Area 51 is surrounded by warning signs like this one.
There are several theories about how Area 51 got its name. The most popular is that the facility borders the Nevada Test Site (NTS). The AEC used the NTS as testing grounds for nuclear bombs. The NTS is mapped as a grid of squares that are numbered from one to 30 (with a few omissions). Area 51, while not part of this grid, borders Area 15. Many say the site got the name Area 51 by transposing the 1 and 5 of its neighbor. Another popular theory is that the number 51 was chosen because it was not likely to be used as part of the NTS system in the future (in case the NTS expanded later on).
The first documented use of the name Area 51 comes from a film made by the company Lockheed Martin. There are also declassified documents from the 1960s and 1970s that refer to a facility called Area 51. Today, officials refer to the facility as an operating location near Groom Lake when speaking to the public — all official names for the site appear to be classified.
The name alone inspires thoughts of government conspiracies, secret “black” aircraft and alien technologies. Facts, myths and legends weave together in such a way that it can become difficult to separate reality from fiction. What exactly goes on in this installation? Why did the government alternatively acknowledge and deny its existence until the 1990s? Why is the airspace over it so restricted that even military aircraft are forbidden from flying through it? And, what does it have to do with Roswell, New Mexico?
Each question seems to have a million different answers. Some answers are plausible, while others stretch credulity so far that if someone said it out loud, you might feel the urge to back away from them slowly. In this article, we’ll look at the facts as far as anyone outside of the facility can determine them and examine the more popular theories about Area 51.
Where is Area 51?
Area 51’s coordinates are 37Â°14’36.52″N, 115Â°48’41.16″W. You can get a great view of it using Google Earth. Just type “Area 51″ into the “Fly To” field and the map does the rest. For decades, the base remained hidden from almost everyone, but in 1988 a Soviet satellite photographed the base. Several publications acquired the photos and published them. The secrecy of the base is still of paramount importance, but as far as satellite coverage is concerned, the cat is out of the bag.
A satellite view of Area 51
A dry lake bed called Groom Lake borders the base. To the west is the NTS. The closest town is Rachel, Nevada, which is 25 miles north of the base. The base itself occupies only a fraction of the more than 90,000 acres it sits on. It consists of a hangar, a guard shack, a few radar antennas, some housing facilities, a mess hall, offices, runways and shelters. The shelters are “scoot and hide” buildings, designed so aircraft can quickly move under cover when satellites pass overhead. Some allege that what you can see on the surface is only a tiny part of the actual facility. They believe that the surface buildings rest on top of a labyrinthine underground base. A few claim the underground facility has up to 40 levels and that it is attached via underground railways to other sites in Los Alamos, White Sands and Los Angeles. Skeptics are quick to point out that such a massive construction project would require an enormous labor force, the removal of tons of earth that would have to go somewhere and the need for a huge amount of concrete and other construction material. The lack of evidence convinces skeptics that, for the most part, what you see is what you get. Believers, on the other hand, dismiss the skeptics’ doubts.
So what goes on at this base? According to the Air Force, the facility’s purpose is for “the testing of technologies and systems training for operations critical to the effectiveness of U.S. military forces and the security of the United States.” All specifics regarding the facility and the projects housed there are classified. What is known is the Air Force, the CIA and Lockheed have used the base as a staging ground for test flights of experimental, secret aircraft, also known as black aircraft. The base served as the development and testing facility for cutting edge aircraft technology from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117A Stealth Fighter.
In the next section, we’ll look at the known security measures at Area 51.Area 51 Security and Secrecy
To say access to the base is limited is an understatement. The base and its activities are highly classified. The remote location helps keep the activities figuratively under the radar, as does the proximity to the NTS. After several land seizures, the base is surrounded by thousands of acres of empty desert landscape. The Air Force has withdrawn lands from public use to help keep the base hidden from snooping eyes. For many years, observers could hike to elevated vantage points like White Sides Peak or Freedom Ridge, but the Air Force seized those lands as well. Today, the only way you’ll catch a glimpse of the base in person (assuming you aren’t working there) is to take the strenuous hike to the top of Tikaboo Peak, which is 26 miles from the facility.
