History in the Making
When it comes to aviation history, few states can hold a candle to Nevada. Yet until comparatively recently, the Silver State had no means of recognizing its aerospace pioneers. Enter Thornton “TD” Barnes, an indefatigable Henderson resident.
“We’ve got numerous planes that have been developed here that have never flown anywhere but Nevada,” Barnes tells ShowNews. “And another thing a lot of people may not realize is we developed eight astronauts here, on the X-15 program. Our history’s really rich.”
Few are better placed than Barnes to speak of one-of-a-kind aircraft and hypersonic spaceflight. In 1964, the former U.S. Army radar specialist was working at NASA’s High Range radar station near Beatty, Nev., tracking those X-15 flights; during downtime, he’d fire up the radar to see what he could find. One day he picked up an aircraft flying at very high speed near Groom Lake, to the northeast of the Nevada Test Site. He was told to forget about it. But those who passed on the message clearly kept their eye on Barnes, and before long he was recruited by the CIA and found himself working on that project: the A-12, a Mach 3 surveillance aircraft designed by Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson, which was being tested in total secrecy at Area 51.
Since retiring from the agency and Groom Lake in the 1980s, Barnes has worked tirelessly to tell the stories of his Cold War comrades – when declassification has permitted. He became the driving force behind Roadrunners Internationale, an association for veterans of the Groom Lake-based U-2 and A-12 programs, and in 2008 he established the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame to shine further light on the state’s unsung aviation heroes.
“It’s really kind of strange,” he says. “Although Nevada’s got all this aviation, [the state] is much more centered on gambling and that sort of thing. But then, so much of it was secret – even though a lot has been declassified – that perhaps it took someone like me to say ‘Hey, we did this.’ I was in a perfect spot to be able to do that, and of course my connection with the CIA, them helping me and vice versa, has really made it a winner.”
The NVAHOF holds annual induction ceremonies – this year’s takes place at the Gold Coast Hotel on November 15, when the late Francis Gary Powers heads a slate of U-2 alumni whose names will be added to the roll of honor. This year’s events will also include a visit to the memorial on Mount Charleston commemorating the 14 U-2 program staff who died when their C-54 transport aircraft crashed near the top of the peak on its way to Groom Lake. The event will take place on November 17, the 64th anniversary of the disaster.
The Hall of Fame has a permanent display in Terminal 1 at McCarran, where visitors can read biographies and see historic photographs of inductees. The airport has been a keen supporter of the NVAHOF, and is one Nevada institution that is not shy in shouting about the state’s storied aviation history. Above T1’s baggage claim area hangs a Cessna 172, an aircraft that set – and still holds – the scarcely credible record for continuous flight of 64 days, 22 hours, 19 minutes and five seconds. Upstairs, a small museum area includes details of the flight and its pilots, Robert Timm and John Cook, and explains their daily refueling ritual – flying for around three minutes, connected by a hose to a truck being driven at 75 mph along a desert road. A display case includes the pilots’ toilet seat.
Barnes is keen to stress that the NVAHOF isn’t just about commemorating military aviators or those involved in flying exotic or experimental aircraft. Several civilians are among those with a plaque up in McCarran, including not just Timm and Cook but pioneers of interstate mail flights and George Crockett, the airport’s founder. But suggestions of future inductees from the business-aviation world would be gratefully received.
“Anyone who wants to submit a name, we’ll definitely consider it,” Barnes says. “We try to recognize the civilians just as much as the military – but we’re running out of them, really.”