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Aurora is a top secret stealth military aircraft.

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Aurora is a stealth military aircraft, possibly British? (See Halo aka BAe HOTOL see below.). Aurora is also credited as the SR-91 Aurora. The Stealth military aircraft Aurora is the popular name for a hypothesised American reconnaissance aircraft, believed by some to be capable of hypersonic flight at speeds of Mach 5+. According to the hypothesis, the Aurora was developed in the 1980s or 1990s as a replacement for the aging and expensive SR-71 Blackbird. A British Ministry of Defence report released in May 2006 refers to USAF priority plans to produce a Mach 4-6 highly supersonic vehicle, but no conclusive evidence has emerged to confirm the existence of such a project. It is believed by some that the Aurora project was cancelled due to a shift from spyplanes to high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles and reconnaissance satellites which can do the same job as a spyplane, but with less risk of casualties.

History of the Aurora.

Artist's concept of the Stealth Aurora (Adrian Mann).
Type Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft.
Manufacturer. Unknown; most likely Lockheed Advanced Development Company.
Maiden flight. 1989 (earliest observation).
Introduced. Unknown.
Retired. Unknown.
Status. Unknown.
Primary users. U.S. Air Force.
Central Intelligence Agency Defense Intelligence Agency.
Number built. Unknown.
Unit cost. Unknown.
Developed from SR-71 Blackbird, X-15

In March 1990, the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology first broke the news that the term "Aurora" was inadvertently released in the 1985 U.S. budget, as an allocation of $455 million USD for "Black aircraft PRODUCTION" in FY 1987. Note that this was for building aircraft, not Research and Development. According to Aviation Week, Aurora referred to a group of exotic aircraft projects, and not to one particular airframe. Funding of the project allegedly reached $2.3 billion in fiscal 1987, according to a 1986 procurement document obtained by Aviation Week. However, according to Ben Rich, former director of Lockheed's skunk works (now the Lockheed Advanced Development Company), Aurora was the code name for the B2 Stealth Bomber competition funding and no such hypersonic plane ever existed (Skunk Works, 1994, Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos, Black Bay Books, page 309).

Aurora and Lockheed Skunk Works.

Lockheed's Skunk Works has been suggested as the prime contractor for the Aurora. Throughout the 1980s, financial analysts concluded that Lockheed had been engaged in several large classified projects, but the known projects could not account for the declared net income. Financial analysts at Kemper Securities have examined Lockheed Advanced Development Company's declared revenues from Black programs:

  • Returns for 1987 were $65 million.
  • Returns for 1993 were $475 million.

The only declared Lockheed Black Projects are the U2-R and F-117A upgrade programs, and nothing new has been announced between 1987 and 1993. It was also discovered that the total U.S. budget allocation for Project Aurora for 1987 was no less than $2.27 billion. According to Kemper, this would indicate a first flight of around 1989. The spread of U.S. Government payments to Lockheed indicate that the aircraft is probably about one-fifth (20%) of the way through its development program as of 1992, or has been "extensively prototyped." Around $4.5 billion has already been spent.

BAe HOTOL might be the Aurora.

There is also a possible correlation between Aurora and the British BAe project known as HOTOL (HOrizonal TakeOff and Landing), which involved the use of a prototyped and functional Rolls Royce turbojet/ramjet/scramjet engine design. (This engine was a working prototype.) The aircraft was developed as a high-speed replacement of Concorde, ie. for international travel. As a civilian project, it would have meant commutable times of London to Sydney of around 2.5 hours, and London to New York in under an hour.

In the mid 80s, the HOTOL project was canceled due to lack of further British government funding, but was only 12 months away from having a working prototype, with the progress made by Rolls Royce and BAe on successful airframe and engine designs almost completed.

HOTOL's airframe design and engine technology has many correlations with the suspected Aurora project. (Ie. ultra-high cruise altitude (180,000 ft / 54.9 km), with cruise speeds in excess of Mach 7.) These made HOTOL perfect as a "black" reconnaissance platform.

Chris Gibson sighting of Aurora.

In late August 1989, while working as an engineer on the jack-up barge "GSF Galveston Key" in the North Sea, Chris Gibson and his friend saw an unfamiliar isosceles triangle-shaped delta aircraft, apparently refuelling from a KC-135 Stratotanker and accompanied by a pair of F-111 fighters. Gibson and his friend observed this spectacle for several minutes, until the aircraft went out of sight. Having dismissed the F-117, Mirage IV and fully-swept wing F-111 as the identity of this unfamiliar aircraft, Gibson drew a sketch of the formation. Gibson was a member of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) - and more importantly, had been in the ROC's aircraft recognition team since 1980 - but was unable to identify this aircraft.

