12 was lighter and faster the SR-71), no stone was left unturned (ECM & low radar cross-section) to ensure maximum survivability of the Blackbirds. Although I don't think with the speed and altitude of the aircraft, the inability of the missile steering over 75,000 feet, and the fact you had to get a shot off coming in (once the radar slewed around the Blackbird would out run the missile which only had a 17-mile slant range) that an effective guided intercept could be made. However, there is always a lucky shot and it was a big missile/warhead. The SA-2 is still considered a threat to our aircraft to this day.
Eventually I took over all the radars at the site. The long wave (low frequency) radars could see the aircraft a long way off, but didn't have the accuracy for gun-laying or missile guidance. Shortly before I left we received a genuine made in Russia SA-2 at the site.
Some of my other fellow co-workers that I can recall are:
Dick Lampier - G-Systems Engineer
Stan Busby- G-Systems Engineer
Carl Newmiller - Drafting
Bob Funk - Nike Operator
Dick McEwen - G-Systems
Cowan Dawson - C-Band
Dick Wilson - Q-Bay
Robert Pezzini - Antenna building
Vern Williamson - PPA
Dave Haen - Q-Bay
Sam Gamble - Drafting
Jim Freedman - Admin
? Helbert - G-Systems (don't sit next to this one in turbulence…)
Jim Cates - G-Systems
Eddie ? - Admin
Rocky ? - G-Systems Tech Supervisor
Willie M? - Clothesline
CarCo out of Albuquerque, NM had the contract to fly the C-47's and allowed me to fly anytime I wanted. They were:
Roy Kemp - Chief Pilot
Tom Hall - Pilot
Joe Cotton - Pilot (gave me my checkride)
Hugh Starcher - Pilot
Tom Losh - Pilot
Flo Deluna - Mechanic (looked over my Swift before purchase)
We also had a football team and a softball team from Special Projects at the site. The softball team was good, but the football team was outstanding. The flag football team competed in the Las Vegas city sponsored league in 1965. Some of the teams were WMK Cement and Mayflower Movers. Needless to say, it got pretty nasty and evolved into tackle without pads because everybody was tying the flag to their belt loop. We won the championship undefeated thanks to our fabulous quarterback Dick Wilson and our very fleet of foot ends/pass defenders, Carl Newmiller and Bob Pezzini. Cowan Dawson and I did the grunt work of charging ends on defense and blocking back on offense. We even won the game against the all-stars from the other teams.
There were enough broken arms, legs, and noses that the city opted out the next year.
I learned a lot at EG & G Special Projects and other than the early get up, it was great fun.