In the mid 1950’s the United States started testing new and more advanced aircraft capable of flying at supersonic speeds at higher altitudes. At the center of this new frontier in aviation was the X-15 Rocket plane. The X-15 was unique in the sense that the aircraft would achieve supersonic speeds (breaking the world record of 4,520 miles per hour in 1967 that still stands) while flying in the lower atmosphere. What also made the X-15 unique was that it was made to be “drop launched” by a specially designed B-52 bomber while flying at high altitudes. Once the X-15’s fuel was low the plane would glide towards the earth and land like a regular airplane would. The aircraft truly was a marvel for the time!
Project High Range began with the establishment of a long-range flight corridor used for the testing of the X-15 rocket plane. The corridor ran diagonally from Edwards Air Force Base in California up to Wendover, Utah. In order to monitor the flights in this newly established corridor, NASA and the United States Air Force had to build multiple radar tracking facilities. Construction of the new facilities started in the mid 1950’s with the stations becoming operational in 1959. There were two facilities operating in Nevada (Beatty and Ely) and one in California (Edwards Air Force Base).
The Ely radar tracking facility was constructed on Kimberly Mountain, the highest peak in the general area. The facility was in operation long after the X-15 program concluded in the 1960’s and was used to track various aircraft (other than the X-15), cruise missile tests, and other projects. NASA relocated its personnel to other facilities in 1979 and the station operated solely under the United States Air Force from that point on. The activities of the facility from 1979 until the facility officially closed in 1992 are largely unknown. Today the tracking station has been mostly demolished with a few of the original radar stands still standing alongside a hand full of vintage military trailers. Modern cell phone towers and communications equipment dot the site.
A more detailed account of the incident can be heard during one of my interviews and it will be written in my upcoming book.
Additional photos can be viewed on the gallery page