When the sighting was made public in 1992, the British Defence Secretary Tom King was told, "There is no knowledge in the MoD of a 'black' programme of this nature, although it would not surprise the relevant desk officers in the Air Staff and Defence Intelligence Staff if it did exist."

Aurora sonic booms.

A series of unusual sonic booms were detected in Southern California, beginning in mid to late 1991. On at least five occasions, these sonic booms were recorded by at least 25 of the 220 U.S. Geological Survey sensors across Southern California used to pinpoint Earthquake epicenters. The incidents were recorded in June, October and November 1990, and late January 1991. Seismologists estimate that the aircraft were flying at speeds between Mach 3 and 4 (2300-3000 mph) and at altitudes of 8-10 km (26,200-32,800 ft). The aircraft's flight path was in a north-northeast direction, consistent with flight paths to secret test ranges in Nevada. Seismologists say that the sonic booms were characteristic of a smaller vehicle than the 37-meter long shuttle orbiter. Furthermore, neither the shuttle nor NASA's single SR-71B was operating on the days the booms were registered. It is not definitively known if these events can be tied to the Aurora program or to other acknowledged or secret programs.

In the article "In Plane Sight?" which appeared in the Washington City Paper on July 3, 1992 (p.12-13), one of the seismologists, Jim Mori, noted: "We can't tell anything about the vehicle. They seem stronger than other sonic booms that we record once in a while. They've all come on Thursday mornings about the same time, between 6 and 7 in the morning."

Former NASA sonic boom expert Dom Maglieri studied the 15-year old sonic boom data from the California Institute of Technology and has deemed that the data showed "something at 90,000 feet, Mach 4 to Mach 5". He also said the booms did not look like booms from aircraft that had traveled through the atmosphere many miles away at LAX, rather, they appeared to be booms from a high-altitude aircraft directly above the ground moving at high speeds. The boom signatures of the two different aircraft patterns is wildly different.

Steven Douglas sighting of the Aurora.

On March 23, 1992, near Amarillo, Texas, Steven Douglas photographed the "doughnuts on a rope" (or "pearl necklace") contrail and linked this sighting to distinctive sounds. He described the engine noise in the May 11, 1992, edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology (p.62-63) as a:

(...) strange, loud pulsating roar... unique... a deep pulsating rumble that vibrated the house and made the windows shake... similar to rockets engine noise, but deeper, with evenly timed pulses.

The distinctive "doughnuts on a rope" contrail and pulsing sounds reported by many have given rise to the speculation that the aircraft might use pulse detonation propulsion technology originally patented in the 1950s but not used on any acknowledged non-research project.

In addition to providing the first photographs of the distinctive contrail previously reported by many, the significance of this sighting was enhanced by Douglas' reports of intercepts of radio transmissions:

Air-to-air communications... were between an AWACS aircraft with the call sign "Dragnet 51" from Tinker AFB, Okla., and two unknown aircraft using the call signs 'Darkstar November' and 'Darkstar Mike.' Messages consisted of phonetically transmitted alphanumerics. It is not known whether this radio traffic had any association with the "pulser" that had just flown over Amarillo.

A month later, radio enthusiasts in California monitoring Edwards AFB Radar (callsign "Joshua Control") heard early morning radio transmissions between Joshua and a high flying aircraft using the callsign "Gaspipe" (which could be a reference to the Aurora's supposed exotic propulsion system). Joshua controllers were vectoring Gaspipe into Edwards AFB, using terminology usually used during Space Shuttle recoveries.

You're at 67,000 ft, 81 miles out" was heard, followed by "seventy miles out now, 36,000 ft, above glideslope.

At the time, NASA was operating both the SR-71 and the U2-R from Edwards, but it has been confirmed that neither of these types were operating at the time Gaspipe was heard. Skeptics have theorized that the intercepted radio transmissions were merely a prank played by Edwards AFB security officers, but it is unlikely that they would have access to the terminology used in the transmissions.

Aurora: The Scottish connection.

Beginning in 1991 reports started appearing in Scottish newspapers- including "The Scotsman" -that Aurora was landing and taking off from the Machrihanish airbase on the Kintyre peninsula. Machrihanish was an RAF base with a long runway which was a V bomber dispersal base during the Cold War before being handed over to the United States Navy, which used it as a base for Navy SEALs until 1995. It was alleged that air traffic controllers had seen aircraft on their radars taking off from there and accelerating to high mach numbers. None of the supposed controllers has ever gone on the record. Others have claimed that Royal Marines inadvertently discovered the Aurora in a hangar at Machrihanish but again none of the supposed witnesses have ever gone on the record.

Other sightings of Aurora.

In 1998, another aircraft spotter videotaped two unusual contrails in quick succession. One of the sights appeared to be a fireball, while the other was described as "doughnuts on a rope."

In March 2006, the History Channel broadcast a television program called "An Alien History of Planet Earth" which examined UFO reports in the context of secret military aviation programs. During the program, aviation journalist Nick Cook presented a satellite image of the continental U.S. showing a contrail allegedly originating in Nevada and extending over the Atlantic Ocean. The contrail was unusual, as it appeared different from other contrails visible on satellite images. The craft that produced those contrails was not visible on the image. Based on the details of the image, it was speculated that it indicates an aircraft flying at a speed of around 8000 mph (Mach 10.5).

In the 1980s and 1990s, NASA and several aerospace companies proposed multiple aircraft designs for hypersonic aircraft that are reminiscent of the aircraft described by Gibson. Some appeared to be based around what was learned from experiments with the XB-70 Valkyrie waverider airplane, which used air compressed by the supersonic shockwave around the aircraft to generate additional lift.

There have been claims from people that have supposedly seen Aurora that it leaves a trail of multiple bluish rings. Though it is not confirmed the Aurora is causing these blue rings of water vapor, these rings have occasionally been seen in the skies around the west coast of the United States.

Decline of the Aurora.

According to an "Exclusive Special Report" published in Military Space in January 1995, "Aurora was canceled by the Secretary of Defense Cheney in 1992, after he was informed that Aurora vehicles would cost approximately $1 billion per flight article." A decline in the number of sightings after 1992, combined with the widespread understanding that the U.S. is now using low-speed "stealthy" drone aircraft in the reconnaissance role combined with spy satellites, led some observers to conclude by 1999 that even if the Aurora had existed, it was probably no longer in service. One possibility is that at least one Aurora was built but failed to live up to its design expectations. If so, the program may still be classified simply to hide the significant amount of the money that would have been invested in the program.

In the 1996 book Skunk Works, Ben Rich, the former head of Lockheed's Skunk Works division, claims that the Aurora was simply the budgetary code name for the stealth bomber fly-off that resulted in the B-2 Spirit.

Interestingly, the October 2006 issue of Popular Science has noted that the U.S. Air Force operations budget has a $9 billion hole, with no explanation as to where the money is headed. Also, unexplained booms similar to the 1990-1991 series have recently been felt in the San Diego area again, possibly meaning a resurgence of the Aurora project.

U.K. Ministry of Defence paper on "BLACK" aircraft

Sample page of the MoD's report on UAPs, released in May 2006.

In May 2006, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) released an extensive report on Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) in the UK air defence area. It was written by the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) in 2000 and was originally classified "SECRET UK eyes only". It is unusual because it contains official comments on "black" programmes. One of the Working Papers is entitled ""BLACK" AND OTHER AIRCRAFT AS UAP EVENTS". It says "it is acknowledged that some UAP sightings can be attributed to covert aircraft programmes". The report lists three "Western" programmes which might result in this - all of which appear to be American (right side image). The first - not surprisingly - is the SR-71. Programme 2 and Programme 3 are redacted from the report - even their names are withheld.

Two photos or representations have also been removed from the file before release. Adjacent sections freely talk about the F-117, B-2 and F-22, and show photos of these aircraft; so these programmes appear to be something different. Elsewhere in the report the DIS says, "The projected (USAF) priority plan is to produce unpiloted air-breathing aircraft with a Mach 8-12 capability and transatmospheric vehicles as well as highly supersonic vehicles at Mach 4 to 6". The Mach 8-12 aircraft may refer to what the USAF announced as the Falcon Project in 2003 but this is the first official mention of a USAF plan for an Aurora-like Mach 4-6 vehicle. Bill Sweetman (Sweetman, Bill. (1993) Aurora: The Pentagon's Secret Hypersonic Spyplane) says the report shows the MoD "identified two separate U.S. 'Black' programmes that might have operated from the UK" This caught the attention of the BBC Two's Newsnight (14/06/2006), who related the project to many other covert projects.

Cultural references to the Aurora.

Aurora spyplane.
The Aurora carrier-spyplane aircraft system, scale model by Testors.

For a time in the 1990s, the Aurora aircraft became a touchstone for every "cool" technology then under development. Soon it was appearing on the cover of various magazines such as popular science, and for some time was considered to "obviously exist" because the SR-71 had been retired and it was popularly believed that something was needed to fill the role. The Testors company produced a model kit (right side image) based on designs popularized in the press. Other companies also got into the business. Estes Industries made a model rockets kit, and Galoob made a Micro Machines toy version of the theoretical aircraft.

In fiction

The Aurora's status as a mysterious, fantastic and state-of-the-art aircraft has earned itself a place in popular aviation fiction. Here are some appearances of the aircraft in books, TV series, films and video games or flight sims:

Books about Aurora.

  • The plane is mentioned and used in the book Deception Point by Dan Brown where he states at the beginning that "all technologies listed in this book exist". It used a misted-methane Pulse Detonation Engine.
  • The plane is mentioned and plays a critical role in several of the Atlantis books by Greg Donegan (Bob Mayer), including Atlantis and Atlantis: Gate.
  • The plane is mentioned and briefly described in Frederick Forsyth's 1994 thriller, The Fist of God, loosely based on events leading up to and during the 1991 Gulf War, as one of the various reconnaissance tools used by coalition forces to defeat Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait.
  • The plane is mentioned and used in the book Nano by John Robert Marlow and is equipped with a pulse detonation engine and a chromomorphic skin.
  • The science-fiction novel Area 51 by Robert Doherty featured the Aurora spy plane, which in the book, is used in conjunction with test-flight of crashed alien spacecraft.
  • The plane is mentioned and used in the book Chains of Command by Dale Brown. The plane was reportedly assigned to a Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California. One aircraft was flying over Ukraine, recording a series of nuclear explosions from Russian attacks.
  • The plane is described in detail in the novel Coyote by Jim DeFilice as a "Smart Plane" of the future, with an Artificial Intelligence Computer System named "Coyote". It is designated the SR-91, and not mentioned as Aurora.
  • The plane is mentioned and plays a critical plot role in Icefire by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, where it is utilized to place characters ahead of an expanding Pacific tsunami.
  • The plane is described in and plays an important role in the plot of "Silent Salvo" by Joe L. Gribble.
  • The plane is mentioned with a link to the Lockheed-Martin's skunk works in Nick Cook's 2002 investigation book "The Hunt for Zero Point".
  • The plane is briefly mentioned in the novel Area 7 by Matthew Reilly where it is suggested by a character that area 8 may contain the plane and the associated project.

Aurora TV.

  • In The X-Files:
    • A "Black Triangle" type of aircraft from Area 51 is the object pursued by Special Agents Mulder and Scully in the episode "Dreamland". Although, in the series it uses a form of alien propulsion system.
    • The Aurora program is also referenced in the episode "Deep Throat", where the stresses and strains of piloting such an airframe causes psychological damage to one of the test pilots, which is then covered up by the Air Force.
  • The plane appears during an episode of JAG when it was piloted by U.S. Navy Commander Harmon "Harm" Rabb, Jr. and another pilot. The plane was being used by the CIA in the episode to spy on North Korean ground movements. In the episode, the plane emitted "doughnuts on a rope" contrails while in flight, and was even able to outrun SAMs launched against it.
  • Reported in detail in a History Channel program named "Greatest Military Secrets".

Films about Aurora.

  • The Aurora is briefly mentioned in the movie Broken Arrow during the B-3 flight sequence.
  • There was some confusion over whether photos taken on an aircraft carrier were of the Aurora, however these photos turned out to be of a movie prop taken during the filming of Stealth. That aircraft is the fictional F/A-37 Talon multi-role fighter of the U.S. Navy.
  • The film Tactical Assault features the 'Aurora' on the computer screens in the fighter plane cockpit scenes.
  • The film Aurora: Operation Intercept features the Aurora aircraft in detail.
  • The film Falcon Down used the Aurora aircraft.

Games & flight sims on Aurora.

