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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Close encounters of the Kern County kind

In 1957, a future astronaut claimed to see a UFO land in a dry lakebed in sparsely populated Kern County, California. Was it an alien or just a secret government project?

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — When Americans think about aliens, odds are they're thinking about Area 51 or Roswell, New Mexico. If they’re fans of the History Channel show “Ancient Aliens,” maybe they’re thinking of Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza, too.

They probably aren't thinking about rural Kern County, California — and yet the sprawling, sparsely populated county was once home to a UFO sighting that rivals the mystery in Roswell, complete with a credible witness.

That witness, future Project Mercury astronaut Leroy Gordon Cooper, went to his grave without ever getting a definite answer for what he saw. But as the years have passed and government documents have become declassified, one likely possibility is that Cooper saw not a UFO but a secret Air Force plane.

The mystery dates back to 1957, when Cooper claimed to see a UFO land in a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base. He later recounted the story in his autobiography a “Leap of Faith.” 

Cooper was supervising the filming of a precision-landing facility for F-86 fighter jets and had a crew set up a “cinetheodolite” system, a photographic data-collection instrument that’s particularly useful for capturing images of things like rockets and aircraft. The device reportedly captured images of a saucer-like craft as it hovered above the ground with three extended landing gears.

After the crewmen told him about the images, Cooper reported the incident to the Pentagon. Officials there told him to develop the film and send it in without making prints.

Since no one explicitly told him not to look at the negatives, he did just that. He claimed that the images showed what appeared to be a flying saucer.

“There was just a typical saucer shape,” he said in the 2003 documentary “Out of the Blue,” describing the craft as “double lenticular shape [and] metallic.”

As the cameraman approached the vehicle, Cooper said, it “lifted off, put the gear back in the well, and climbed out at a very high rate of speed and disappeared."

The government never fully investigated — and Cooper, who went on to have a decorated career in the Air Force and NASA before dying in 2004, swore until his dying day that the government was covering up UFOs. 

Once his footage reached the government, Cooper wasn’t able to keep in touch with anyone who had it. “There’s no way within the military or within the government of keeping track of something that is classified unless you’re directly involved in it,” he said in the film. “I was not.”

What did this decorated astronaut see that convinced him UFOs are real? We can only imagine — that smoking-gun film has never surfaced. 

What we do know, though, is that Edwards Air Force Base is a government testing facility, and Kern County has been home to at least one secret experimental aircraft: the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber. The secret plane didn’t have its first public flight until 1989.

The team of engineers and testing technicians who did cold weather testing on the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber at Eielson AFB in Fairbanks, Alaska, in March 1996. Ronald Myrick, my father-in-law, stands on the far left. The temperature was -28F. (Photographer unknown. Photo used with permission by Ronald Myrick.)

Back in the day, some residents didn’t just see B-2 prototypes in the sky — they actually worked on them. Among those residents was my father-in-law Ronald Myrick, who in the spirit of Halloween agreed to talk to Courthouse News to share what he knows about the little-known craft.

Officially known as the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, the Stealth Bomber is a cutting-edge military craft renowned for its stealth capabilities and advanced technology. Thanks to its so-called “flying wing” shape, specialized materials and other design features, the B-2 can literally fly under the radar of enemy surveillance.

At 69 feet long and 17 feet high with a wingspan of 172 feet, the Stealth Bomber stretches half the length of a football field. It can reach a subsonic speed, gain an altitude of 50,000 feet, and travel for more than 6,000 nautical miles without refueling — all while carrying a payload of 20 tons, according to a fact sheet from Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense contractor that helped build the craft. In terms of appearance, it looks more like a Star Trek prop than a real plane. 


The government vehemently denied the existence of the B-2 for years during its early development — though some Kern County residents recall seeing a strange black object whizzing through the sky. 

As for Myrick, my father-in-law, he did non-destructive testing on the plane during its developmental phase while working for Northrop in nearby Mojave, California. He started work on the project around 1985 and was one of the only people who saw the plane in full.

Most people working on it simply saw parts of the plane, like giant metal puzzle pieces that gave little hint of what they were building. Others saw only the outside. With his top-secret clearance, Myrick had access to just about everything. 

Even to this day, there are still details about the B-2 that Myrick can’t share. Though much about the B-2 has been declassified, some details have not yet been, even more than 30 years after the plane’s public debut.

The inside of the B-2, Myrick said, is so tight that there’s room for only two pilots. If the pilots ever needed to eject themselves, they would have to hold their arms and hands tight to their bodies unless they wanted to lose them on the way out. That’s how narrow the opening on the B-2 is.

The B-2 was first publicly displayed on November 22, 1988, when it was rolled out of its hangar in Palmdale at Air Force Plant 42. Its first public flight was in 1989, and it first saw combat during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. (Photograph by Ronald Myrick. Used with permission.)

Once, a bat got into the hangar where they were working and encountered the B-2.

"They [bats] use radar, the B-2 evades radar,” Myrick said. With a laugh, he joked that maybe the bat thought the B-2 was “its mom or its God.”

Less funny to Myrick is that idea that humans can’t build a craft of this caliber — that only aliens are capable of such technological feats.

"When they stationed the B-2 in Missouri, there were numerous UFO sightings,” he scoffed. “People [were] saying aliens helped build it with alien technology, because there was no way we could.”

Still, for those without authorization to know about the B-2, the strange plane could have literally appeared as a UFO — an unidentified flying aircraft.

Indeed, some reported UFO sightings from online databases like UFO Hunters and the National UFO Reporting Center describe vessels that could match descriptions of the B-2s, including chevron-like objects that make no sound, leave no vapor and don’t show up on radar equipment.

Such databases are also full of stories that clearly don’t relate to the B-2 — including bright lights zigzagging across the sky, orange fireballs, and large, metallic tubes flying at high speeds without vapor or noise. Maybe those are the alien spacecraft, or maybe they’re just another top-secret government project. Or maybe they were something else altogether.

So, was the B-2 what Cooper spotted in a lakebed all those years ago? Probably not. Military engineers apparently started working on the project around the 1970s — more than a decade after Cooper’s mysterious sighting.

Still, Edwards Air Force opened in the 1930s and remains operational to this day. At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, when Cooper said he saw a UFO land in a nearby lakebed, it’s certainly feasible that officials were already working on another, earlier generation of secretive military aircraft. They could even be building the next generation now. 

If the folks at Edwards Air Force Base and Northrop know more, they aren't saying. No one returned requests for comment by press time.

All we know is that the truth is out there, so grab your tinfoil hat and keep your eyes on the skies. Maybe you’ll get lucky and see E.T. — or maybe it will just be the B-2.

Categories / Government, History, Science

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