The Janets’ flight procedures provide a weird and sometimes laughable insight into the question: How does one fly to a “place that doesn’t exist.” As we see from our map, most Janet flights shuttle between Palmdale, Edwards Air Force Base, Las Vegas, the Tonopah Test Range, and Groom Lake (Area 51). All of these places, with the exception of Groom Lake (which is so “black” that it “doesn’t exist”) have international airport codes issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Palmdale is KPMD, Edwards is KEDW, Las Vegas is KLAS, and the Tonopah Test Range (a somewhat “grey” facility) uses the code KTNX. The letter “K” at the beginning of each ICAO code means that the facility is in the United States, so the K is often dropped when one is referring to purely domestic flights. Palmdale becomes simply PMD, Edwards becomes EDW, and so on.

The next thing that one must understand is how air traffic is controlled. Air traffic is coordinated at several levels, from the local to the regional. At the smallest scale, each airport directs the air traffic coming in and out of a given airport. For example, LAS controls all the aircraft that want to either take off or land at Las Vegas’ McCarren Airport. But once aircraft have departed from a given airport and enter the high-altitude air traffic lanes, they come under the control of regional air traffic centers (there are eleven of these centers). Aircraft flying across the country in normal air-traffic lanes are handed-off from center to center as they pass over the country, an airplane flying from San Francisco would be first controlled by San Francisco Airport, then handed off to the Oakland Center (the regional center for northern California and much of Nevada), for example. When the aircraft got close to Utah, Oakland Center would issue orders to the plane to contact Salt Lake Center (which controls the area around Utah) and would provide the plane with a frequency to use in contacting the next center.

So, how does all of this work for a Janet flight from Las Vegas to Groom Lake? The answer is a makeshift system of “nudges and winks” and “cover stories” between the Janets and the regional control centers. A routine Janet flight will take off from LAS with a flight plan filed for TNX (Tonopah Test Range) using the callsign “Janet.” Once in the air, the plane is handed off to the regional control center, which is Nellis Center. Again, the callsign remains “Janet.” What happens next depends on whether the Janet is actually flying to the Tonopah Test Range, or whether its destination is actually Groom Lake. If the real destination is TNX, then the plane will operate under the control of Nellis until it’s handed off to the local air traffic controller at TNX, who will clear the plane to land at the air base, again using the callsign “Janet.” Interestingly, however, when this hand-off from Nellis to TNX occurs, the Nellis controller will not issue the Janet a specific frequency for the TNX approach, as is the custom with other destinations. But, if the actual destination is Area 51, something else happens. Once the Janet enters military airspace near Groom Lake, Nellis Center will simply clear the Janet for handoff to something called simply “control.” Nellis center approves a frequency change to the new controller, but doesn’t issue a frequency – with a nudge and a wink, the Nellis Control says in effect “I know where you’re going, and you know that I know where you’re going, and you already have the frequencies you need.”

Now, if you have a scanner, a good antenna, and you know the civilian air traffic frequencies for Groom Lake (which require quite a bit of effort to find), you’ll hear something unusual happen. An airplane (the Janet) will come to life on the Area 51 approach frequencies using a code name like “Foxy,” “Bones,” “Racer,” or “Hawk” – the code name changes every month. The unnamed “control” (Area 51) will clear the plane to land at the “non-existent” air base. An interesting tidbit: until the mid 1990s, the anonymous Groom Lake control tower used the enigmatic name “Dreamland” to identify itself.

While the procedures outlined above hold true for most daily air traffic between the “white” and “black” worlds that the Janets’ flight paths traverse, there are variations on these themes that come into play from time to time. The first variation has to do with a very unusual ICAO airport code. By comparing flight plans filed with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to actual flight-data from commercial vendors, we see from time to time that flights to Area 51 file flight plans to something called TKM. So what is TKM? There is no published ICAO code called KTM or KTKM (which would be the international version). Is TKM the actual “real” FAA designation for Groom Lake? The short answer is no. Although TKM looks like an airport code and appears from time to time in flight plans, it doesn’t correspond to any published ICAO codes in Federal Aviation Administration databases. Except one. In FAA database 7350.7W: “Location Identifiers,” the listing for the Tonopah Test Range has TKM listed as a “tie-in” facility to TNX. What is a “tie-in facility”? The FAA’s answer is that “’FAA TIE-IN FACILITY’ is the telecommunications facility that handles flight plan messages for the listed landing facility or navigational aid.” This doesn’t help clear things up. Under the FAA’s stated rules, the “tie-in” facility TKM should be in charge of communications for TNX, but we know that this is not the case. Furthermore, we cannot find any other references to TKM in Federal Aviation Administration records. So, we know that TKM is often used to designate flights to Groom Lake and that it’s somehow attached to TNX, but we know little else.

Another peculiar flight plan that appears in connection with flights to Groom Lake has to do with a little-known airstrip at the Nevada Test Site called Desert Rock Airstrip (ICAO code DRA). The airstrip is located on the Nevada Test Site near the Department of Energy’s company town of Mercury on the southern border of the Nellis Range. From time to time, DRA acts as a “cover story” in filed flight plans whose destination is actually Groom Lake. There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that until the mid-1990s, Janet flights routinely filed flight plans to Desert Rock Airstrip, then once they’d crossed into military airspace, they would contact Dreamland and proceed to Groom Lake. Those procedures have been replaced by the more recent ones described above, but this “DRA as cover story” method still seems to be occasionally used, particularly by non-Janet aircraft flying to Groom Lake such as the Gulfstream II with the tail number N105TB.

©2006 Trevor Paglen