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Top Gun: Maverick SR-72 Darkstar Full-size Mock-up

Closer to Dawn? Hints of Supersecret Aircraft Throughout the Years

Like many moviegoers with a sense of nostalgia for the 80’s, last year I went to watch Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick in the biggest IMAX screen I could find. I was expecting solid performances with jaw-dropping aerial dogfight scenes and did not leave the theater disappointed.

…Well, maybe just a little bit. Because aside from a movie nerd I am also a student of Ufology, and I was kind of curious to see if Cruise would end up incorporating into the film’s plotline some of the recent lore pertaining to the sighting of unidentified flying objects reported by military personnel. After all, Maverick (Tom Cruise’s daredevil alter ego) is a US Navy pilot, and the whole modern trend in the UFO field was kickstarted by the testimony of real-life Navy aviators like David Fravor, Ryan Graves, and Alex Dietrick —Fravor himself is a graduate from the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, popularly known as Top Gun.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, here’s a few very mild spoilers ahead: No, the movie never makes any direct mention to Tic-Tacs or UFOs —at least, not in the sense given by the majority of people to the somewhat-obsolete acronym (i.e., that it refers to craft of non-human origin, possibly extraterrestrial).

However, the movie does make use of the long-lived speculations that some UFO reports in the United States were triggered by the occasional sighting of classified aerial platforms’ tests.

In a scene that feels almost taken from a 1950’s B-movie —complete with a small-town diner, farmer kids in checkered shirts eating cereal, and a quaint country music tune playing in the jukebox— Maverick is shown miraculously alive* after just ejecting out of a secret hypersonic airplane flying over ten times the speed of sound. The space age looks of Maverick’s high-altitude suit is highlighted by one of the little kids, who delivers the well-timed comedic punchline:

This ‘black’ spy plane —codenamed Darkstar in the movie— was developed for the movie by Lockheed Martin for Paramount Pictures. And just before Oscar night in which Maverick was nominated to six Academy awards, including Best Picture (yet it only won Best Sound) the Twitter account for Lockheed Martin saw fit to congratulate the movie in a rather cryptic Tweet…

“The SR-71 Blackbird is still the fastest acknowledged crewed air-breathing jet aircraft.”

“Acknowledged”? Does that mean Lockheed Martin is aware of ‘unacknowledged’ jet aircraft that are faster than the SR-71 Blackbird, the Cold-War era spy plane with a recorded top speed of Mach 3.4, which saw its heyday in the 1960s and was officially decommissioned in 1999?

The SR-71 Blackbird

Media outlets like Popular Mechanics began to speculate whether the people at Lockheed were subtly hinting at the existence of a real SR-72 aircraft to substitute the old Blackbird. PM also ran a comparison between the movie’s Darkstar and old concepts which Lockheed was developing back in 2016 of a hypersonic jet; the main difference being that their real-life concept was going to be an unmanned aircraft —something which Tom Cruise’s Maverick made all the more reasonable, ironically enough…

Lockheed’s old concept of the SR-72

What Popular Mechanics’ writer Sascha Brodsky failed to mention, on the other hand, was how rumors of highly advanced secret aircraft capable of surpassing the speed of the SR-71 have been floating around as early as the late 1980s. As mentioned in Richard Dolan’s book UFOs and the National Security State: The Cover-Up Exposed (1973-1991):

[By the mid-1980s] (t)he stealth fighter was operational and still secret. The stealth bomber was being test-flown in the mid-west, occasionally causing UFO reports. And the first hint of a mysterious new aircraft appeared in a U.S. Defense budgetary request for Fiscal Year 1987. Within a section entitled “Strategic Reconnaissance” was a reference to a project known as “Aurora.” No one knew of it, and fewer cared to discuss it. Some $455 million were requested for the program —for production, not research. In all likelihood, the Aurora aircraft —believed to be a high altitude, high speed reconnaissance platform that succeeded the SR-71 Blackbird —was flying at this time.

Skeptics, on the other hand, have said that Aurora (which means “Dawn” in Spanish) was a budget reference to a program which had absolutely nothing to do with a new hypersonic aircraft. But that didn’t stop the speculation amid conspiracy theorists and UFO buffs who thought this alleged new aircraft could be behind the sightings of strange triangular UFOs which came into prominence by the mid-1990s.

Also during those years, citizens of Los Angeles reported ‘sky quakes’ which some attributed to the sonic booms produced by a new spy plane being flown, possibly on route to the Groom Lake testing ground in Nevada —remember that back in those days Area 51, as it is popularly known, wasn’t even officially acknowledged by the US government yet.

Other witnesses also reported strange-looking contrails that some interpreted as evidence of a secret aircraft powered by scramjet engines, which would allegedly leave a very telling ‘donuts on a rope’ trail behind them, as reported by Aviation Week in 1992.

What about actual sightings? To this day, the only credible report of an aircraft that somewhat fits the description of Aurora came not from the United States, but all across the Atlantic Ocean, in the United Kingdom: In August of 1989, around 60 miles off the Norfolk coast at a North Sea gas rig.

The witness, Chris Gibson, happened to be a former Royal Observer Corps member and one of the world’s leading experts in aircraft identification. While working at the rig, he noticed a matte-black aircraft refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker, which was flanked by two F-111 jets.

“The aircraft was slightly bigger than an F-111, and was “a perfect triangle,” with a 30 degree angle at the nose. The formation was heading towards the UK coast. “I am trained in instant recognition,” Gibson said. “But this triangle had me stopped dead… I was totally out of ideas. Here was an aircraft, flying overhead, not too high, and not particularly fast. A recognition gift and I was clueless. This was a new experience.”

