Secret U.S. Planes That Remained Relatively Intact After Crashing

crashed f 1172  Secret U.S. Planes That Remained Relatively Intact After Crashing(Photo courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists (

Top secret aircraft, also known as black projects, can be powerful assets to the countries operating them, in this case the United States.  But crashes can have dire consequences both in terms of technology and diplomacy.  Usually when a black aircraft crashes, a cover story is issued and a veil of secrecy shrouds the incident.  But when a jet is still recognisable, cover stories go out the window and technology is left open to exploitation – or simply observation.  Here are five examples of secret aircraft (not all black) that have retained their overall appearances after crashing, though thankfully not all in enemy territory.

Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady

crashed u2 beijing  Secret U.S. Planes That Remained Relatively Intact After Crashing(Image: radio53, reproduced with permission)

The U-2 entered service as a top secret reconnaissance aircraft, designed by the Lockheed Skunk Works to fly higher than Soviet fighters and missiles could reach.  But the spy plane’s existence became public knowledge when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in May 1960.  Following “the U-2 incident“, five aircraft belonging to the Black Cat Squadron – a top secret CIA-sponsored Taiwanese unit – were shot down over mainland China.  The U-2 wreck above is one of those aircraft.  Remarkably intact, much to the chagrin of the U.S., the U-2 is displayed at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing.

Lockheed A-12 (Code Name “Oxcart”)

a 12 oxcart crash  Secret U.S. Planes That Remained Relatively Intact After Crashing(Image: CIA via Pangloss Films and National Geographic)

The unmistakable shape of the Lockheed A-12 spy plane is plain to see in this recently declassified CIA photograph.  The A-12 crashed near Wendover, Utah in 1963 after entering an unrecoverable flat spin.  Pilot Ken Collins ejected and successfully deterred three locals, who came to his aid, from the crash site by telling them it was an F-105 with a nuclear weapon onboard.  The CIA later administered sodium pentothal to ensure Collins had divulged the full details of the incident.  When agents later carried him home, his wife angrily assumed he’d been out drinking with the guys.  It would be several decades before he could tell her the truth!

Lockheed Have Blue (Technology Demonstrator)

have blue technology demonstrator  Secret U.S. Planes That Remained Relatively Intact After Crashing(Image: U.S. Federal Government via Lockheed, public domain)

The Lockheed Skunk Works’ revolutionary Have Blue proof-of-concept aircraft tested a new form of low observable technology known as faceting from 1977 to 1979.  The success of Have Blue paved the way for a programme called Senior Trend, under which the F-117 Nighthawk was developed, forever changing the course of air warfare.  Two Have Blue technology demonstrators were built, both of which crashed during testing.  The aircraft were buried at Groom Lake (Area 51), but the second Have Blue was reportedly intact.  Several attempts have been made to locate the buried airframe for display, but so far none have been successful.

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk (Stealth Fighter)

crashed f 117a  Secret U.S. Planes That Remained Relatively Intact After Crashing(Photos courtesy of the Federation of American Scientists (

Despite several aircraft lost in training accidents over the United States, only one F-117 Stealth Fighter was lost in combat.  On March 27, 1999, F-117 82-0806 was shot down by a surface to air missile during the Kosovo War.  Pilot Dale Zelko was rescued, but the battered F-117 lay inverted in a field, destroyed yet alarmingly intact.  The Stealth Fighter’s canopy was displayed in Belgrade, while the rest of the wreckage was allegedly inspected by Russian personnel.  Although no longer a black project, it has been asserted that the F-117’s low observable technology helped in the development of Russian and Chinese stealth aircraft.  Others, however, dispute this on the grounds that the F-117’s stealth was more than 20-years-old at the time of the crash.