For many years, mapmakers wouldn’t include the facility on any maps. It fell within the borders of Nellis Air Force Range, but the road leading to the facility was never shown. Today, the location of the base is general knowledge, but for many years officials went to great lengths to obscure its location.
A map of the Area 51 facility
Everyone who works at Area 51, whether military or civilian, must sign an oath agreeing to keep everything a secret. Buildings at the site lack windows, preventing people from seeing anything not related to their own duties at the base. By some reports, different teams would work on similar projects at the same time, but their supervisors would keep each team ignorant of the other team’s project. When testing a secret aircraft, officials ordered all uninvolved employees to stay inside until the test flight was over and the aircraft returned to its hangar.
Most of us think of classified information in terms of security clearance levels. Countless films and television programs show government employees who can’t access the information they need because they don’t have the right clearance. While it’s true that there are levels of security classification, it’s not true that the system is simply a vertical series of security classifications. Even if you have top secret security clearance, you can’t necessarily access everything at the top secret level (or even lower levels). This is because information and projects are compartmentalized. In other words, if you are cleared for top secret information in a project on stealth technology, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can access information in a project about proton laser beams. Security clearance is issued on a need-to-know basis, and if you don’t need to know what the engineers in the laser department are doing to complete your work on stealth technology, you can bet you won’t be able to find out about it.
Getting to Area 51
Most commuters to Area 51 travel on unmarked Boeing 737s or 727s. Planes depart from the McCarran International Airport in LasVegas (located right across the street from the Luxor Hotel and Casino). Defense contractor EG&G owns the terminal. Each plane uses the word “Janet” followed by three digits as a call sign to the airport’s control tower.
The airspace above Area 51 is known as R-4808 and is restricted to all commercial and military flights not originating from the base itself (except the Janet commuters, of course). Area 51 is believed to be part of either Edwards Air Force Base in California or the Nellis Air Force Range in Nevada, even though pilots from those bases are forbidden to fly in Area 51’s airspace. In fact, pilots who fly into one of the buffer zones surrounding R-4808 reportedly face punishment from their commanders, though it’s reported as fairly lenient. Whenever a pilot flies through a buffer zone, the training exercise immediately ends and the pilot is ordered back to base. Knowingly flying into R-4808 is a much more serious offense, and pilots can face a court martial, dishonorable discharge and time in prison as a result.
The military classifies Area 51 as a Military Operating Area (MOA). The borders of Area 51 are not fenced, but are marked with orange poles and warning signs. The signs tell you that photography isn’t allowed and that trespassing on the property will result in a fine. The signs also offer this sobering note: Security is authorized to use deadly force on people who insist on trespassing. Rumors circulate among conspiracy theorists over how many unfortunate truth seekers have died as a result of tromping around the grounds of Area 51, though most believe that trespassers are dealt with in a much less violent manner.
Pairs of men who don’t appear to be in the military patrol the perimeter. These guards are likely civilians hired from firms like Wackenhut or EG&G. Observers call them “cammo (sic) dudes,” because they often wear desert camouflage. The cammo dudes usually drive around in four-wheel-drive vehicles, keeping an eye on anyone near the borders of Area 51. Supposedly, their instructions are to avoid contact with intruders, if possible, and act merely as both an observer and deterrent. If someone seems suspicious, the cammo dudes will call in the local sheriff to deal with him. Once in a while, the cammo dudes have confronted trespassers, allegedly seizing any film or other recording devices and intimidating the trespassers. Sometimes, helicopters provide additional support. There are rumors that the helicopter pilots occasionally use illegal tactics like hovering very low over trespassers to harass them.
