Roadrunners Internationale 24th Reunion
The 24th annual Roadrunners Internationale reunion was held October 5 – 8, 2015 in Las Vegas, NV. This year’s event celebrated the 60th anniversary of the U-2 spy plane and its Area 51 operating base. Who are the Roadrunners? Originally, they were a group of elite CIA, Air Force pilots and support personnel working on classified projects in the middle of the Nevada desert, near Groom Lake. At this mysterious location, know to them as “the Ranch” or “the Area”, and well known as Area 51 to many others, it was the hub of CIA and Air Force black projects in the 1950’s and 60’s.
As their web site states, Roadrunners Internationale preserves the history of the aviation pioneers and programs that developed the U-2, A-12, YF -12 and SR-71 aircraft during the cold war.
The A-12 Oxcart was the successor to the U-2 spy plane and precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird. Built by Lockheed Martin, the Oxcart was owned and operated by the CIA and represents a pioneering achievement in aeronautical engineering. To this day, the Blackbird holds records for speed and altitude (Mach 3.29 at 90,000 feet) for an air-breathing piloted jet aircraft.
This year’s reunion was held at the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Lockheed-Martin has supported the Roadrunners’ reunions in the past and it was great to have their Corporate recognition in support of our veterans again this year.
This was the first time that Photorecon representatives attended the event. Thanks to the efforts of my brother Steve Kates (aka Dr. Sky) and member John C. Evans, DaveBudd and I became associate members of this elite group of aviation history. To us, this is a monumental achievement in our photojournalism resume, as the membership list included past greats like Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, Ben Rich, Lockheed test pilot Louis Schalk, and many living members who took part in this cutting edge aerospace program. We are honored to be members, to say the least, and we will strive hard to continue the legacy and document this historic program program through our website and publications.
The reunion kicked off on Monday with a casual cocktail “meet and greet” in the hotel ball room. The room was filled with all kinds of historic photos, and table after table displayed unique data on this once Top Secret program. Most of the photos have only been seen by members, as they are part of a private program of members’ collections. Any fan of the work that took place at Area 51 during the Cold War would be in heaven. The CIA gift store had a few tables set up for anyone wishing to purchase official swag from the agency and its black programs. I purchased several unique, never before seen challenge coins and a few other interesting items for my vast collection of aviation memorabilia.
Tuesday’s events were highlighted by a road trip to Rachel, NV hosted by Dreamland Resort webmaster Joerg Arnu. Mr. Arnu is a one of the most knowledgeable individuals when it comes to all things Area 51. Several of the attendees made the journey to this location, which is just over the mountains from the famous Area 51 base and home to all the black projects this group commemorates.
Wednesday’s events did not slow down as several other road trips were planed. Travel began with a visit to the Cold War Memorial located at the Spring Mountain visitor’s center on nearby Mt. Charleston. This site honors where a C-54 crashed carrying 14 CIA, Lockheed, and USAF members 1955.
This was followed by a stop at the National Atomic Testing Museum, and included a book signing by several authors who have written books on the subject of Area 51 and the black project programs of the Cold War. Later, we returned to the Gold Coast for more meet and greet time with the men and women who, as of a few years ago, did not exist… at least in official records anyway.
It can’t be overemphasized how very interesting every night was at these gatherings. Just to be able to interact with members who presented the living history of these programs is priceless. As a young man I would spend countless hours reading about these aircraft, pilots, and designers – and their accomplishments. To spend time in the company of the people who piqued my interests in aviation was indeed an honor.
Thursday was a casual day with more interviews and one on one time with members. One of the people I had the great honor to talk with for several hours was the great thermodynamics engineer Pete Law. This Lockheed “lifer” was part of the Skunk Works for four decades in the thermodynamics division and was involved in most all of the famous black projects. Pete is also famous for his many contributions to Unlimited Air Racing. From the early days, Pete has helped design racing aircraft cooling systems, like the well-known boil off cooling method, spray bars, and the pioneering the use of ADI in the fuel systems. Now you know how the Reno Unlimited Class goes so fast – they have help from a Skunk Works engineer!
To conclude the reunion a banquet was held on Thursday evening. This banquet was amazing; the food was superb, the drinks were flowing and the company could not have been any better. Emcee Roger Andersen did a great job introducing everyone present at the banquet. Each of the attendees had assigned seating at one of the many tables in the large hall. I was honored to be seated with and have dinner conversation with SR-71 pilot Jim Shelton. He started flying the SR-71 in July 1968, and continued to pilot Blackbirds for six years, accruing 911 hours while supporting U.S. operations over North Viet Nam and the Korean DMZ. He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses and seven Air Medals for contributions while flying several operational missions He was happy to discuss his career, and a few specific missions too. Dinner was getting even better.
The assembly took a moment to honor their fallen members with a special ceremony, which included a single empty spot-lit chair sitting behind a table set for 1 in the corner of the room. A special speech was given and a moment of silence held to honor those who had gone before us.
The highlight of the evening was presenting a custom piece of artwork that Dave had created to honor A-12 “article 131”, its pilots and crew. This great design was given to any member who wanted one, and want it they did. The box was empty before we knew what happened. Anyone holding a copy of Dave’s artwork got another treat, as legendary A-12 pilots Frank Murray “Dutch 20 ” and Ken Collins “Dutch 21” were on hand and able to sign your copy. Wow! The night concluded with plenty more meeting and greeting and casual discussion.
All said, it was one great week of aviation “special projects” at its best. We would like to thank all the people who made this reunion happen; it takes many, and the logistics are a nightmare. Again, we were honored to even be there, and we can’t wait till the next reunion.
A special thanks to Roadrunners Internationale President T. D. Barnes for his contributions to the program and his ongoing efforts to preserve it’s amazing history.
Hope to see you all next time.
More Photos from the 2015 Reunion