Come join the Skeptic Society for our trip to Area 51 and other alien landscapes, Martin Luther King weekend (January 18-20), 2014. We will spend 3 days exploring the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (with lunch at the Little A’Le’inn), collecting trilobites, and visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum and their UFO exhibit, as well as the alien landscape of Valley of Fire State Park and Calico Ghost Town. Both nights will be spent at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. For further details, see this link. Hurry! We’re down to our last few seats!
In the past few decades, this perfectly ordinary military base in the middle of the desert in southern Nevada has taken on mythic status. Most military bases have tight security, and only authorized military personnel and their contractors are allowed on base. This particular base is top secret, with much tighter security than most military land. Not only is it surrounded by a secured perimeter and motion detectors in the ground, but the guards travel the perimeter regularly, and have video security cameras monitoring everything that comes near the fence. It is also located in one of the most remote areas of sparsely populated Nevada, more than two hours of driving north out of Las Vegas. Because there is no way to see the base from the paved road, even from the highest peaks outside the base except Tikaboo Peak (a long hard desert hike), it can only be viewed from the air or from space. Naturally, that high level of secrecy has led to all sorts of speculation about what happens there, and an entire industry of books and movies and TV shows which need only mention the phrase “Area 51” and immediately their audience assumes that there are aliens or some kinds of weird government experiments going on there.
First of all, let’s clarify one misconception: the proper name of the base. Some of the common names of the base are “Groom Lake” or “Homey Airport” on civilian aeronautics maps, or the longer “Nevada Test and Training Range” in CIA documents, but the older CIA documents do use the term “Area 51”. The name “Area 51” was indirectly named from the old grid system the Atomic Energy Commission used in the 1950s and 1960s to map the Nevada Test Site and the associated air bases. The original grid system numbering did not go as high as 51, but the Groom Lake area was purchased later and added to the secured perimeter of the base near Area 15 of the original grid; it is speculated that they just reversed 15 to 51 to get the number for the newly annexed area. The area has acquired additional security nicknames used to hide the true nature of the place, such as “Paradise Ranch”, the name that Lockheed Aircraft designer Kelly Johnson used to attract workers to project. According to Alexander Aciman in Time magazine:
Area 51 was cheekily nicknamed Paradise Ranch, so that intelligence officers and government employees wouldn’t have to tell their wives that they were moving the family to a rather large fenced-off area in the desert.
Other names include the CIA name “Watertown” (a reference to Watertown, New York, birthplace of CIA Director Allen Dulles), and “Dreamland Resort,” “Red Square,” “The Box,” or just “The Ranch”. After the U.S. Air Force took over the base from the CIA in the late 1970s, the name “Area 51” was discontinued, and it was called Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center (or simply Det. 3, AFFTC). As such, it was a remote operating location of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Today the official name of the Groom Lake base appears to be the National Classified Test Facility. The Test Wing (Det. 3, AFFTC) is still the primary occupant of the site.
There is also an Area 52. It is another name for the secret airfield and testing facility near Tonopah, Nevada, about 70 miles (110 km) northwest of Groom Lake. Many of the same aircraft that were developed and tested at Area 51 have their official base of operations at Area 52, especially the stealth aircraft.
For many decades, the activities in the base were top secret, so most of what was written about it was sheer guesswork or based on the reports of people who had worked there and spilled some of their information. The secrecy only helped spur on a lot of baseless speculation, especially by those who assumed that UFOs must be involved if the government was hiding their activities so strenuously. But in July 2013, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request (first filed in 2005), the CIA released nearly all the documentation about Area 51 and its activities, and nearly all of the past work on the “Dreamland Resort” has been revealed. This documentation, along with the interviews of veterans of those projects compiled in recent books, dispels a lot of the mythology that had grown up around the base.