The infamous “cammo dudes”
Other security measures include sensors planted around the perimeter of the base. These sensors detect movement, and some believe they can even discern the difference between an animal and a human being. Since Area 51 is effectively a wildlife preserve, it was important to create warning devices that could not easily be tripped by a passing animal. One theory held by observers is that the sensors can detect the scent of the passing creature (the sensors detect an ammonia signature). While that has yet to be substantiated, it’s certain that there are buried sensors all around Area 51. One Rachel resident named Chuck Clark discovered several of the sensors, and at one point the Air Force accused him of interfering with signal devices and ordered him to either return a missing sensor or pay a fine — Clark reportedly complied.
In the next section, we’ll look at why all the secrecy and security measures are necessary as we examine some of the aircraft tested at Area 51.
Area 51 Aircraft
Lockheed’s U-2 Dragon
Lady spy plane
Area 51 owes its very existence to secret aircraft projects. The original purpose for Area 51 was a testing facility for Lockheed’s U-2 spy plane. Lockheed put Kelly Johnson in charge of establishing a base of operations for testing and training facilities. Here are some of the known and suspected projects at Area 51.The U-2 Spy Plane is a confirmed Area 51 project. Lockheed worked with the CIA to develop a plane that could fly at a high altitude and spy on other nations. The U-2 could fly at altitudes of 70,000 feet and was effective in reconnaissance missions for several years. During the development of the U-2, the CIA and Lockheed realized they would soon need more advanced aircraft because the Soviet Union’s missile technology was rapidly catching up. In 1960, the USSR shot down a U-2, confirming this concern.
Engineers designed a plane–called the Suntan–to be a successor to the U-2. It could fly at speeds up to mach 2.5 (almost 2,000 miles per hour). The Suntan used liquid hydrogen for fuel, which was its ultimate downfall. Engineers decided that it would be too expensive to create a fuel infrastructure to support the Suntan’s flights, and the government canceled the project.
The SR-71 Blackbird
The A-12 , which was later known as the SR-71 “Blackbird,”became the actual successor to the U-2. The A-12 was a prototype model that gradually evolved into the SR-71. These planes could fly up to mach 3 (2,300 miles per hour) and could fly at altitudes of 90,000 feet.Tacit Blue and Have Blue were the first successful attempts at creating stealth aircraft. Tacit Blue had an odd, whale-like shape, inspiring onlookers to call it “Shamu.” It was designed to fly low over battle operations as a reconnaissance vehicle. Have Blue was a prototype for the F117-A Stealth Fighter. Have Blue first arrived at Area 51 in 1977. The Stealth Fighter remained a secret until the Air Force officially unveiled it to the public in 1990.
The Bird of Prey takes its name from a class of ships in Star Trek. The plane is a bomber with stealth technology. The design looks very strange, and some say that it is very unstable at low speeds due to the odd wing design.
Tacit Blue, aka “Shamu”
One rumored project at Area 51, the TR3A Black Manta, could be a potential successor to the Stealth Fighter, or it may be one of many kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Currently, there is a lot of interest in UAVs because they provide the military with methods of gathering information without endangering the lives of pilots or soldiers.
Area 51 Projects
The Aurora is another project that has been associated with Area 51. Now believed to be a canceled project, the Aurora was supposedly a replacement for the SR-71. It was supposed to be a hypersonic reconnaissance jet capable of attaining speeds up to mach 6 (4,600 miles per hour). The project may have failed completely, or it may turn out that the Aurora is another kind of UAV and not a jet at all.
The Brilliant Buzzard or Mothership is another rumored project at Area 51. This large jet would carry a smaller vehicle, perhaps a UAV. The smaller vehicle is designed to launch from the larger jet while in midair.
The MiG-21 is one of several Soviet aircraft allegedly tested at Area 51.
Soviet aircraft also played a large role at Area 51. These planes came from the Soviet Union and were either captured or otherwise acquired. The Air Force and CIA used these aircraft in training exercises and war games. The use of Soviet aircraft in Area 51’s airspace inspired its nickname of the Red Square.
