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Aurora (also credited as the SR-91 Aurora) is the popular name for a hypothesised United Statesmarker reconnaissance aircraft, alleged to be capable of hypersonic flight.

According to the hypothesis, the Aurora was developed in the 1980s or 1990s as a replacement for the aging and expensive SR-71 Blackbird. A Britishmarker Ministry of Defence report from May 2006, released under the Freedom of Information Act, refers to USAF priority plans to produce a Mach 4–6 highly supersonic vehicle. In September 2007, DARPA and the USAF signed a memo of understanding to build a Mach-6 unmanned aircraft called "Blackswift" under the Force Application and Launch from Continental United States (FALCON) program, but that does not explain the earlier reports. It is believed by some that the Aurora project was canceled due to a shift from spyplanes to high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles and reconnaissance satellites which can do a similar job as a spyplane, but with less risk of casualties or loss of highly expensive, sensitive equipment.

History

In March 1990, the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology first broke the news that the term "Aurora" was inadvertently released in the 1985 U.S. budget, as an allocation of $455 million USD for "Black aircraft PRODUCTION" (emphasis added) in FY 1987. Note that this was for building aircraft, not Research and Development. According to Aviation Week, Aurora referred to a group of exotic aircraft projects, and not to one particular airframe. Funding of the project allegedly reached $2.3 billion in fiscal 1987, according to a 1986 procurement document obtained by Aviation Week. However, according to Ben Rich, former director of Lockheed's Skunk Worksmarker (now the Lockheed Advanced Development Companymarker), Aurora was the code name for the B-2 stealth bomber competition funding, and no such hypersonic plane ever existed.

Lockheed Skunk Works

Lockheed's Skunk Worksmarker has been suggested as the prime contractor for the Aurora. Throughout the 1980s, financial analysts concluded that Lockheed had been engaged in several large classified projects, but the known projects could not account for the declared net income. Financial analysts at Kemper Securities have examined Lockheed Advanced Development Company's declared revenues from Black programs:

  • Returns for 1987 were $65 million.
  • Returns for 1993 were $475 million.


The only declared Lockheed black projects are the U-2R and F-117A upgrade programs, and nothing new has been announced between 1987 and 1993. It was also discovered that the total U.S. budget allocation for Project Aurora for 1987 was no less than $2.27 billion. According to Kemper, this would indicate a first flight of around 1989. The spread of U.S. Government payments to Lockheed indicate that the aircraft was probably about one-fifth (20%) of the way through its development program as of 1992, or has been "extensively prototyped". Around $4.5 billion has already been spent.

Chris Gibson sighting

In late August 1989, while working as an engineer on the jack-up barge GSF Galveston Key in the North Seamarker, Chris Gibson and another witness saw an unfamiliar isosceles triangle-shaped delta aircraft, apparently refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker and accompanied by a pair of F-111 bombers. Gibson and his friend observed this spectacle for several minutes, until the aircraft went out of sight. Having dismissed the F-117, Mirage IV and fully-swept wing F-111 as the identity of this unfamiliar aircraft, Gibson drew a sketch of the formation. Gibson had been in the Royal Observer Corps' trophy-winning international aircraft recognition team since 1980; in other words, he was highly skilled and experienced at identifying military aircraft. Despite this, Gibson was unable to identify the aircraft he saw flying over the North Sea.

When the sighting was made public in 1992, the British Defence Secretary Tom King was told, "There is no knowledge in the MoD of a 'black' programme of this nature, although it would not surprise the relevant desk officers in the Air Staff and Defence Intelligence Staff if it did exist."

Sonic booms

A series of unusual sonic booms were detected in Southern California, beginning in mid to late 1991. On at least six occasions, these sonic booms were recorded by at least 25 of the 220 U.S. Geological Survey sensor across Southern California used to pinpoint earthquake epicenters. The incidents were recorded in June, October and November 1990, late January 1991, and in mid 1994. Seismologists estimate that the aircraft were flying at speeds between Mach 5 and 6 (3,300-4,000 mph) and at altitudes of 8–10 km (26,200-32,800 ft). The aircraft's flight path was in a north-northeast direction, consistent with flight paths to secret test ranges in Nevadamarker. Seismologists say that the sonic booms were characteristic of a smaller vehicle rather than the 37-meter long shuttle orbiter. Furthermore, neither the shuttle nor NASAmarker's single SR-71B was operating on the days the booms were registered. It is not definitively known if these events can be tied to the Aurora program or to other acknowledged or secret programs.