Before the Second World War, Groom Lake was a silver and lead mining area, with several large mines that were worked from the 1870s to the 1890s. By World War II, however, the entire region was taken over by the federal government as a convenient, remote, inaccessible military base for the U.S. Government to do its most secretive and dangerous things: nuclear testing, bombing, and testing top-secret aircraft. Area 51 was originally a small airstrip within the Nellis Bombing Range. To the southwest is the much larger area reserved for the Nevada Test Site. Of the nearly 1000 nuclear tests conducted by the Department of Energy, 739 were conducted at the Nevada Test Site. At the far southwest edge of the Nevada Test Site (not far from Pahrump, Nevada), is Yucca Mountain, an old mining area that for decades has been planned as a nuclear waste disposal site for the U.S. nuclear waste now stored in unsafe locations. However, years and years of political fighting has stalled this site ever opening, because many environmental groups regard it as unsafe and likely to contaminate the groundwater with nuclear waste. Also enclosed within this large area of federal grounds is the Nellis Bombing Range Test Site (attached to Nellis Air Force Base on the northeast outskirts of Las Vegas).
In 1942, just after the start of World War II, the main airstrips at Groom Lake became known as Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, and used to practice bombing runs. In 1955, the CIA was began its long-term contract with Lockheed Aircraft to build high-performance spy planes to keep tabs on the Soviet Union. Up to that time, much of testing of high-performance aircraft (like the X-1, which was the first to break the sound barrier) was done at Edwards Air Force base north of Lancaster, California, in the western Mojave Desert. (It has become more famous recently as the alternative landing site for Space Shuttle missions). CIA Director Richard Bissell, Jr., realized that the testing of the top-secret aircraft could not be conducted at Edwards because of its exposure to the prying eyes of the public, and the fact that aircraft flying away from the base would be spotted easily. Thus, Lockheed’s legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson and others went to seek out a more inaccessible base. They searched Nevada looking at sites, and (according to Johnson):
We flew over it and within thirty seconds, you knew that was the place … it was right by a dry lake. Man alive, we looked at that lake, and we all looked at each other. It was another Edwards, so we wheeled around, landed on that lake, taxied up to one end of it. It was a perfect natural landing field … as smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it”. Johnson used a compass to lay out the direction of the first runway. The place was called “Groom Lake”.
The CIA then asked the AEC to add the land to its existing grid from the Atomic Test Site, and the designation “Area 51” came to be official. Shortly thereafter, original airstrip, trailer homes, and a few shacks that were used in World War II were transformed into a much bigger base. In three months in 1955, the base expanded to include a long paved runway with three hangars and a control tower, plus accommodations for the Lockheed and CIA personnel working on the base, including a movie theater, mess hall, trailer homes, and water tower and fuel tanks. By July 1955, there were regular flights bringing Lockheed personnel and supplies up from Burbank, California, where Lockheed’s main plant was located. They had already developed the legendary U-2 spy plane at their secret facility, originally in the Burbank plant, but now in Palmdale, California, known as the “Skunk Works,” and now the U-2 was being carried on top of a C-124 Globemaster II cargo plane to its test site at Groom Lake. Shortly thereafter, there was a regular shuttle of Lockheed personnel, flying out of Burbank Monday morning on a Douglas DC-3, and returning Friday afternoons after a full week working at the base.
My father, Clifford Ross Prothero, worked for Lockheed Aircraft for his entire career. Originally trained as an artist, he started by building the legendary P-38 fighter plane during World War II, and then he became one of the founding members of the Technical Illustration department. They were all skilled artists and draftsmen. Their job was to take the blueprints of the aircraft engineers, and turn them into anything that was needed: color illustrations of the aircraft, manuals for repair and service, assembly-line guidebooks, and later big proposals to the federal government to build aircraft like the Supersonic Transport. My dad worked on every aircraft that Lockheed built during his career from 1941 until he retired as Manager and Head of the Department of Technical Illustration in 1976. I vividly remember during the 1950s and 1960s that he carried a top-security clearance badge, and told us that he could say nothing about where he was working or what he was doing. Most of the time, he came back each night very late, but I remember many times where he was gone all week, and my mother was not allowed to tell us where he went. Only after he retired did he tell me about those long flights out to Area 51.