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit (Stealth Bomber)

b 2 spirit crash  Secret U.S. Planes That Remained Relatively Intact After Crashing(Image: Federal Aviation Administration, public domain)

While the B-2 Spirit originated from the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) black project of the late 1970s, the production aircraft was acknowledged early on.  Even so, certain aspects of the Stealth Bomber‘s design remain classified to this day, which goes some way to explaining its hefty price tag.  Fortunately, only one has crashed and both crew members ejected safely.  The B-2’s unmistakable flying wing design and stealthy contours are apparent, despite the aircraft, named “Spirit of Kansas”, being gutted by fire.  Luckily for the U.S. government, the wreck remained within the perimeter of Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.  The $1.4 billion crash was even caught on video.  Find out more at Gizmodo.

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RAF Manston History Museum’s Jaguar Escapes Fires

jaguar manston  RAF Manston History Museum’s Jaguar Escapes Fires(Image: Oast House Archive, cc-sa-3.0)

If you hear that a retired aircraft is heading for RAF Manston in Kent, it usually spells trouble for the jet.  That’s because Manston is home to the Defence Fire Training and Development Centre (DFTDC), and many great military aircraft, including several Avro Vulcans, have perished in its firepits.  Fortunately this Jaguar GR3A – serial number XZ106 – is now on display outside the RAF Manston History Museum, making it one of the luckier Manston airframes.  It certainly appears to be in better condition than the Jaguar that enjoyed several months of fame at Tate Britain (Harrier and Jaguar exhibition) before likely heading to a Harrow scrap yard.

Stealthy YF-23 Prototype Takes to the Streets of Los Angeles

yf 23 1  Stealthy YF-23 Prototype Takes to the Streets of Los Angeles(Image: PhantomPhan1974 Photography, reproduced with permission)

Twenty years ago the best fighter plane never to be produced was grounded permanently after a rigarous fly-off competition for what was to become the Advanced Technology Fighter (ATF).  After a spell in storage, the stealthy Northrop YF-23 prototype is seen here under police escort being towed from Northrop Grumman’s El Segundo facility in Los Angeles to Torrance Airport in September 2010.

yf 23 2  Stealthy YF-23 Prototype Takes to the Streets of Los Angeles(Image: PhantomPhan1974 Photography, reproduced with permission)

In a move that would have been inconceivable a generation ago when a veil of secrecy blanketed the programme, the second YF-23 prototype to be built – officially designated PAV-2 and nicknamed the “Gray Ghost” – is towed almost 10 miles along public highway between the two locations.  One commenter quipped: “Now, that is something you don’t see everyday… A street with freshly-painted white markings!”

yf 23 4  Stealthy YF-23 Prototype Takes to the Streets of Los Angeles(Image PhantomPhan1974 Photography, reproduced with permission)

PAV-2, which first flew on October 26, 1990, was fitted with General Electric YF120 engines during the demonstration and validation programme.  Despite proving to be an excellent aircraft, the Northrop YF-23 ultimately lost out to the more agile Lockheed YF-22, which featured vectored thrust and went on to become the F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter.

yf 23 3  Stealthy YF-23 Prototype Takes to the Streets of Los Angeles(Image: NASA, public domain)

PAV-2 is seen here in flight alongside the first YF-23 – PAV-1, nicknamed the “Black Widow” – which flew with Pratt & Whitney YF119 engines.  Despite reports that the FY-23 was more stealthy and faster than its Lockheed opponent, neither jet has flown since the end of the contest in April 1991.

yf 23 5  Stealthy YF-23 Prototype Takes to the Streets of Los Angeles(Image: U.S. Air Force, public domain)

There was some speculation that the design might be revived to fulfill an interim bomber requirement.  PAV-2 was reportedly modified by Northrop as a full scale model, but the proposal was dropped after the U.S. Air Force decided to pursue a longer range, strategic Next-Generation Bomber.  Both YF-23 prototypes are now on public display, with PAV-2 under the care of Western Museum of Flight, Torrance, California.

Thanks to Damon Duran for the use of these images.  Find out more at Aviation Photographers of Southern California.