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A Most Peculiar Airline

The cell phone’s alarm fills the dark hotel room with a plastic rendition of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” – a tune befitting the obscenely early hour that we’ve chosen to rise. “No wonder they rule the world, they go to work at four in the morning,” says my groggy friend Jenny, with whom I’m sharing an 18th floor room at the Tropicana’s Island tower overlooking the Las Vegas airport. Jenny is in town working on a project about Vegas’ booming real estate market. I’m attending a conference for retired CIA reconnaissance pilots and crews. In the mornings and evenings, we’re using high-powered optics to observe and photograph the movements of one of Las Vegas’ more obscure institutions: a small fleet of aircraft that call a cordoned-off terminal on the west side of the airport home. This terminal has a code name: “Gold Coast.” The aircraft we’re watching change their military call sign every month, but in civilian airspace they call themselves “Janets.” Their raison d’être is to shuttle workers living in Las Vegas to and from a collection of secret military bases in the expansive Nellis Range to the north. These bases are part of a hidden military geography that is known in military and defense industry circles as the “black world.” This morning, we’ve risen at an unholy hour in an attempt to glimpse the first flights of the day.

When military or defense-industry workers, managers, and trade journalists speak about the “black world” (and they really do use that phrase), they’re referring to all of the programs, projects, people, and places involved with highly secret military programs paid for out of the “black budget” – the portion of the defense budget classified from the public. Some of these “black” programs are so highly classified their very existence is a state secret. For public purposes, they “do not exist.” And the totality of these “black” programs is what defense-insiders are talking about when they refer to the “black world.”

The postwar Southwest cannot be meaningfully separated from the “Military Industrial Complex” dollars that have sculpted its landscape. And just as the defense budget had a subset of “black” line-items, the military landscapes of the Southwest have their own “black” spaces. Vast desert military ranges are home to a number of Air Force bases and other installations exclusively dedicated to these sorts of “black” or “nonexistent” projects. For example, there’s the Tonopah Test Range near the central Nevada town of Tonopah, which was built in the late 1970s and early 1980s to house a squadron of stolen Soviet MiGs, and to serve as a home base for the ultra-secret “stealth fighter.” There’s the enigmatic installation at Groom Lake, Nevada known as “Area 51,” which was originally built to house the CIA’s U-2 spy plane in the 1950s, and which has been expanding ever since. There are other obscure bases like the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat Range, about which there is extremely little publicly available information. A landing strip called “Base Camp” near Warm Springs, where both Janet planes and CIA aircraft have been spotted. When one begins to count the number of obscure military installations lurking in the recesses of the Nevada desert, an entire “black world” does indeed seem to appear, albeit fleetingly. From their daily departures out of Las Vegas and other cities to the hidden recesses of the Military Industrial Complex, the Janet fleet’s flight plans trace the outlines of this “black world.”

The Janet planes are a solution to a weird question: how does the “black world,” filled with places that “you can’t get to from here” interact with the “white world” on an everyday basis? Indeed, how does one get there from here? The Janets inhabit the strange and contradictory space built into the structure of such questions. They are a perpetually provisional attempt to smooth over the contradictions in terms. As a bridge between the “black” and “white” worlds of military activities, the Janets inhabit an in-between space that does not belong to either. Their flights trace the borders of their “black world” destinations, making invisible connections, relationships, and networks obvious even as the nature or purpose of those connections remains obscure.

Thus, the Janets embody a contradiction at the heart of the Pentagon’s “black world”: even though the programs and installations which constitute this world are designed to be completely hidden or to “not exist,” the “black world” like the rest of the world, is composed of matter. One of the physical properties of matter is that it is visible. The “black world,” in other words, must exist somewhere. The Janets tell us, in real time, how the spatial logics of the “black world” are produced and reproduced every day. Beginning very, very early each morning.

©2006 Trevor Paglen