| By Jonathan Strickland and Patrick J.Kiger on July 5th, 2007 on howstuffworks
For decades, a U.S. military installation located roughly 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Las Vegas had been one of the worst-kept secrets on the planet. Area 51, as it’s commonly known to UFO conspiracy theorists and aviation buffs who piece together the details of classified military spy plane prototypes, is a place whose existence the U.S. government long refused even to acknowledge.
But in August 2013, the shroud over Area 51 finally lifted, at least a bit. Jeffrey T. Richelson, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based National Security Archive, a nonprofit think tank, obtained declassified documents about the development and use of the U-2 and OXCART surveillance aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s. The documents made repeated references to Area 51 and detailed how it was selected as a testing area by the CIA, the U.S. Air Force and defense contractor Lockheed because of its remote location. They even included a map that confirmed its exact location [source: National Security Archive].
But that belated disclosure didn’t do much to quell the rumors that long have swirled around Area 51. In the murky world of Internet bulletin boards, late-night call-in AM radio programs and TV and movie
science-fiction fantasies, it’s long been assumed to be the place where government researchers reverse-engineered captured alien spacecraft, tried to clone extraterrestrials, and filmed the fake moon landing in 1969 [source: Day].
The government, as you might expect, did not confirm any of that. “Area 51 is a riddle,” author Annie Jacobsen wrote in a 2011 book on the secret installation. “Very few people comprehend what goes on there, and millions want to know.”
In this article, we’ll look at what’s known about Area 51, as well as what’s suspected, and try to piece together as much as we can. Remember, as they used to say on the classic TV show “The X-Files,” the truth is out there.
Where is Area 51?
Area 51’s coordinates are 37 degrees 14 minutes north
, 115 degrees 48 minutes west longitude
. 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. Satellite imagery of the area was routinely deleted from government databases. In 1973, Skylab astronauts inadvertently photographed the airfield. However, according to declassified documents, the CIA managed to censor the picture and keep it from being seen by the public [source: Day].
But in 2000, photographs taken by a Soviet orbital probe were obtained and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The collection of photos on the FAS Web site show the facility’s growth from the late 1960s, including the construction of new buildings and a new runway [source: Federation of American Scientists]. Since then — and especially since the advent of Google Earth — the proverbial cat is pretty much out of the bag.
A dry lake bed called Groom Lake borders the base. To the west is the Nevada Test Site (NTS). The closest town is Rachel, Nev., which is 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of the base. The base itself occupies only a fraction of the more than 90,000 acres (36,000 hectares) 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.
Others 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 there would be a need for a huge amount of concrete and other construction material. So likely, what you see is what you get.
But nobody in the public really knows for sure, because the government goes to great lengths to conceal what it is doing 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 Nevada National Security Site, formerly the Nevada Test Site (NTS), where nuclear devices are tested. To gain access you need top security clearance as well as an invitation from the highest levels of the military or intelligence community
The government has gone to a lot of trouble to make it difficult for anyone to see what’s going on inside Area 51. For years, mapmakers left out the facility, and while it fell inside the borders of Nellis Air Force Range, the road leading up to the facility was never shown. Even today, Area 51 is surrounded by thousands of acres of empty desert landscape, and 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 those areas have been seized as well. Today, to see anything at all, you have to make the strenuous hike up Tikaboo Peak, 26 miles (42 kilometers) from the facility. From there, you may get a brief glimpse of runway lights flashing on and an experimental aircraft taking off, before the lights go out again and plunge Area 51 into darkness
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.
Getting to Area 51
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-4808N 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-4808N reportedly face punishment from their commanders, though it’s 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-4808N 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 warn that 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 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, they 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.
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 FBI accused him of interfering with signal devices and ordered him to either return a missing sensor or pay a fine. Clark denied taking one but agreed to stop his investigations [source: Braverman].
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 Aircraft
According to the Air Force, the facility’s purpose is as follows: “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.” For years, the secret research and testing efforts conducted there were kept out of view. The 2013 declassification of documents about the U-2 program from the 1950s and 1960s was the first crack in the official curtain of secrecy.
But despite the government’s efforts, it’s been difficult to keep Area 51’s activities completely secret. Here are some of the known projects at Area 51:
Area 51 Projects
There are other, murkier rumors about secret aircraft that may or may not have been tested at Area 51.
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 takeoff and landing (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 antigravity 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.
Area 51 and Aliens
Some believe that an alien spacecraft crashed in Roswell, N.M., and that the government shipped the wreckage and a body to Area 51 for examination and study. Others claim 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.
A few go even further, theorizing that the aliens are actually the ones running the show and 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 ranging 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.