What new projects could be underway at Area 51 today? Apart from the continued focus on UAV technology, secret project theorists suggest a few possibilities. One is a transport aircraft with stealth technology designed to move troops in and out of conflict areas without being detected. Many see a need for a vehicle with effective and stealthy vertical take off and lift (VTOL) capabilities. (The V-22 Osprey has this capability, but critics say the vehicle is not effective at meeting military objectives.) Another likely research project is a stealth helicopter. Though some people say stealth helicopters already exist and are in use, they haven’t been revealed to the public. Some theorists see a need for a stealth plane that is designed specifically to neutralize ground targets. To date, most stealth aircraft are either surveillance vehicles or designed for air-to-air combat. There is also a need for aircraft that can rapidly deploy to any location worldwide in as short a time as possible. Projects like the rumored Aurora plane and other hypersonic vehicles fall into this category. Other rumored research projects range from cloaking technology to proton beams to anti-gravity devices.
Of course, these projects are only the tip of the rumored iceberg. Area 51 is arguably better known for its connection with aliens and UFOs than with any of these aircraft. In the next section, we’ll take a look at the rumors and theories linking Area 51 with visitors from outer space.
Area 51 and Aliens
Some believe that an alien spacecraft crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, and that the government shipped the wreckage and a body to Area 51 for examination and study. A few go even further, claiming the facility has underground levels and tunnels connecting it to other secret sites, and that it contains warehouses full of alien technology and even living alien specimens. Some theorize that the aliens are actually the ones running the show and that their goal is to create a human-alien hybrid (the aliens seem to have lost the ability to reproduce on their own). Stories cast the aliens in roles from benevolent visitors to evil overlords who subsist on a paste made from ground-up human bits. Air Force representatives have publicly denied that aliens have anything at all to do with Area 51, but that seems to have only strengthened conspiracy theorists’ wilder suggestions.
Highway 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada
June 24, 1947, was the day the term flying saucer entered the American vocabulary. That was the day Kenneth Arnold reported sighting a UFO while piloting his private plane over Washington state. He said the object flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water, and the flying saucer was born. On July 8, 1947, Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release written by General William “Butch” Blanchard, stating they had recovered the remains of an unidentified flying object. The Army quickly retracted the statement, but not before it ran in several papers. According to the Army, it was not a flying disc at all, but a weather balloon. Years later, declassified documents said that the object recovered at Roswell was actually a balloon created for a surveillance program called Project Mogul. The weather balloon story was a cover for this secret project. Of course, UFO believers say that the spy balloon story is also a cover, and that the Army really did recover an alien craft.Reverse Engineering at Area 51
In 1987, a man named Robert Lazar shocked the world when he went on television claiming to have been part of an operation that worked on alien technology. Robert Lazar said that the government has possession of at least nine alien spacecraft at a base called S-4, which is not far from Groom Lake. The facility even had posters showing a UFO levitating several feet above the ground with the caption “They’re Here!” EG&G hired him to help reverse engineer the technology in the alien craft for use in U.S. military vehicles and power production. He discovered a rusty, heavy substance he called “Element 115″ that powered the alien spacecraft. Skeptics have thoroughly investigated as many of Lazar’s statements as they can, and many of them appear to be false. For example, Lazar says he holds Masters degrees from CalTech and MIT, but there’s no evidence he ever attended either university. Lazar says this is because the government is actively trying to erase his existence to discredit him. Skeptics believe Lazar is merely fabricating the entire story, and point out that it’s a monumental task to erase someone’s identity — they would have to remove Lazar’s name in everything from official documents to school yearbooks. Even so, Lazar’s statements inspired an explosion of interest in UFOs and Area 51.
One popular claim among Lazar’s believers is that much of our current technology is the result of using reverse engineering on alien spacecraft. Everything from radios to superconductors falls into this category. They argue that people on their own couldn’t possibly have developed these technologies so rapidly without an alien model. Some claim that pilots at Area 51 are using alien technology against aliens themselves, shooting them down so that other military crews can scavenge the parts.
