There’s a reason millions of people clicked “Yes” to RSVP for an event titled “Area 51, They Can’t Stop Us.” This remote patch of desert is so top-secret that its very existence was contested until 2013.
It’s also where the U-2 spy plane was first developed and where top-secret military aircraft like the A-12 and the F-117 Nighthawk were tested. Declassified CIA documents provide insight into this infamous facility.
When the US government built its top secret U-2 spy plane at Area 51 in the 1950s, it was just the beginning of a long history of experimental aircraft testing that has earned the base an undeserved reputation among ufologists and conspiracy theorists. Thanks to declassified CIA documents, we know a few things about what was tested on the remote Nevada salt flat known as Groom Lake.
During the Cold War, both the US and Soviet Union sought any technological advances that might give them an advantage over their enemies. This included developing new planes capable of flying at high altitudes where a reconnaissance camera could peer through the clouds. The Air Force and Lockheed, the company that designed the U-2, spotted the desert site at Groom Lake as an ideal location for their project. Its secluded and isolated location meant the project would be shielded from public view.
To make the facility in the middle of nowhere sound more appealing to workers, Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson gave it the evocative name Paradise Ranch. This was shortened to the Ranch as time went on. Other unofficial names for the base include Dreamland, Home Base, Watertown Strip, and Groom Lake. The airfield at the base is also called Homey Airport.
In addition to the U-2, technicians at the Groom Lake base worked on a host of other unusual-looking aircraft. These included Tacit Blue, a research aircraft that used smooth lines rather than sharp edges to avoid detection by radar. Although it never entered production, Tacit Blue proved to be an important component in the development of the B-2 bomber.
Beyond the development of domestic aircraft, เอเรีย 51 has played host to foreign ones as well. One of the most interesting was an Israeli-built MiG-21 loaned to the US in 1968 by a defecting pilot. The jet, which flew at extremely high altitudes, allowed the US to see firsthand just what kinds of aircraft its foes were using in the skies above Vietnam.
While the CIA has long tried to debunk claims of an alien presence at Area 51, the connection with UFOs remains firmly entrenched in popular culture. In 1989, former CIA employee Robert Lazar made the case that he saw autopsy photographs of aliens at the facility and that the US government used the base to examine their recovered spacecraft. Though he was later discredited, his claims spawned numerous government conspiracy theories that centered on aliens and Area 51.
When it comes to the world of conspiracy theories, Area 51 is a goldmine of possibilities. The top secret location is the perfect blank slate for all manner of wild speculation, and with its remote location and mysterious activities, it’s easy to see why it has become the stuff of legend.
But despite the countless theories that have popped up around the base, there are legitimate reasons to keep it secret. The site, which is also known as Groom Lake or Homey Airport, is where the Air Force develops and tests military aircraft. It’s also where the U-2 was designed, and it’s been home to many other top-secret planes over the years.
The U-2’s beginnings can be traced back to the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union lowered the Iron Curtain and began to build up its own military power. America was concerned about the Kremlin’s technology, intentions, and ability to surprise us, and it needed a new kind of spy plane to watch out for the enemy. That’s when the base at Area 51 was born. Engineers took a bare-bones site in the middle of nowhere and started making it into a real facility. Contractors poured an asphalt runway, added Naval housing units and plane hangars, and even built a recreational lake. They gave it the name Paradise Ranch to entice workers, and soon, they were testing U-2s in the skies over the desert.
After the U-2 operations ceased in the late 1950s, other top-secret craft continued to be tested in Nevada. The A-12 was one of those, and it helped develop the modern Stealth fighters that have dominated the skies in recent decades.
The A-12 was able to travel three times the speed of sound at 90,000 feet, making it a formidable surveillance aircraft. It was also used to test new stealth technologies, such as materials that make planes less visible to the naked eye and harder for radar to detect them. The YF-118G, also known as the Bird of Prey, is the most well-known example of such a plane.
The F-117 Nighthawk
As the Cold War intensified in the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower began to worry that America’s lack of military surveillance capabilities would leave it vulnerable to Soviet attack. He recruited a group of scientists to figure out how to thwart the Russians. One of their ideas was to create a plane that could fly more than three times as high as commercial aircraft at the time and photograph the Soviet Union from above. The group chose Groom Lake, a remote detachment of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, as the perfect location to test this cutting-edge spy plane.
In the decades that followed, Area 51 became synonymous with some of the world’s most infamous and advanced secret airplanes, including the U-2 and the more exotic SR-71 Blackbird. But the most famous of all the aircraft to come out of the infamous base was the otherworldly-looking F-117 Nighthawk, a stealth fighter jet that remained unacknowledged by the Pentagon until 1988.
This otherworldly-looking aircraft has given the facility the nickname “The Bird of Prey.” The Nighthawk’s faceted surface was designed to reflect radar beams and disrupt them, making it almost impossible to detect. The Nighthawk was flown on countless covert missions and played a key role in Operation Just Cause, the operation to unseat and capture Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
The Nighthawk was retired 13 years ago, but the aircraft has occasionally been seen at Area 51 flying in restricted airspace. Many of these flights are conducted in Rainbow Canyon, also known as Star Wars Canyon, where military pilots practice aerial maneuvers. Photographers can take some incredible shots of the jets as they soar over the vast expanses of the Nevada desert.
There are still a lot of mysteries surrounding the site of Area 51. But the fact that so much advanced technology has been developed and tested there, including several aircraft that have been linked to UFOs, is reason enough to keep some interest alive.
The Bird of Prey
Despite a steady flow of conspiracy theories from people who think the US government is communicating with aliens or even keeping them at Area 51, the military’s Groom Lake facility does have legitimate purposes. The U-2 Dragon Lady, SR-71 Blackbird and other aircraft were tested there to help advance America’s military for today and tomorrow.
But what exactly is going on at the base? What’s the deal behind all those signs warning trespassers will be shot? While it’s hard to know unless you have the proper clearance, there are some hints from the past.
While the CIA originally chose Groom Lake to secretly test and fly the U-2 spy plane, it was also where the SR-71 Blackbird was developed. This highly-secret aircraft was able to penetrate deep into enemy airspace, allowing US intelligence agencies to gather valuable information on Soviet and other foreign fighter jets.
As the Cold War began to heat up, the Air Force also used Area 51 to study foreign aircraft that had been covertly acquired. One of these was a MiG-21, which the Air Force nicknamed Fishbed-E or Have Doughnut after it was loaned to the United States by Israel after an Iraqi pilot defected. The Air Force was able to reverse-engineer the Russian-built fighter and learn about its capabilities.
Today, the most you can see of Area 51 is from a guard shack in front of the facility or a few other spots that are monitored by security cameras. But it is possible to trek to the actual site by following locals’ directions and bringing printouts of maps along with cell phone service, food, water, clothing for hot or cold weather and a high-clearance vehicle. Just don’t expect to find any aliens.
There’s no easy path to getting a job at Area 51, either. A clean record and a solid education will get you in the door, but background checks are extremely thorough and you need a special security clearance to work there. Still, if you keep your head down, work hard and don’t try to sneak onto the property or take pictures, you might get hired someday.