Area 51: Aviation Icon Dies at 84

(Mar. 22, 2006) -- The secretive Area 51 military base has lost one of its most celebrated pilots. Lt. Colonel Hank Meierdierk died in Las Vegas.

It wasn't until recently that the colonel and his Area 51 colleagues were allowed to even talk about what they did out at the Groom Lake base.

"They called me Rufus T. Geldanes. Heck of a name," said Lt. Colonel Hank Meierdierk. His name wasn't really Rufus T. Geldanes. That was a code name he used, even among fellow Air Force personnel.

The work being done by Lt. Colonel Hank Meierdierk and a few others was so highly classified that they couldn't tell superior officers what they were doing in the Nevada desert. Nor could they tell their own wives.

"Absolutely not. She knew nothing for two years. We had no time off. We'd be gone for 2-3 weeks at a time, so when we came home, we wanted to put on a sterling performance," said Meierdierk.

Meierdierk, who flew combat missions in World War II, was one of the very first pilots assigned to a desolate airstrip on the outskirts of the Nevada Test Site, a facility so secret that the government wouldn't acknowledge its existence for another 45 years, a base that would eventually be known far and wide as Area 51.

In the mid 50's, it wasn't much to look at, but it was home to the most highly classified aircraft in the world -- the U-2 spy plane, also known as the Dragonlady.

"They had already put part of a runway in, a couple of hangars, small ones. They had trailers for our living, trailers weren't very plush. We had a little poker game going on and a little whiskey now and then," Meierdierk remembered.

The U-2 was vital to national defense, Meierdierk was one of the first to fly it. Three years later, he was recruited to work for the CIA on the successor to the U-2, he headed up Project Oxcart ,the program that developed a family of planes known as the Blackbirds, including the SR-71, perhaps the greatest airplane ever built.

For most of his life, Meierdierk wasn't allowed to talk to anyone about the vital work he did for America. In the last few years, he and his colleagues from Area 51, the Roadrunners, received the green light to open up a bit. They gather every few years to swap stories and toast those who are no longer around.

"Because we're all getting so old, the bar isn't making any money," joked Meierdierk. An aviation icon, he was 84 when he passed away on Tuesday, March 21, 2006.

Dozens of the colonel's Area 51 colleagues are flying in from around the world for funeral services being held Friday in Boulder City.


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