In the next section, we’ll look at even more stories of aliens, government cover-ups and elaborate conspiracies involving Area 51.The Plot Thickens at Area 51
Public domain image
An artist’s concept of an alien
One claim common to Lazar’s statements and other UFO enthusiasts’ theories is a secret organization known as MJ-12, sometimes called Majestic or Majic 12. This group originally included a dozen extremely powerful individuals like President Harry S. Truman, the heads of organizations like the CIA and powerful businessmen. Many documents reported to be from this group have surfaced, mostly as discoveries of UFOlogist William L. Moore, including papers bearing Presidential signatures. Skeptics scrutinized these documents and uncovered many signs that they are fakes, including proof that signatures were copied from other official documents and pasted onto the MJ-12 papers. Conspiracy theorists denounce the skeptics as either being fooled or actually employed by the government. Other theorists say the MJ-12 documents are fakes, but were official fakes made by the government to throw people off track. Most believers fall into one of several groups, and often each group will accuse the others of actively promoting disinformation to hide the truth.The most extreme theories about aliens at Area 51 state that not only are aliens here on Earth, they’re running the show. Stories circulate about extraterrestrial biological entities (EBEs) forcing the government into agreements that always turn out bad for the rest of us. According to them, the government has agreed to allow aliens to abduct people at will, experiment on helpless citizens and even grind people up into a paste that is later smeared onto EBEs as a source of nutrition. Other theorists say that the aliens are here to use humans to create a hybrid creature, and that the aliens themselves are no longer able to reproduce on their own. Some offer hope with reports of shootouts between government forces and aliens, resulting in the return of our government to power. Of course, almost all of these theorists suggest the government is acting in wicked and irresponsible ways with the citizens of the United States emerging as the ultimate victims.
In UFO enthusiast lore, Hangar 18 is the name of the building that houses a captured alien spacecraft and even an extraterrestrial being. The location of Hangar 18 is up for debate among believers. Some have claimed the hangar at Area 51 is Hangar 18. A film titled “Area 51: The Alien Interview” shows an alleged alien in captivity, though skeptics raised doubts of its authenticity. Rick Baker, a special effects expert with many years of experience, stated categorically that he believed the alien to be nothing more than a puppet.
Seeing UFOs at Area 51
The black mailbox (now white)
Because the airspace around and above Area 51 is used for test flights and training missions, it is quite possible (and even probable) that you’ll see aircraft flying overhead. Sometimes that aircraft might be exotic, perhaps even unidentifiable to the untrained eye. Even familiar aircraft might fool you into thinking you’ve seen something not of this Earth. Skeptics point out that many reported UFO sightings coincide conveniently with the scheduled daily arrival of the Janet flights to the base. Many of the formerly classified projects at Area 51 really do look to be otherworldly. UAVs in particular seem strange, as they don’t require a cockpit or doors. In addition, many training exercises use bright flares to draw off missile fire or even just to distract onlookers while secret aircraft go through maneuvers.A popular spot to watch for UFOs is the Black Mailbox on Nevada Highway 375. The mailbox belongs to a local rancher and became famous when Lazar said it was the location he’d bring people to in order to watch scheduled test flights of alien spacecraft. Today, the mailbox has been repainted white and the rancher has said many times that he doesn’t believe any of the craft flying overhead are alien in origin.
Area 51 is the most well-known secret facility ever created. It’s been an important setting for numerous novels, films, television shows, video games and music. The base (or a spoof of it) has appeared in episodes of Futurama, The Simpsons, Kim Possible, Stargate and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. There is an Area 51 arcade game as well as an unrelated (but identically titled) game designed for consoles like the Xbox. The base shows up in other video games too, like Duke Nukem3D, Destroy All Humans, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 and even World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. There are rumors that the next Indiana Jones film will have something to do with the facility. Daniel O’Brien once wrote a rock musical about Area 51, and you can find references to the base in several rock songs like Megadeth’s “Hangar 18.” Out of all the different entertainment pieces featuring Area 51, two stand out as being particularly important. The X-Files and Independence Day both helped catapult Area 51 into the public consciousness, and both followed UFOlogists’ theories about the real purpose of the base.