Lockheed’s U-2 (which my dad had helped build) was developed by Kelly Johnson and other Lockheed engineers at the Skunk Works in the early 1950s, and first flown in 1955 at Area 51. By 1957 it was in service for the CIA and U.S. Air Force. The U-2 looked essentially like a jet-powered glider with long straight narrow wings that allowed it to soar with minimum energy input, and all sorts of technological innovations that allowed it to fly at 70,000 feet, well above the range of Soviet radar, missiles, or aircraft of the time. In the nose and in the belly of the plane were a variety of sensors, including a high-resolution camera that could spot even tiny objects on the ground. Its glider-like shape meant that even if the engines quit, the pilot could glide for 300 miles or more, and make a safe landing (as happened on more than one occasion). But it also was very light and subject to being buffeted by strong crosswinds, which made it very tricky to fly as well. Nevertheless, it was secretly taking spy photographs of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and many other places after its maiden flight in 1957. It has taken aerial photos for every Cold War task since then, including spying on Communist countries, verifying that Castro had Soviet missiles during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and photographing Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and many other regions during times of conflict. It is still in service, being used in some specialized purposes in the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, although most spy reconnaissance is done with our satellite network and drone aircraft now.
However, the idea that the U-2 could not be tracked by Soviet radar turned out to be false, and during the 24th mission over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, the Soviets tracked the flight of the U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers. One of their three SA-2 surface-to-air missiles exploded near the plane, damaged it, and caused it to crash, while Powers ejected and was captured. (Another of their SA-2 missiles hit a Soviet plane trying to intercept the U-2). The “U-2 incident” became a worldwide crisis as the Soviets angrily demanded apologies from the U.S. For a while the CIA used a cover story about it being a NASA test. They did not realize that Powers had survived, something everyone thought was impossible. Khruschev let the American lies pile up until he revealed that Powers was alive and had confessed, and then the Eisenhower Administration had to do a lot of backtracking. The Paris Summit between the U.S. and Soviet Unions was canceled after Khruschev demanded a U.S. apology and Eisenhower refused. But U-2 flights over the Soviet Union were discontinued, and its use was restricted to areas where there was no chance of it being hit by missiles. (Powers was eventually released in exchange for a Soviet spy).
Even before the Gary Powers U-2 incident, the CIA was seeking a spy plane that could fly even higher above the Soviet missile ceiling, and was sturdy enough and fast enough to outrun interceptor planes as well. This effort was further accelerated after Gary Powers was shot down, and the vulnerabilities of the U-2 revealed. This became the CIA’s “Project OXCART”, the top-secret program to develop the next-generation spy plane, Lockeed’s A-12. This became the YF-12, the eventual predecessor of the legendary SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane, the most successful aircraft of its kind ever built. Project OXCART greatly expanded the facilities at Area 51, as more and more personnel were stationed there to conduct test flights. For the A-12, Kelly Johnson abandoned the delicate “jet-glider” model of the U-2 by building a sturdier, more powerful aircraft that could fly at Mach 3.35 at over 95,000 feet. Even if it could be detected, it was too fast to be caught by either missiles or other aircraft, and too sturdy to be shot down by a nearby missile explosion. By 1962, the A-12s built in Burbank had been shipped out to Groom Lake, where test flights began over the airspace of Nellis Air Force Base (so only other military pilots could see it, and they were bound by security agreements). The loss of Gary Powers’ manned aircraft emphasized the risk to pilots, which resulted in the D-21 program, code-named “Tagboard”. They tried to turn the A-12 plane into a drone aircraft, but the project never worked as planned and was quietly scrapped. The SR-71 was still an effective spy plane when it was finally retired in 1998, since its function had largely been replaced by satellites and drone aircraft.
In addition to being the testing ground for several generations of top-secret spy aircraft, Area 51 was often used to test the capabilities of captured Soviet aircraft and evaluate their performance without letting Soviet spies see them. In 1968, Project “HAVE DOUGHNUT” tested a captured MiG-21 that had come into Israeli hands from an Iraqi defector pilot who refused to use napalm on Kurdish towns. From these test flights, U.S. Air Force pilots were able to gauge the relative strengths of their F-4’s against the MiG-21, which proved advantageous in Vietnam. Project HAVE DRILL was a code name for the study of two captured Syrian MiG-17s that accidentally landed in northern Israel, and were shipped to the CIA and U.S. Air Force for study. Project HAVE FERRY was another captured MiG-17 loaned from Israel to the U.S. in 1969. “Top Gun” pilots from Miramar Air Base near San Diego (portrayed in the movie “Top Gun”) flew out to do mock dogfights with these MiG planes to hone their skills, and learn the strengths and weak spots of their enemy’s aircraft. The sky over Area 51 became an even more restricted air space on the aeronautical maps, marked in red ink, hence the name “Red Square”.
