Retired Area 51 commander, U-2 pilot Slater dies at 91

Family and friends will pay tribute to former Area 51 commander and retired Air Force Col. Hugh “Slip” Slater when he is buried Jan. 10 at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City.

Slater died Nov. 26 at a local hospice. He was 91.

A World War II fighter pilot, he was joint Air Force-CIA commander at the classified Area 51 installation along the dry Groom Lake bed, 90 miles north of Las Vegas from 1964 to 1968. That was during the heyday of the supersonic A-12 Oxcart spy plane program.

Slater also flew the high-flying U-2 spy plane and trained Chinese nationalist pilots how to fly it during a CIA assignment with the Black Cat Squadron at Taipei, Taiwan, in the early 1960s, according to his son, Peter Slater of Henderson.

“He was a happy-go-lucky guy. He inspired everybody,” Peter Slater said Tuesday. “He was gone a lot, but he wasn’t gone a lot. He kept the family together. We loved him.”

TD Barnes, a former CIA colleague and friend of Hugh Slater for 50 years, described the colonel as “tough but very easygoing. The guys said he was one of the best leaders they ever served under. The pilots were much younger than him. He was like a father to them. He was their boss.”

Barnes said the spy plane “driver” was known by his code name, “Dutch 11.”

“He led us through the Cold War. He started the birth of reconnaissance, high-flying planes from the U-2s to the Blackbirds,” said Barnes, a former CIA special projects, hypersonic flight radar expert.

Hugh Clark Slater was born in Seattle on Jan. 2, 1922. He was raised in Los Angeles and graduated from Dorsey High School before attending the University of Southern California. While in college, he joined the Navy ROTC program and obtained a private pilot’s license. He left USC in March 1942 during World War II to join the Army Aviation Cadet program, earning his pilot’s wings at Luke Field, Ariz., in February 1943.

A P-47 pilot, he flew 84 missions with the 36th and 362nd fighter groups in Europe. His combat assignments included 45 days with the 4th Armored Division during the Battle of the Bulge when foul weather had grounded aircraft.

“His wing commander sent him to the front lines as a forward air controller to direct squadrons underneath the weather,” his son said.

After World War II, he was assigned as a P-47 gunnery instructor at Selfridge Field, Mich., when he met and married Barbara Clark, a USC graduate.

After a stint with the 36th Fighter Group in the Canal Zone, he supported the Berlin Airlift out of Germany in 1948 before becoming a pilot instructor at Perrin Air Force Base, Texas.

His assignments took him to bases in Okinawa and Arizona until he landed an assignment as commander of the Air Force Interceptor Weapons School at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. He was a fighter jet squadron commander during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

In March 1963, he was assigned to the CIA as U-2 training pilot for the Chinese 35th Black Cat Squadron on Taiwan.

In 1964, the CIA sent him to the Nevada Test Site to serve as operations officer under Col. Bob Holbury for two years, followed by two years as commander at Area 51 during development and deployment of the A-12 Oxcart for pilots under him who flew missions to find missile sites in North Vietnam and North Korea.

When the CIA A-12 program was terminated to advance the Air Force SR-71 Blackbird project, he was assigned to the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing in Wethersfield, England.

He eventually returned to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to usher in the YF-12, an Air Force missile-armed interceptor version of the A-12.

He returned to Tyndall Air Force Base, where he retired in 1972 and spent 23 years boating, fishing and playing golf before returning to the Las Vegas Valley in 1995. He lived in Henderson.

His awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross with cluster, the Air Medal with 12 clusters and the CIA Medal of Merit.

He once said, “I guess I was lucky because I never had a bad assignment. My association with a great bunch of individuals, officers, airmen and civilians, alike, was especially rewarding,” according to Roadrunners Internationale, a website of Area 51 CIA veterans.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughters Stacy Bernhardt of Oviedo, Fla., and Tori Slater of Atlanta; son, Peter Slater of Henderson; sister, Betty Slater Brown of Redondo Beach, Calif.; four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Follow him on Twitter @KeithRogers2.