On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold reported sighting nine objects, flying in a V formation, while piloting his private plane over Washington state. He said the objects flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water, and the term “flying saucer” was born [source: History].
In July 1947, an airborne object crashed on a ranch near Roswell. The Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release from Gen. William “Butch” Blanchard, stating it had recovered the remains of an unidentified flying object or UFO. The Army quickly retracted the statement, saying it was not a flying disc at all but a weather balloon. But the original statement had already run in several papers [source: History, The Roswell Files]. The incident was largely forgotten until the 1970s when nuclear physicist Stanton T. Friedman wrote a book arguing that the crash was a result of extraterrestrial activity.
In the 1990s, 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 [source: McAndrew]. 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 1989, a man named Robert Lazar shocked the world when he went on television claiming to have been part of a military operation that worked on alien technology. Lazar said that the government possessed 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!” This was the first time an “insider” had “blown the whistle.”
Lazar said 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’d discovered a rusty, heavy substance he called “Element 115” that powered the alien spacecraft.
Lazar’s statements inspired an explosion of interest in UFOs and Area 51. But skeptics investigated as many of Lazar’s statements as they could, and most appeared to be false. For example, Lazar said he held master’s degrees from CalTech and MIT, but there’s no evidence he ever attended either university. Lazar replied that the government was actively trying to erase his existence to discredit him. Also, both the Air Force and the Los Alamos National Laboratories denied he had ever worked for them. In 2013, a writer tried to contact him for the upcoming 25th anniversary of his allegations and was told, “Mr. Lazar no longer involves himself in matters related to the topic of UFOs” [source: Rojas].
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.
The Plot Thickens at Area 51
Some of the souvenirs available for sale at the Little A’Le’Inn
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. 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 signatures that appeared to be copied from other official documents and pasted onto the MJ-12 papers [sources: UFO Casebook, FBI]. 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 official fakes made by the government to throw people offtrack. 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. Apparently, the U.S. government has agreed to allow aliens to abduct people at will, experiment on these helpless citizens and even grind them up into a paste that is later smeared onto the aliens as a source of nutrition.
Other theorists say that the aliens are here to use humans to create a hybrid creature, since 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 the government to power.
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.
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 (aka Extraterrestrial Highway). The mailbox belongs to a local rancher and became famous when Robert 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 [source: Powers].
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 (NTS). Sometimes the Atomic Energy Commission(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 (161 kilometers) 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 Plumbbob, 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 (457 meters) over Area 9 of the NTS. This was the most powerful airburst ever detonated over the continental United States [source: Department of Energy]. 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.
Cleaning Up Area 51
In 1980, the government authorized a program to remove irradiated soil from around Groom Lake. Satellite photos confirm crews removed massive amounts of dirt from the area. Surrounding cities reported increases in cancer rates and many 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 [source: Jacobs].
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, except gloves. 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 [source: Jacobs].
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 [source: Jacobs]. 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 Bill Clinton signed an executive order in September 1995 exempting Area 51 from disclosure of the results of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigations of the site. 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 [source: Jacobs]. The policy relieved the government of accountability to the people it represents.
Area 51 still 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 as of 2013, that’s still the case.
In the next section, we’ll look at the town of Rachel, Nev., which has received more than its share of attention as the closest town to Area 51.
Living in the Shadow of Area 51Pat and Joe Travis, owners of the Little A’Le’Inn, posed
According to former Rachel 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 [source: Campbell and Grover].
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 name Sand Springs lacked distinction and Rachel’s birth marked an important event in the town’s history. So they named the town Rachel. The Joneses didn’t stick around much longer, and sadly, Rachel passed away from a respiratory ailment at the age of 3 [source: Campbell and Grover].
There’s very little to see in Rachel, but it does feature a motel and bar called the Little A’Le’Inn (get it?), a Baptist church and a senior center and thrift store.
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 alien-themed souvenirs. 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, everyday 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 51During 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 [source: Mahood].
In the early 1950s, the CIA entered a partnership with Lockheed to develop high altitude aircraft to use in surveillance missions. Clarence “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 sizable force of military and civilian employees.
In 1955, he traveled to Nevada with test pilot Tony LeVier, special assistant to the CIA director, Richard Bissell and Air Force liaison, Col. 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 [source: Merlin].
Johnson named the area “Paradise Ranch” as a way to encourage workers to move there. Eventually it was just called “The Ranch.”
Four months later, crews completed the initial construction. U-2 test flights began and President Dwight 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.
The following is a time line beginning soon after Area 51’s construction [sources: Mahood, Merlin, Collins, Jacobsen]: