Back in June of 2001, my friend John and my brother Todd and I thought it might be a swell lark to fly out to Area 51 and have a look around. Not that we expected to see alien spacecraft, but it’s always neat to visit such a pop culture icon, and I thought we had a reasonable expectation of seeing (or hearing) some new aircraft. Todd and John are both pilots so we rented a plane, and flew to Las Vegas.
It was too late the fly that day, so we rented a car and drove north to the site of the famous White Mailbox, which is all over the Internet. It’s white, but for some reason half of the people on the Internet call it the Black Mailbox. If an attraction lacks mystique on its own, give it a confounding name. That’ll draw the tourists.
A drive of some 15 miles over dirt roads takes you to the perimeter of Area 51, the place with the signs that’s popularly shown on TV programs and web sites. This is where we expected to get some action, like getting chased away by Men In Black. So long as you stay outside the perimeter, you’re on public BLM land, and not violating any law. It was dark, so we parked, strolled around a bit, read the signs, and kept an eye on the sky looking for a “donuts on a string” contrail or anything else interesting. John and I were having a good time, but Todd was pretty nervous.
We didn’t get much of a chance to watch. After only a few minutes, we started getting annoyingly flashed by a vehicle-mounted spotlight up on one of the hillsides. We weren’t doing anything wrong, so I voted that we flash them back, but one of our party went into full panic mode. He was really flipping out, so we had to leave. Party pooper.
But rather than give up, we drove around a bit and found a different entrance, with a sign that said “Entering Range 61, contact Blackjack on Fox 4.” If nothing else, that’s a pretty cool sign. This had a closed gate, and it was on the flats with nobody around; so we got out and hung around for a while, looking for planes, but saw nothing but bats. Anticlimactic, but at least the bats were kind of like UFOs. Kind of.
So on to real business. The next morning we took the plane up and flew toward the Nellis MOA (Military Operating Area). The aviation rules are simple; stay outside the MOA. Its edge was a jagged zigzag, which we skirted carefully to stay legal, but tried to stay as close as we could to get the best views of Area 51. Todd flew, John snapped away on his still camera, and I shot ridiculously shaky video. Just in the middle of our fun, the Area 51 tower hailed us on the radio and asked where we were going. We answered that we were sightseeing on our way to Tonopah, a strip where we planned to fuel up for the flight home. The tower, evidently annoyed at the precision of our zigzag, offered us a “direct vector to Tonopah”, which we politely declined.
It’s noteworthy that Area 51 is the biggest, but certainly not the only, airstrip facility that we saw inside Nellis Air Force Base. Why all the fuss about the one, and no attention paid to the others? And what’s with all the claims that “the government denies Area 51 exists”? It’s right there on all the charts and maps. It’s surrounded by signs in plain English. They might as well get one of those rotating searchlights like the Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
I’ve heard that since 9/11 the MOA has been expanded so it wouldn’t be possible to fly along the same path that we did. But the roads are still there, and the boundaries are the same. So if you’re ever interested in having a new story to tell, take a trip to Vegas, drive north, and see if you can spot any aliens.