UFOs and the National Security State: The Cover-Up Exposed (1973-1991):

Some people thought the Aurora was not meant to be a hypersonic plane like the SR-71, but some sort of aerial platform capable of slow flight or even hovering, dubbed the TR-3 Black Manta. A cursory search of this acronym, however, reveals it to be an umbrella term for every conceivable type of conspiracy thinking; ranging from the sensible —a high-altitude laser-pointing aircraft meant to work in tandem with the F-117 during the Gulf War, as reported by Popular Mechanics in 1991— to the tin-foil wacko assertion that it is in fact an aircraft equipped with anti-gravity technology.

A third mid-road option is that it could have been instead a ‘hybrid aircraft’ which was allegedly developed not just as a high altitude reconnaissance system, but as a stealth blimp intended to deploy equipment and troops to the battlefield. The fact that it was a blimp could mean such aircraft were perhaps responsible for the sightings of slow-moving giant triangles during UFO waves such as the Hudson Valley sightings of the 1980s, or the Belgian wave in the 1990s —of course, the fact these ‘blimps’ could outmaneuver the Belgian fighter jets sent to intercept them is harder to explain…

All this speculation did not remain confined to the circles of aviation nerds and UFO geeks: it eventually jumped to our television sets and even the silver screen. The quintessential bastion of 1990s ‘Conspiratainment’ —The X Files— used Aurora as a reference in its second episode, “Deep Throat,”  in which Fox Mulder is chasing after rumors of man-made UFOs being secretly tested at a US Air Force base, which was an obvious allusion to Area 51 and Bob Lazar’s claims.

Here it is interesting to note how in the episode Scully (the skeptical one of the two) seeks to dissuade Mulder about the unlikeliness of his wild goose chase by trying to make him consider his ‘alien triangles’ are more than likely just secret Aurora planes; thus trying to shoot down a ‘Big S’ speculation about reverse-engineered alien technology, with a ‘small s’ speculation of undisclosed human-engineered aircraft. The ethical conundrum of whether any government is entitled to use whatever means necessary to cover sensitive technological advancements —whether alien or terrestrial— is left unanswered.

There are other interesting examples of ‘Aurora mythology’ used in the service of entertainment. The 1996 blockbuster movie Broken Arrow —which marked the return of John Travolta to Hollywood big-budget films after his career was resurrected by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction— show the Aurora as a “B-3 bomber” —depicted as an almost-perfect equilateral triangle— capable of low-altitude stealth flight and carrying a payload of nuclear warheads. Major Vic Deaking (Travolta) and Captain Riley Hale are shown making fun of how their covert war games are good for spooking the local cattle and making the farmers blame UFOs for it.

And here it’s also interesting to point out how even David Fravor, in his interview with Joe Rogan, confessed how he too was guilty of horsing around during flight maneuvers to fake UFO sightings —oh those wacky flyboys…

Aside from the over-the-top action scenes (ah the nineties) Broken Arrow is also notable for a scene in which Pentagon analyst Giles Prentice (played by Frank Whaley, who also starred in Pulp Fiction) tells their superiors that instead of trying to cover up the crash of their super-secret plane with a BS cover story, they should just like, tell the truth for a change?

Giles Prentice : Wait. We’re making a mistake.

Secretary Baird : Giles? You, uh, have some input you wish to share with us?

Giles Prentice : Yes, sir. Aviation Week has been following the development of the B3 for years. They have “stringers” – guys camping out in lawn chairs all night out by the Whiteman perimeter fence – watching just in case one of these things take off. Now, they’re gonna know that one took off last night, and they’re gonna know that it didn’t come back. Now, we put out a press-release saying a C141 went down in Utah, they’re gonna put two and two together. Aviation Week is gonna run a story, everyone’s gonna know what really happened, and we’re all gonna look extremely stupid. We’re better off just telling the truth.

Secretary Baird : The truth? How’d you get this job?

27 years later, it does seem as if expecting governments to just tell the truth remains part of a wild movie script.

Trying to find clues behind the United States’ black programs amid TV shows and movies would be silly, but this article is not meant to do that. What I am proposing to my readers instead are three things:

  • It sounds inconceivable that the United States would have let their outdated SR-71 to retire in the 90s without first making every effort to design a suitable replacement for a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
  • Chris Gibson’s sighting in the UK, and the ‘sky quakes’ reported in Los Angeles suggest the US was flying something which was never publicly revealed. And
  • Just like my colleague, the late Robbie Graham, showed in his book Silver Screen Saucers, through their multiple partnerships with TV and Hollywood studios, the US military routinely tries to perform operations of perception management with how their equipment and personnel are portrayed in works of fiction.

Whether a successor to the Blackbird was behind the Aurora rumors remains unconfirmed. Perhaps the reason it was never revealed is because it suffered from the same technical headaches as other problematic projects, like the MV-22 Osprey which is considered by many to be a multi-decade developmental nightmare involving numerous setbacks, cancellations, and fatal accidents; which has only been kept alive though the stubborn insistence of top brass officers, who dream of aircraft with capabilities that are simply outside the reach of modern technology.

Chances are if the Aurora program did exist it was either scratched or replaced by something better, possibly an unmanned drone which would free the design from the needs to accommodate a living pilot and protect it from the incredible levels of heat and G-forces it would be submitted during flight.

And even if such an aircraft doesn’t really exist, it sure seems as if the government and its private contractors now want us and their adversaries to believe it does.

(*) In his typical killjoy fashion, Neil DeGrasse Tyson was compelled to point out how it was virtually impossible Maverick could have survived an ejection from a hypersonic craft —next thing he’s gonna tells us Tom Cruise didn’t prevent an alien invasion in War of the Worlds!

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