Less than 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada is the most famous secret military installation on the planet. Rumors swirl around this base, much like the mysterious aircraft that twist and turn in the skies overhead. Although it’s known by many names, most people call it by the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) designation: Area 51.
“Area 51” is an unofficial title that often refers to an area in southern Nevada containing United States Air Force (USAF) facilities. The USAF does not recognize owning or operating any facility regarded as “Area 51.” They do recognize operations at the Nellis Range Complex which includes an Operating Location near Groom Lake, Nevada. However, much of the information regarding activities at these sites remain classified.
The existence of Area 51, the US airbase rumoured to house UFOs, along with details of some of the strange activities that went on there have been officially acknowledged in newly released CIA documents.
Its existence has been a badly kept secret for decades and it has fuelled the imaginations of conspiracy theorists and UFO hunters around the world.
Now the existence of Area 51 has been officially acknowledged by the Central Intelligence Agency and its exact location revealed in Nevada.
Documents released by the CIA also reveal that there really have been some strange occurrences at the secret airbase – however, they are not quite as exciting as UFO hunters would like.
Among the jobs that staff at the site had to perform during the 1960s was a routine of vacuuming the runway to allow experimental aircraft to take off without damaging their engines.
Previously the US government has provided minimal information about Area 51 and most mentions of it are redacted in documents that are declassified.
Official maps usually only show a disused mine at the site or a large area of restricted airspace, however it does feature on Google Maps and in satellite images.
However, in a set of documents released to a researcher studying the history of the U-2 spy plane program, the secret base is officially revealed.
A line drawn map contained within the reports show the location of Area 51 and Groom Lake, the salt flat the base is built upon, in relation to the Mojave Desert.
They also provide details on how the site was first established as part of a wider Atomic Energy Commission test site.
However, the documents make no mention of UFOs nor the secret weapons that many believe are being developed there.
Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the George Washington University’s National Security Archive who obtained the records, said the new documents seemed to suggest the CIA were becoming less secretive about Area 51’s existence.
The documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Request made in 2005. An earlier 2002 request resulted in documents that were heavily redacted.
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Richelson said: “What the CIA released in response to a 2005 Freedom of Information Act request is a substantially less redacted version of a history of two key aerial reconnaissance programs.
“The latest release is notable for the significant amount of newly declassified material with respect to the U-2 — with regard to names of pilots, codenames and cryptonyms, locations, funding and cover arrangements, electronic countermeasures equipment, organisation, cooperation with foreign governments, and operations, particularly in Asia.”
The mentions of Area 51 were contained in documents detailing the history of the U-2 and Oxcart spy plane programs were written in 1992 by Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach, who were historians at the CIA.
A heavily redacted version of the seven chapter history was published in 1998 with a more detailed version released under the Freedom of Information Act in 2002.
The latest version to be released shows that Area 51 is mentioned on at least 12 pages, including a map.
One of the first mentions describe how two senior project staff on the U-2 project had been flying over Nevada when they spotted an old airstrip near Groom Lake.
It describes how the facility had been used during World War Two as an aerial gunnery for the Army Air Corp pilots.
President Dwight Eisenhower later approved “this strip of wasteland, known by its map designation as Area 51, to the Atomic Energy Commissions Nevada test site and training range.
It then became central in the development of the U-2 spy plane.
It also states that to make the facility more attractive to workers there, it was named Paradise Ranch, or sometimes the Ranch.
A poor quality photograph of “The Ranch” is also included.
The documents also mention how a Military Air Transport Service flight crashed in 1955 at Area 51 killing 14 people.
They also provide detailed history about tests and missions of the U-2 plane from Area 51, along with information about the aircrafts use in other parts of the world.
The documents reveal that British pilots were used to fly missions in the U-2 in an attempt to confuse the Soviets, but that tests on the aircraft and its successor, known as Oxcart, also seemed to be responsible for many sightings of UFOs.
The document said: "High-altitude testing of the U-2 soon led to an unexpected side-effect - a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects.
"U-2 and later Oxcart flights accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports during the late 1950s and most of the 1960s."
Radar tests of what would later become the SR71 Blackbird were also carried out with a mock up of the plane placed on top of tall pylons.
Area 51 was later upgraded to assist testing of this aircraft under the Oxcart program.
To transport the aircraft to the site in 1962, a specially designed 35ft wide, 100ft long trailer costing $100,000 was used.
Road signs had to be removed, road banks were levelled and trees trimmed to help transport the plane safely – possibly providing an explanation for some of the phenomena attributed to UFOs in the area.
There are some amusing mentions of life at the secret US base. During testing of Oxcart in 1963, Area 51 personnel had to “sweep and vacuum the runway” before the aircraft took off to prevent damage to the engine.
There are, however, some mentions of Area 51 that remain blanked out and this will doubtless provide more than enough fuel to conspiracy theorists.
According to some conspiracy theorists, Area 51 has served as a research site for a range of exotic weapons and technologies.
Most famously, it is said to be the US government’s centre for research on aliens and UFOs.
A crashed alien spacecraft, along with other alien material supposedly recovered from Roswell, New Mexico, is widely rumoured to be stored there.
Eye-witnesses have regularly reported seeing UFOs that twist and turn in the skies over the base.
The site has made many appearances in films about aliens, including Independence Day.
A notorious group of government agents known as the Men in Black are also said to be stationed there to help keep UFO sightings secret.
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.
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.
In 1968, 31-year-old hypersonic flight specialist Thornton “T.D.” Barnes reported to Groom Lake, the remote Southern Nevada military base also known as Area 51.
He began work on the CIA’s top-secret Project OXCART. Over the next seven years, he and many of his colleagues knew one another only by aliases. For additional secrecy, several of them lived in California, commuting to work each day by plane.
Barnes’ cover permitted him to go home to nearby Beatty, Nevada, but he couldn’t tell his wife, Doris, what he did at work. She only knew that it was top-secret. His children knew even less. “They got used to it,” he recalls. “They grew up not expecting me to talk shop when I came home. None of them knew until two years ago, when it was declassified.”
He means the CIA’s September 2007 declassification of its Groom Lake aircraft testing, new information in spite of which questions remain. To say the least. Area 51 still is heard in the same breath as Roswell, Amityville and Loch Ness.
Aerospace historian Michael Schratt suspects that extraterrestrial technology was utilized at Area 51 and remains secret “because it will make every man, woman and child on the planet energy independent.”
During a recent interview, Schratt told me that the picture in fact is “a computer-generated forensic composite” that he commissioned.
But there were UFOs at Area 51, according to Barnes.
“We were the UFOs,” he says. “We were, to a great extent, the sightings being reported.”
The flying objects in question include the family of spy planes known as Blackbirds, technological marvels that could fly at heights of 90,000 feet (or about three times the altitude of DC-9s more commonly seen in that era) and speeds near 2,500 mph (think ten football fields in a second), figures that decimated prior records and enabled U.S. reconnaissance photography that arguably tipped the balance of power in the Cold War. Also of note: Although conceived in the 1950s, the sleek jets would not look out of place in the latest George Lucas offering.
So it’s little wonder that they were unidentifiable.
Says Barnes, “This posed a great problem to investigators having to explain a sighting without revealing it to be a super secret CIA or Air Force project.”
Barnes and company were forced to conceive all manner of cover stories.
Now, with the declassification, he can tell the truth.
Currently President of the Area 51 alumni group Roadrunners Internationale, Barnes has started a website dedicated to the legacy of OXCART and the ensuing Operation Black Shield. “I am trying to make it possible for a lot of people who never got to tell their stories to do so now that the Oxcart project has been declassified,” he told me.
For the same reason, he’s spearheading an oral history project at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, enabling his fellow Roadrunners to share their experiences in great detail.
Like Barnes, many Roadrunners have children and grandchildren unaware of what they did for a living, let alone their heroics. When the tape starts to roll, Barnes relates, “A lot of them, on finally getting to share their stories, do so with such pent-up emotion that they literally break down in tears.”