In the article "In Plane Sight?" which appeared in the Washington City Paper on July 3, 1992 (p. 12-13), one of the seismologists, Jim Mori, noted: "We can't tell anything about the vehicle. They seem stronger than other sonic booms that we record once in a while. They've all come on Thursday mornings about the same time, between 6 and 7 in the morning."

Former NASAmarker sonic boom expert Dom Maglieri studied the 15-year old sonic boom data from the California Institute of Technologymarker and has deemed that the data showed "something at 90,000 feet (c. 27.4 km), Mach 4 to Mach 5.2. He also said the booms did not look like booms from aircraft that had traveled through the atmosphere many miles away at LAXmarker, rather, they appeared to be booms from a high-altitude aircraft directly above the ground moving at high speeds. The boom signatures of the two different aircraft patterns are wildly different.

Steven Douglas sighting

On March 23, 1992, near Amarillo, Texasmarker, Steven Douglas photographed the "doughnuts on a rope" contrail and linked this sighting to distinctive sounds. He described the engine noise in the May 11, 1992, edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology (p. 62-63) as a:

In addition to providing the first photographs of the distinctive contrail previously reported by many, the significance of this sighting was enhanced by Douglas' reports of intercepts of radio transmissions:

A month later, radio enthusiasts in California monitoring Edwards AFBmarker Radar (callsign "Joshua Control") heard early morning radio transmissions between Joshua and a high flying aircraft using the callsign "Gaspipe".

At the time, NASAmarker was operating both the SR-71 and the U2-R from Edwardsmarker, but it has been confirmed that neither of these types were flying at the time Gaspipe was heard. Curtis Peebles claims in his book Dark Eagles that the intercepted radio transmissions were probably a prank on the part of Edwards security personnel.

Other sightings

  • In the highly disputed testimony of alleged physicist Robert Lazar, he claims that during his employ at the mysterious S-4 facility in Nevadamarker, that he briefly witnessed an Aurora flight while aboard a bus near Groom Lakemarker. He claimed that there was a "tremendous roar" which sounded almost as if "the sky was tearing." Though he only saw the physical craft for a moment through the front of the bus, he described it as being "very large" and having "two huge, square exhausts with vanes in them." Upon speaking with his supervisor, Lazar was said to have been informed that the craft was indeed an "Aurora," a "high altitude research plane." He was also told that the craft was powered by "liquid methane."


  • In March 2006, the History Channel broadcast a television program called "An Alien History of Planet Earth" which examined UFO reports in the context of secret military aviation programs. During the program, aviation journalist Nick Cook presented a satellite image of the continental U.S. showing a contrail allegedly originating in Nevadamarker and extending over the Atlantic Oceanmarker. The contrail was unusual, as it appeared different from other contrails visible on satellite images. The craft that produced those contrails was not visible on the image. Based on the details of the image, it was speculated that it indicated an aircraft flying at a speed of around 7,000 mph (Mach 10.5, or 11,265 km/h).


  • In December 2006, a Video was filmed of a "doughnuts on a rope" contrail after hearing a supersonic boom that seemed to vibrate very viciously.


  • In October 2009, Fox News aired video of an Iranian missile test. An unseen object cuts through a cloud directly above the missile test, at a speed that appears to be within the rumored speed range of Aurora. The object was reported as a UFO, however the facts of the situation point to Aurora. No object is seen in the video, and some have speculated that the speed of Aurora is rendering it effectively invisible to the human eye (and the camera). This is of course impossible since the aircraft would have to pass through the entire field of vision of an eye or camera in one twenty fourth of a second. The video can be seen here: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/2670396/UFO-tracks-Iranian-missiles.html#comment-rig


Decline of the Aurora

A decline in the number of sightings after 1992, combined with the widespread understanding that the U.S. is now using low-speed "stealthy" drone aircraft in the reconnaissance role combined with spy satellites, led some observers to conclude by 1999 that even if the Aurora had existed, it was probably no longer in service at that time. One possibility is that at least one Aurora was built but failed to live up to its design expectations.

In the 1996 book Skunk Works, Ben Rich, the former head of Lockheed's Skunk Worksmarker division, stated that the Aurora was the budgetary code name for the stealth bomber fly-off that resulted in the B-2 Spirit.

The October 2006 issue of Popular Science has noted that the U.S. Air Force operations budget has a $9 billion hole, with no explanation as to where the money is headed.

U.K. Ministry of Defence paper on "BLACK" aircraft

Sample page of the MoD's report on UAPs, released in May 2006
In May 2006, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) released an extensive report on Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) in the U.K. air defence area. It was written by the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) in 2000 and was originally classified "SECRET UK eyes only". It is unusual, because it contains official comments on "black" programmes. One of the Working Papers is entitled "'BLACK' AND OTHER AIRCRAFT AS UAP EVENTS". It says, "it is acknowledged that some UAP sightings can be attributed to covert aircraft programmes". The report lists three "Western" programmes which might result in this — all of which appear to be Americanmarker (right side image). The first — not surprisingly — is the SR-71. Programme 2 and Programme 3 are redacted from the report — even their names are withheld.

Two photos or representations have also been removed from the file before release. Adjacent sections freely talk about the F-117, B-2 and F-22, and show photos of these aircraft; so these programmes appear to be something different. Elsewhere in the report the DIS says, "The projected (USAF) priority plan is to produce unpiloted air-breathing aircraft with a Mach 8-12 capability and transatmospheric vehicles as well as highly supersonic vehicles at Mach 4 to 6". The Mach 8-12 aircraft may refer to what the USAF announced as the Falcon Project in 2003 but this is the first official mention of a USAF plan for an Aurora-like Mach 4-6 vehicle. Bill Sweetman (Sweetman, Bill. (1993) Aurora: The Pentagon's Secret Hypersonic Spyplane) says the report shows the MoD "identified two separate U.S. 'Black' programmes that might have operated from the U.K." This caught the attention of the BBC Two's Newsnight (14/06/2006), who related the project to many other covert projects.

Popular culture references

For a time in the 1990s, the Aurora aircraft became a touchstone for every "cool" technology then under development. Soon it was appearing on the cover of various magazines such as Popular Science, and for some time was considered to "obviously exist" because the SR-71 had been retired and it was popularly believed that another aircraft was needed to fill the role. The Testors company produced a model kit based on designs popularized in the press. Other companies also got into the business. Estes Industries made a model rocket kit, and Galoob made a Micro Machines toy version of the theoretical aircraft.

The Aurora's status as a mysterious, fantastic and state-of-the-art aircraft has earned itself a place in popular aviation fiction. Here are some appearances of the aircraft in books, TV series, films, video games and flight sims:

Books

  • In J.C. Hutchins' 7th Son podcast novels, the Aurora is featured as a transport aircraft for the surviving Beta Clones in Book 2: Deceit and Book 3: Destruction. Several fan concepts of the plane have been created on Hutchins' website for the novels as well.


  • The plane is briefly mentioned in the novel Area 7 by Matthew Reilly where it is suggested by a character that Area 8 may contain the plane and the associated project.


  • The science-fiction novel Area 51 by Robert Doherty featured the Aurora spy plane, which in the book, is used in conjunction with test-flight of crashed alien spacecraft.


  • The plane is mentioned and plays a critical role in several of the Atlantis books by Greg Donegan (Bob Mayer), including Atlantis and Atlantis: Gate.




  • The plane is described in detail in the novel Coyote Bird by Jim DeFilice as a "Smart Plane" of the future, with an Artificial Intelligence Computer System named "Coyote". It is designated the SR-91, and not mentioned as Aurora.








  • The plane is extensively prominent in Robin A. White's 1990 novel The Flight From Winter's Shadow. Project Aurora's "Excalibur" as the plane was called by its crew, was manufactured by Norton Aerodyne. A golden upthrust sword was its symbol on the tail of the aircraft. Some of its technical descriptions are: Mach-5 capable, utilizing cryogenic hydrogen as fuel, with 4 engines (2 General Electric turbines and 2 ramjets for hypersonic performance), retractable canard wings for low-speed flight, operational ceiling of about 25 miles (132,000 ft), and internal bays that could accommodate equipment such as reconnaissance gear and weapons such as Air-Launched Cruise Missiles and rotary cannons.










  • In Payne Harrison's novel Thunder of Erebus, the Aurora is used on a reconnaissance flight from Nevada to McMurdo Base in Antarctica. The Aurora is refueled by in-air tanker mid-way through the trip, and travels at speeds greater than Mach 3.


Television

  • In The X-Files:
    • A "Black Triangle" type of aircraft from Area 51marker is the object pursued by Special Agents Mulder and Scully in the episode "Dreamland". Although, in the series it uses a form of alien propulsion system which enables the plane to hover.
    • The Aurora program is also referenced in the episode "Deep Throat", where the stresses and strains of piloting such an airframe causes psychological damage to one of the test pilots, which is then covered up by the Air Force.


