These are usually the first thing that comes to mind once the name, “Area 51” is dropped; The (Not So) secret military base located deep in the Nevada desert and far away from any prying eyes. Over the years Area 51 has gained a almost mythical status in pop culture as the facility has been featured in numerous books, television series and more than a few movies. But what do we really know about this air base in the middle of nowhere? Where does fiction end and facts begin?
What is the “Real” Area 51?
For one thing the base itself is actually a detachment of Edwards Air Force Base, within the Nevada Test and Training Range. Built on a dry lake bed (Groom Lake), the base itself is surrounded by a number mountain ranges and harsh, unforgiving desert terrain. Yet the first flights to take place there actually occurred during World War 2 when the United States Army Air Corp operated 2 unpaved landing strips on the lake bed known as the Indian Springs Auxiliary Air Force Field.
The base we know as Area 51 would not really get its start until 1955, when the C.I.A. began “Project Aquatone”: A program which would ultimately lead to the development to the U-2 Spy Plane. Interestingly, it is legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson who could be seen as the Father of Area 51, as he was the one who selected the site after noting just how remote the location of the lake bed was. Not to mention that the lake bed had the perfect surface to construct the long run ways which would be needed to test out the U-2. While the surrounding mountain ranges more or less hid the facility from the outside world.
To encourage workers to move out into the area, Johnson named the facility “Paradise Ranch”, a designation which the base is sometimes called even to this day. The name “Area 51” actually came from where the base was located, Groom Lake was located in a grid marked as “Area 51” on the map. It would be this remote location and hostile environment which ultimately made Area 51 the primary facility to test new/experimental aircraft in the years to come.
In 1959, Area 51 received the first of many expansions and upgrades. As the existing facilities would not be adequate for the next major program to take place. In 1960, a new 8500 foot runway was laid down to replace the existing one. This was followed up in 1961 with the construction of new hangers,maintenance and machine shops(which were converted from older U-2 hangers), storage buildings, administration, flight tower and even recreation facilities like a base ball field. In all these upgrades would take 4 years to complete, though the base’s next program would begin before these upgrades were completed.
In early 1962, the next aircraft to be tested at Groom Lake arrived in crates after being transported by a convoy of trucks. After assembly, the aircraft took off in April of the same year to conduct flight testing. The program in question was code named OXCART and the aircraft in question was the Lockheed A-12, and ultimately 9 of these aircraft would be stationed at Area 51 before they were phased out in 1967.
But the A-12 was not the only aircraft to be received at Area 51 in the sixties, as the base also received :
8 x F-101 Voodoos.
2 x T-33 Shooting Stars
1 x C-130 Hurcules
1 x U-3A
1 Search and Rescue Helicopter
1 Cessna 180 and 1 F-104 Star Fighter
Basically a small air force had been created for this base which officially did not exist, but not all aircraft which were based there were American made. As the years went by, the USAF began to store a collection Soviet made aircraft and equipment at the facility for both testing and evaluation. Most notably the lease of a former Iraqi MiG-21F from Israel in 1968 and later a ex-Syrian MiG-17F in 1969. These aircraft, among many others, were flown by American pilots to determine both their strength and weaknesses in a dog fight. The information gained during these flights were used in both training future fighter pilots and developing future fighter aircraft such as the F-15 Eagle.
Even today there are rumors that the United States still operates a number of Russian made aircraft out of their Groom lake facility for training. As recently photos have emerged showing what looked like a Su-27/30 engaged in a mock dogfight with a F-16 over Area 51.
As the years passed, the secret base has gone under numerous expansions and upgrades as new programs enter the facility. Today Area 51 is still alive and operational, as personnel still travel to the base either by unmarked Boeing-737 aircraft which fly out of Las Vegas (Janet Flights), or unmarked, white buses which drive through the desert on unpaved roads that lead to the base.
Security around Area 51 is tight, white SUVs and pick-up trucks can often be seen on the out lying hill with men in camo suits inside them. Lovingly known as the “Camo Dudes/Camo Guys”, they usually patrol the edges of the base and to deter would be trespassers from crossing the perimeter. Couple this with numerous motion sensors and CCTV positions dotted across the landscape, and it’s more than likely they will know you are coming.
Don’t even bother with attemping to fly over the base to get a look ether, as the air space around the Area 51 is closed off to any and all civilian air traffic and had been since the 1960’s. It is a military installation after all, and they have been know to scramble fighters to intercept any aircraft who violates their air space. Obviously you could use Google Earth to locate the facility, but you would never see any air craft on the tarmac or runway. Believe me, I have tried.
But of course, Area 51 is famous for a reason and for years, many people have reported Unidentified Flying Objects flying around the base. Obviously this is evidence that the base had access to aircraft and technology that are beyond any we have on Earth, surly they have alien craft there right? Well…. most likely not.
You have to remember that Area 51 has played host to numerous Black projects over the years. Any of whom were radical designs which looked nothing that was already flying at the time. Sometimes they would be flying for a few years in secret before the Government came out and said such an aircraft existed. This was the case for the F-117 Night Hawk, B-2 Stealth, even the SR-71 and U-2. All these aircraft were conducting test flights out of Groom lake when they were first seen by eyewitnesses, and to them, these aircraft may have looked too fantastic to be man made. That just might be the case today, as people in the area continue to report seeing strange lights and aircraft in the skies above Groom lake .
Even black projects like the Northrop “Tacit Blue” and the Lockheed “Have Blue” demonstrator aircraft may have been responsible a number of Unidentified Flying Object sightings which were seen in the late 70’s and mid 80’s.
Though that has not stopped people from around the world from venturing to the Nevada desert in hopes of discovering the truth for themselves. Interestingly Area 51 has become a bit of a tourist attraction in the State, pumping a lot of money into the local economy. Even a near by highway was renamed “The Extraterrestrial Highway”.
But in recent years, it had been speculated that Area 51 may no longer be the primary research facility for the Air Force. As it has been suggested that some projects have been transferred to other facilities such as Wright Patterson Air Force Base and Dugway Proving Grounds. But despite this, Area 51 is still very much active and to this day and is still believed to be the home for many supposed black projects.
When you think about it, Area 51 isn’t really all that different from any other military base on Earth. But it has a legacy which has been engraved into popular culture because of its mysterious nature. Obviously we may never know just what is going on beyond the signs that tells people to stay out, but you have to admit it is fun to speculate.