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Mach 5: Truth Or Fiction?

When weighed against the available real-world evidence, the SR-91 Aurora spy plane is more fiction than fact.

SR-91 Aurora, artist rendition. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

“My first essay for 1945 was a primer on the SR-71 Blackbird, and it briefly mentioned the enigmatic SR-91 Aurora spy plane as a potential replacement for the Blackbird. The Aurora’s theoretical top speed of Mach 5+ would make it the world’s fastest-flying aircraft with human occupants.

In any case, whether or not this is the case is open to conjecture or not Aurora has ever actually existed (the plane, that is, the American city of Aurora, Colorado, certainly does exist, and I can only assume that the upstanding and hardworking citizens of this area are not eager to be labelled “unpersons” in the style of George Orwell’s 1984.

Lockheed CP-140 Aurora, a maritime patrol vessel operated by the Canadian Forces, also goes by the name Aurora like anti-submarine warfare (ASW), but without the science fiction-worthy capabilities of the (likely fictitious) spy plane. It can lead to some confusion for the casual researcher.

In March 1990, Aviation Week and Space Technology revealed that the name “Aurora” had been accidentally leaked from the U.S. budget for 1985, indicating that in FY1987, $455M was allocated for “black aircraft manufacture” (as opposed to R&D). It began the rumour intelligence (RUMINT) campaign surrounding the SR-91 Aurora.

As Nevada eyewitnesses described the contrail as “doughnuts on a rope” and the engine note at takeoff as “sounding like the sky ripping,” the rumours swiftly spread.

It wasn’t long before reports of sightings of the Aurora “across the pond” in Britain began, starting in late August 1989 with Chris Gibson, a 12-year veteran of the Royal Observer Corps and an expert on aircraft recognition. Unlike anything he had ever seen, Mr Gibson saw a triangular plane flanked by two U.S. fighters and refuelled in flight by a tanker while working on the Galveston Key oil rig.

“This had never happened before,” he remarked. “I had a feeling it was something I wasn’t supposed to witness.” Her Majesty’s Government publicly played down reports like Mr Gibson respects the UK-US “special connection.”. Still, there is evidence that the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) took the rumour considerably more seriously behind the scenes. In May 2006, the MoD produced a paper that may have been another reference to the SR-91 because it mentioned the U.S. Air Force’s priority intentions to develop a supersonic vehicle capable of speeds between Mach 4 and Mach 6.

If we accept for the moment that the Aurora does exist, or at least did so at one point in time, why do we know so little about it? Why is it that the U.S. Government can keep a much tighter lid on it than was the case with the original stealth fighter and bomber, the F-117 Nighthawk and B-2 Spirit?

For example, my coworker from 1945, Peter Suciu, speculates that “if the Aurora project really existed, it was likely cancelled due to the move from spy planes to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and reconnaissance satellites, which can accomplish the same job but with risk to a human operator.” Moreover, Aurora would be a Special Access Program (SAP), i.e., a “black program,” that isn’t normally known to the public, with harsh consequences for anybody who would dare to expose such sensitive material.

In the spirit of The X Files, hypothesise for now and channel FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) by proclaiming, “The truth is out there, Scully.”

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