In the next section, we’ll look at some of the controversy surrounding Area 51.
Controversy at Area 51
Workers at Area 51 have had to endure difficult conditions since the earliest days of the facility. In the 1950s, when the focus of the base was testing the U-2 spy plane, the CIA had to cease operations and evacuate the facility due to nearby nuclear testing on the neighboring Nevada test site. Sometimes the AEC would announce tests ahead of schedule to allow nearby residents time to evacuate if they felt it was necessary, but other times the tests would remain unannounced. The results from these tests could be seen from towns 100 miles away. People in Las Vegas would often organize trips to nearby peaks and picnic in view of mushroom clouds.
In 1957, one such test called HOOD was part of an overall program called Operation Plumbob, which was designed to see if damaged nuclear bombs emitted harmful levels of radioactivity. The AEC detonated a 74-kiloton nuclear device 1,500 feet over Area 9 of the NTS. This was the most powerful airburst ever detonated over the continental United States. The AEC did not announce the test ahead of time, though they did tell Area 51 to evacuate beforehand. The resulting blast caused some minor damage at Area 51 – mostly some broken windows and doors. Radiation was a much bigger concern, and, in fact, the soil in Area 51 has absorbed a lot of radiation over years of nuclear tests.
The AEC and officials at Area 51 butted heads several times over scheduling. The CIA and Kelly Johnson at Area 51 argued that the interruptions caused by evacuating the base were interfering with the development of the U-2 and A-12 projects. Area 51’s proximity to the NTS was both a blessing and a curse. It helped protect the base from snoops, but it also endangered everyone who worked there.
Cleaning Up Area 51
In 1980, the government authorized a program to remove irradiated soil from around Groom Lake. Satellite photos confirm that crews removed massive amounts of dirt from the area. Surrounding cities reported increases in cancer rates and many have sued the government (with varying degrees of success), claiming the tests caused them to get sick.
Another hazard at Area 51 involved the disposal of classified technology and vehicles. In the 1980s, crews at Area 51 dug large, open pits and dumped toxic materials into them. They burned the materials using jet fuel and suffered exposure to chemicals and fumes. According to a lawsuit filed against several government officials, the workers requested safety equipment such as breathing masks, but were denied due to budgetary concerns. When they asked if they might bring their own equipment, their superiors told them that for security reasons they could not bring outside equipment into the base. Several civilian employees became sick from the exposure — two eventually died. Helen Frost, the widow of Area 51 employee Robert Frost, and several Groom Lake employees worked with attorney Jonathan Turley to file the lawsuit.
One interesting item from the lawsuit that has since caused a big stir in Area 51 circles is the submission of an unclassified security manual into evidence. Turley argued that the manual not only proved the base existed, it also proved the government was aware of the dangers of handling hazardous waste and acted with negligence toward the employees at Area 51. The government retroactively classified the security manual, and Judge Philip Pro didn’t allow it as evidence. You can still find the manual on the Internet. Some claim the manual to be a fake, though if this is the case it raises a question — why would the government declare a fake document to be classified information?
President Clinton signed an Executive Order exempting Area 51 from environmental regulation in September, 1995. This order is the most formal acknowledgement of the existence of Area 51 by the government. The order referred to Area 51 as “the Air Force’s operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada.” Judge Pro eventually dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that investigation into the claims constituted a breach of national security. Turley argued that this set a dangerous precedent in that the government could now hide crimes through the excuse of national security. The policy relieves the government of accountability to the people it represents. Further litigation may follow, particularly now that a similar unclassified safety manual has been pulled from a Web site for Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. The document clearly indicates the dangers of inhaling hazardous fumes, instructing emergency responders to use extreme caution and use proper safety equipment. The Web site has since removed the document with the explanation that the person who posted it did so in error. Some worry that emergency responders will now lack vital information when they go into dangerous situations.