  • The plane appears during the episode "The One That Got Away" (Season 9 2003-2004) of the American television show JAG when it was piloted by U.S. Navy Commander Harmon "Harm" Rabb, Jr. and another pilot. The plane was being used by the CIA in the episode to spy on North Korean ground movements. In the episode, the plane emitted "doughnuts on a rope" contrails while in flight, and was even able to outrun SAM launched against it.


  • Reported in detail in a History Channel program named "Greatest Military Secrets".




  • The plane appears in episode 3, series 6 of the British spy drama series Spooks.


Films

  • In the movie Broken Arrow, a poster of the Aurora is seen in Christian Slater's locker near the beginning of the film and is briefly mentioned during the B-3 flight sequence.


  • There was some confusion over whether photos taken on an aircraft carrier were of the Aurora. However, these photos turned out to be of a movie prop taken during the filming of Stealth. That aircraft is the fictional F/A-37 Talon multi-role fighter of the U.S. Navy. The Talon and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, Extreme Deep Invader (UCAV, EDI) also were capable of achieving hypersonic speeds by using their "Swarm Logic" commands; the aircraft would collapse protruding edges and hording together in a "pierce/draft" diamond or triangle formation.


  • The film Tactical Assault features the 'Aurora' on the computer screens in the fighter plane cockpit scenes.






Games & flight simulators

Games and flight simulators often assign the bombing or interception role to the Aurora in addition to (or instead of) reconnaissance.

  • Two versions of an Aurora bomber aircraft — one employing an immense bomb and one exclusive to General Alexander that employs an immense fuel-air bomb — are present in the computer game Command & Conquer: Generals and its expansion pack Zero Hour. On its attack runs, the Aurora flies too fast to be hit by anti-aircraft fire. After it drops its bombs it loses speed making it vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.






  • The aircraft can be unlocked in the PlayStation game Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere. It is called the UI-4054 Aurora and is used by the Ouroboros faction. It is, however, armed with guns and missiles, and is super-maneuverable, unlike the real Aurora which is supposedly unarmed and designed to fly fast and straight.




  • Jane's Fighters Anthology military flight simulator (a compilation of Advanced Tactical Fighters, Navy Fighters and their expansions, European Fighters and USNF '97) included the "Aurora Spy Plane" as a flyable aircraft in the Jane's Information CD, which is packaged with the game. In the first mission of the Egypt 1998 campaign, an Aurora plane suffers mechanical problems while flying over the Mediterraneanmarker and needs to land at a U.S. airbase in the Sinaimarker. The player is tasked to scramble and protect the aircraft from Egyptian interceptors.








  • In the first cutscene of the 2005 video game Area 51, game protagonist Ethan Cole and his fellow HazMat squadron teammates go down to Area 51 where a few spy planes can be seen, mounted, and resembling an Aurora artist concept; this may imply players of rumors of the aircraft being tested and developed in the Area 51 facility.


  • The Aurora is available to players in the role-playing game Conspiracy X. Piloting the aircraft causes physical and psychological stress, similar to the X-Files depiction.


  • In the JANET mission of Flight Simulator X; the player's plane is approached by a high speed aircraft that appears to be the Aurora. Upon landing at Area 51 an Aurora, among other things, is easily visible.


See also



Literature

  • Rich, Ben; Janos, Leo. (1996) Skunk Works. Little, Brown & Company, ISBN 0-316-74300-3
  • Sweetman, Bill. (1993) Aurora: The Pentagon's Secret Hypersonic Spyplane. Motorbooks International, ISBN 0-87938-780-7
    • Online version available here
  • Yenne, Bill. Secret Weapons of the Cold War (chapter 10: Stealth Aircraft). Berkley Publishing Group, ISBN 0-425-20149-X
  • Peebles, Curtis. Dark Eagles: A History of Top Secret U.S. Aircraft Programs. ISBN 0-89141-623-4


References and notes

  1. Blackswift Aircraft is Born; But Will it Survive? | Danger Room from Wired.com
  2. DARPA official: AEDC 'critical' to hypersonics advancement
  3. Skunk Works, 1994, Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos, Black Bay Books, page 309
  4. Gibson sighting
  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWQh2b0pshk Robert Lazar speaks of his Aurora sighting.


Further reading

News reports:

UFO files: secret US spy plane Aurora could be behind sightings - Daily Telegraph 17 August 2009 [7997]

External links

General information



Miscellaneous




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