For the past three decades, very little has been revealed in the so called “black world” of classified aircraft. Attempting to piece together the history of manned unacknowledged aircraft programs in America remains a daunting task. What little is known however indicates that there may indeed be a much bigger story beneath the surface. As of July of 2011, only six previously manned classified aircraft programs have been “dislodged”. Lockheed’s “Have Blue” proof of concept stealth aircraft made its first flight on December 1, 1977. The Northrop “Tacit Blue” first flew in 1982, but was not officially declassified until 1996 during the Clinton administration. On November 10, 1988 the Air Force finally admitted that they were indeed flying a Stealth Fighter designated the F-117A. The deliberately degraded photo revealed few details of the aircraft’s faceted “flat plate” design approach. Just over a week later on November 22, 1988 the Air Force rolled out the Northrop B-2 stealth bomber. Boeing’s “Bird of Prey” technology demonstrator made its debut on October 18, 2002. The most obscure from this family of aircraft is the TASK Vantage “Sneeky Pete” which first flew at Mojave airport on July 18, 1982. However, what is known about the pilots who have flown the mysterious aircraft which currently remain hidden from public view? This article will endeavor to investigate the background of three specific test pilots who helped America win the cold war.
According to his official United States Air Force biography, Brigadier General Joseph A. Lanni has more than 4,700 hours of flight time in more than 100 different types of aircraft. These include the following: F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18, F-22, B-1, B-2, B-52 and numerous “classified prototypes”. He also held the position of commander of the Special Projects Flight Test Squadron (Groom Lake) from 1995-1997. Curiously missing from this list is an aircraft known only as the “YF-24” which indeed DID appear on his official career biography which was obtained from the Edwards Air Force Base website (now since removed). All efforts by a small group of aviation enthusiasts to obtain further details on this mysterious aircraft have failed. A FOIA request submitted by this author during 2008 was returned with a “no records” response, and messages left for General Lanni at his Wright Patterson Air Force Base office were never answered. From the ground breaking research of Dryden Flight Research Center historian Peter Merlin, it is known that the YF-24 flew during the late 1990’s. According to stealth aircraft researcher and author Joseph Jones, it may be called the “Fire Eagle”. General Lanni is due to retire on August 1, 2011.
Even less is known about the somewhat enigmatic Dennis F. “Bones” Sager. What is known is that he was commander of the Special Projects Flight Test Squadron sometime in the early 1990’s. Sager accumulated over 2,900 hours of flight time in 54 different aircraft types. He was also hand-picked to be the lead on a classified prototype aircraft known as the “YF-113G” from design to first flight. In an article titled Name Game which was published in the May 14, 2001 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology, the existence of the YF-113G was confirmed, and its development was revealed to have taken place during the 1993-1996 time frame. The article also hinted that Lockheed was probably not the prime contractor. Originally thought to be a Russian Mig-23, the YF-113G is unlikely to be declassified any time soon. During the test program, Sager posed with the aircraft for a photographer, but the photo remains under wraps. “Its waiting for me in a vault”, he said, “if they declassify it” (reference Peter Merlin’s Black Projects at Groom Lake: Into the 21st Century). An official FOIA request by this author for any additional technical details on the YF-113G was returned with the standard “no records” response. A subsequent brief (15 second) telephone conversation with Dennis Sager in 2006 also was met with a stern roadblock.
Doug Benjamin has more than 6,750 hours of flying time in 89 different aircraft. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1978, and was honored during the 2004 ceremony known as the “Gathering of Eagles”. Benjamin was the first Air Force pilot to fly the Boeing Phantom Works “Bird of Prey” when he was assigned to the Special Projects Flight Test Squadron. According to an article titled Parents don’t know what son did, but it was fantastic which was published in the September 27, 2004 issue of the LaCrosse Tribune, Benjamin was forbidden to discuss what he did in the Air Force for a period of five years. What classified aircraft development was he involved with? A mysterious plaque which Benjamin received after his 22 years of service with the Air Force depicted four aircraft which were carefully canceled by sheets. One of which is known to be the Bird of Prey, but the other three remain classified. According to his Gathering of Eagles biography, it is known that he flew on, and commanded a variety of classified programs. Benjamin retired from the Air Force in 2000, and now works as a test pilot for Boeing in Seattle.
The vital contribution that these pilots made to this country should be honored. However, national security should always be balanced with public accountability. Since these mysterious aircraft are ultimately property of the American taxpayer, a thorough review of their current security status is long overdue. Those aircraft programs that have no direct bearing on the national security of the United States should be declassified. If and when that happens, taxpayers will finally get to see “what they paid for”, and the test pilots who risked their lives will be able to tell “the rest of the story”.