Today, Area 51 allows the EPA to inspect the facility to ensure it meets environmental requirements. However, all reports are classified and can’t be published. Many argue that without publication of the results, the facility remains unaccountable. Clinton’s Executive Order permits the reports to remain sealed, despite the fact that the law requires all such reports be made available to the public. The President must renew the order each year, and so far that has been the case.
In the next section, we’ll look at the town of Rachel, Nevada, which has received more than its share of attention as the closest town to Area 51.
Living in the Shadow of Area 51
You might think that living close to a place like Area 51 could make you a little strange. A visit to Rachel, Nevada might just change your suspicion to certainty. The town is populated by less than 100 people, most of whom have a strong sense of independence and more than a touch of eccentricity. According to former Rachel part-time resident Glenn Campbell, Rachel’s documented history began on March 22, 1978 at 5:45 p.m. Not many towns can narrow down their origins so precisely. Campbell points out that on that date, power companies first supplied the Sand Springs Valley with electricity. Before this momentous occasion, only a few hardy farmers and a mining company occupied the valley.
In the 1970s, small numbers of people with a pioneering spirit and desire to live their lives free of interference began to settle the valley. One of those families was the Joneses, who became famous in their small community upon the birth of Rachel Jones, the first child born in the valley. The loose community felt the birth marked an important event in the town’s history, and so they named the town Rachel. The Joneses didn’t stick around much longer, and sadly a few years later Rachel passed away from a respiratory ailment.
Photo courtesy of Cooper
The Little A ‘Le’ Inn in Rachel, Nevada
The town has a gas station (currently closed, the closest open gas station is 60 miles away), a bar called the Little A’Le’Inn (a collection of mobile homes organized into a motel) and the Rachel Senior Center Thrift Store. The Thrift Store is the subject of a mysterious process where clothing comes from the Tonopah Thrift Shop 100 miles away. Rachel’s store sends unsold clothing to thrift stores in Las Vegas, which in turn send unsold clothes to the Tonopah Thrift Shop. Believers are convinced this cycle will continue until either the Tonopah Thrift Shop or Rachel’s store closes.Rachel is home to several interesting characters, many of whom have pet theories about Area 51. A few work for the Air Force, though that’s about as much information as you’ll get from them. Pat and Joe Travis run the Little A’Le’Inn and have made a business out of selling t-shirts and videos about government conspiracies and aliens. Still, most of the people in Rachel will tell you they don’t think the UFOs are anything other than flares, UAVs or military aircraft on training missions.
Glenn Campbell established the Area 51 Research Center. He would often go to a lookout spot he named Freedom Ridge where he could legally view the facility from several miles away. Campbell wrote a newsletter called the Desert Rat, keeping people up to date on activities at the base. He campaigned against what he considered to be excessive government secrecy, arguing that the government was creating an environment of mistrust with the public. He also created a Web site that linked to dozens of news stories and timelines about the base. Although he no longer updates the site, it’s still available for you to explore. Campbell has since moved on from his focus on the secret base and no longer lives in Rachel.
The residents of Rachel seem to treat interest in their community with bemused patience. To them, sonic booms in the middle of the night and bright light shows are all normal, every day events. Just about everyone in the valley has had to replace a window cracked by a sonic boom or held a piece of airplane wreckage (Area 51’s history includes several spectacular crashes).
In the next section, we’ll look at a timeline for Area 51 from its founding to the present.A Brief History of Area 51
During World War II, the Army Air Corps (precursor to our modern Air Force) built several runways in Nevada, including a pair of small runways at Groom Lake. They named the spot the Army Air Corps Gunnery School. After the 1940s, the runways were abandoned.
In the early 1950s, the CIA entered a partnership with Lockheed to develop high altitude aircraft to use in surveillance missions. Kelly Johnson of Lockheed helmed the project. He formed a department of engineers and test pilots that eventually took on the name Skunk Works. The Skunk Works department was famous for being very secretive and nearly fanatical in the pursuit of their goals.