  • Two versions of an Aurora bomber aircraft - one employing an immense bomb and one exclusive to General Alexander that employs an immense Fuel Air Explosive - are present in the computer game Command & Conquer: Generals and its expansion pack Zero Hour. On its attack runs, the Aurora flies too fast to be hit by anti-aircraft fire.
  • In the Desert Siege expansion for the game Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, the player is tasked in destroying a crashed Aurora.
  • In the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 game Vigilante 8, three black aircraft in the Area 51 level look very similar to artist concepts of the Aurora.
Aurora in Ace Combat 3.
The UI-4054 Aurora in Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere.
  • The aircraft can be unlocked in the PlayStation game Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere. It is called the UI-4054 Aurora and is used by the Ouroboros faction. It is, however, armed with guns and missiles, and is super-maneuverable, unlike the real Aurora which is supposedly unarmed and designed to fly fast and straight.
  • The aircraft can also be glimpsed in the computer game F-22 ADF and its sequel Total Air War, both by Digital Image Design.
  • Jane's Fighters Anthology military flight simulator (a compilation of Advanced Tactical Fighters, Navy Fighters and their expansions, European Fighters and USNF '97) included the "Aurora Spy Plane" as a flyable aircraft in the Jane's Information CD, which is packaged with the game. In the first mission of the Egypt 1998 campaign, an Aurora plane suffers mechanical problems while flying over the Mediterranean and needs to land at a U.S. airbase in the Sinai. The player is tasked to scramble and protect the aircraft from Islamic Egyptian interceptors.
  • In the World of Darkness, the Technocracy uses plasma-cannon armed Auroras as multirole aircraft.
  • The plane was featured in a mission in the late 90s PC game Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way.
  • A recoverable file in the first level of the first person shooter Black references the Aurora bomber.

Estimated specifications of Aurora.

All specs are from http://aerospaceweb.org/aircraft/recon/aurora/ and are estimations only.

General characteristics of Aurora.

  • Crew: 2 (1 pilot, 1 reconnaissance systems officer).
  • Length: 35 m (115 ft).
  • Wingspan: 20 m (65 ft).
  • Height: 6 m (19 ft).
  • Wing area: 300 m (3,200 ft).
  • Empty weight: 29,480 kg (65,000 lb).
  • Max takeoff weight: 71,215 kg (157,000 lb).
  • Powerplant: (Low Speed) 4 afterburning turbofans, (unknown thrust) each, (High Speed) 4 ramjets, scramjets or pulse detonation engines (unknown thrust) each.

Performance of Aurora.

  • Maximum speed: (Mach 5-8) at altitude.
  • Range: 15,000 km (8,000 nm).
  • Service ceiling: 40,000 m (131,000 ft).
  • Thrust/weight: unknown.

Armament of Aurora.

  • Missiles: AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles (armed variants of the Aurora).
  • Bombs: Nuclear bombs (armed variants of the Aurora).

Other equipment contained on Aurora.

  • Cameras.
  • IR sensors.
  • Other recon sensors.

Why not also search for...

  • SR-71 Blackbird, a strategic reconnaissance aircraft, retired in 1998.
  • XB-70 Valkyrie, a concept high-altitude bomber developed in the 1950s.
  • X-15 Rocket plane, the first hypersonic manned air/spacecraft.
  • Blackstar spaceplane, another alleged 'Black Project'.
  • TR-3A Black Manta, another alleged 'Black Project'.
  • X-30 National Aero-Space Plane, an 'Aero-Space Plane' concept from the 1980s.
  • Boeing X-43A Hyper-X, an unmanned experimental hypersonic aircraft, the current speed record holder for air-breathing aircraft.
  • Skylon, a design for a hypersonic Mach 5.5 hydrogen-powered aircraft.


Sweetman's Aurora book, one of the most in-depth books on the mysterious aircraft
Sweetman's Aurora book, one of the most in-depth books on the mysterious aircraft
  • Rich, Ben; Janos, Leo. (1996) Skunk Works. Little, Brown & Company, ISBN 0-316-74300-3.
  • Sweetman, Bill. (1993) Aurora: The Pentagon's Secret Hypersonic Spyplane. Motorbooks International, ISBN 0-87938-780-7
    • Online version available here.
  • Yenne, Bill. Secret Weapons of the Cold War (chapter 10: Stealth Aircraft). Berkley Publishing Group, ISBN 0-425-20149-X.

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