The CIA and Johnson both knew that secrecy was critical to their success, and so Johnson needed to find a location to develop and test secret aircraft. He wanted a location that was remote enough to avoid notice, yet still close enough to a major city so that supplying the facility would not be a monumental task. The site would need to be easily accessible by aircraft and out of the way of commercial and military flight paths. It would also need space to house a sizeable force of military and civilian employees.
In 1955, he traveled to Nevada with test pilot Tony LeVier and CIA representative Osmond Ritland to find a good place to use as a base of operations for test flights. Ritland trained at the Gunnery School and told Johnson about it. Johnson decided the location was ideal for their operations.
Four months later, crews completed the initial construction. U-2 test flights began and President Eisenhower signed an Executive Order restricting the airspace over Groom Lake. The CIA, the Atomic Energy Commission and Lockheed oversaw base operations. Eventually, control of the base would pass to the Department of Energy and the Air Force.
A Time Line of Events at Area 51
The following is a time line beginning soon after Area 51’s construction:
- 1957 – The AEC distributes “Background Information on Nevada Nuclear Tests” to the press. The booklet describes a small base at Groom Lake called the Watertown Project. The booklet claimed the facility was part of a project to study weather.
- 1961 – The restricted airspace expands upwards, but not outwards — it measures five by nine nautical miles in size, but extends up to space and is designated R-4808. A year later, the Department of the Air Force expands the space again, but this time the perimeter grows to 22 by 20 nautical miles. This forms the “Groom Box,” or just “the Box,” as it is known today. No flights, whether commercial or military, are allowed in the restricted space (except the test flights from the base itself).
- 1962 – The first A-12 arrives at Groom Lake. The first test flight takes place two months after the aircraft’s arrival to the base. CIA pilots arrive at the base nearly a year later to begin flight training.
- 1967 – The first Mig 21, a Soviet aircraft, arrives at Groom Lake. Officials name the testing program of Mig aircraft “Have Donut.” Some pilots begin to call the restricted air space above Groom Lake “Red Square.”
The F117-A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter
- 1977 – Years before the public became aware of the Stealth Fighter, the first F117 prototype arrives at Area 51. It’s called the “Have Blue.” That same year, the United States Geological Survey takes an aerial photo of the base. The photo appears in numerous publications and is available until 1994, when the government withdraws it from release.
- 1982 – The first flight of the vehicle known as “Tacit Blue” takes place at Groom Lake. Like the F-117A, Tacit Blue is a stealth vehicle.
- 1984 – The base petitions for an additional 89,000 acres of land to increase the size of restricted space around the facility. Guards had previously discouraged the public from entering this area before it was officially withdrawn, raising concern and criticism from locals and tourists. The request is ratified by Congress three years later.
- 1988 – A Soviet satellite photographs Area 51. “Popular Science” runs the photograph, giving most U.S. citizens their first chance to glimpse the secret base. That same year, Robert Frost, a civilian employee at Area 51, dies. An autopsy shows that his body contained high levels of dangerous chemicals like dioxin, trichloroethylene and dibenzofuran. His widow, Helen, files a lawsuit against several government officials, claiming her husband died as a result of exposure to dangerous chemicals.
- 1989 – Robert Lazar appears on television and claims to have worked on reverse engineering alien technology at a site not far from Groom Lake.
- 1995 – Area 51 acquires two locations popular with tourists and curious locals. Freedom Ridge and White Sides Peak. President Clinton signs an executive order exempting Area 51 from legislation and investigation in order to preserve national security.
- 1996 – Nevada names Route 375, formerly known as the “loneliest highway in America,” the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” Skeptics around the world groan in unison.
- 1997 – Area 51 is declassified, though all operations at the facility are still kept secret.
- 2007 – It appears that crews are building a new hangar, much larger than the existing hangar. One Web site claims the hangar’s size to be 200 by 500 feet and 100 feet tall