Finally, the Groom Lake “Area 51” base played a crucial role in the development and testing of the A-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter. Code-named “HAVE BLUE”, Lockheed first began developing the plane in 1978, and it was first test-flown out of Groom Lake in 1982. The F-117 became operational in 1983, and its squadron was based in “Area 52”, the Tonopah Test Range airfield. The entire plane was designed to minimize the effects of radar bouncing off it, complete with panels on the “skin” which were radar absorbing, and a shape that tended not to make a strong radar signal. The plane first saw combat in the Balkan wars of 1999, where one was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, and its secrecy was broken. The first aircraft into Iraq during the 1991 and 2003 Persian Gulf wars were stealth craft, which were able to evade Iraqi radar as they delivered laser-guided bombs to their targets. Although they had been spotted, the Air Force refused acknowledge the existence of the F-117 until 1988, and in 2008 the Air Force retired the plane because the A-22 Raptors were due to be delivered.
The long history of secrecy surrounding Area 51 has certainly contributed to its mystery, and naturally it has led some people to think that the government was hiding more than just top-secret spy and stealth aircraft. Just the fact that the CIA and the military went to such great lengths to conceal what they were doing feeds into such suspicions, and makes the conspiracy-minded more convinced of their beliefs. The popular media (especially such TV shows as the “X-Files” and the many fake “documentaries” about Area 51 on cable TV, and many movies, especially Independence Day) have created fully fleshed-out versions of what the screenwriters think is going on behind that curtain of secrecy. Screenwriters are only interested in a gripping story that will sell their scripts, and hold an audience, so they have no interest in making a movie about the truth; they are only telling a good story. Their influence on the culture is overwhelming, so enough people have seen these shows enough times that no amount of revelation of the more mundane explanation of secret spy planes will convince them that they are believing a Hollywood fantasy.
In addition to the speculation and fantasies from the outside world, more than one member of the high-security staff at Groom Lake were more than happy to let the myths propagate. After all, the alien/UFO story works as an excellent misdirection if people are thinking about these fantasies, and not thinking about the reality of secret stealth aircraft and spy planes. Consider the following:
- During the 1950s-1970s, civilian aircraft flew no higher than 40,000 feet , and military aircraft only a little bit higher. This was a time of an unusually large number of UFO reports in the area around southern Nevada. Right after the U-2 began flying there were a huge increase in number of sightings by civilian pilots, and with over 2850 OXCART A-12 flights alone, there were a lot of high-speed, high-altitude craft flying over the civilian airspace. Not only were these craft top secret, but they were traveling over 2000 miles per hour at over 80,000 to 90,000 feet, much higher and faster than any civilian airliner could fly. All the civilian pilots would have seen is an unusually shaped craft, or possibly only a string of lights on its wings, moving much faster and higher than any plane they knew about. Some reports about the “fiery” craft were probably the silvery wings of the U-2 or A-12 reflected in the setting sun. The Air Force’s “Project Blue Book” checked a long list of UFO sightings and found that most reports in southern Nevada could be explained by spy planes (although they could not divulge the information at the time). Veterans of Area 51 who were interviewed later agreed with this assessment. According to sources in Annie Jacobsen’s book about Area 51:
The shape of OXCART was unprecedented, with its wide, disk-like fuselage designed to carry vast quantities of fuel. Commercial pilots cruising over Nevada at dusk would look up and see the bottom of OXCART whiz by at 2,000-plus mph. The aircraft’s titanium body, moving as fast as a bullet, would reflect the sun’s rays in a way that could make anyone think, UFO.
- The light show visible above the base, especially in the 1960s-1990s, when they were testing the A-12, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the A-117 Nighthawk, is most parsimoniously explained by these oddly shaped spy aircraft flying at night. All were designed to fly in nighttime, and all would look strange with the spacing and shape of their lights, and their unusual capabilities of speed and maneuverability. In addition, there may have been additional craft not mentioned in the conventional accounts, such as still-classified stealth helicopters (used in the raid to kill Osama bin Laden) and other VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) craft that easily explain why so many people see these strange craft at night over the area. No UFOs are required. Indeed, this is vividly demonstrated when the reality show “Conspiracy Road Trip: UFOs” filmed at the Black Mailbox in 2012. They got hugely excited when a string of lights appeared in the sky over Area 51, and they heard a sonic boom—only to realize that the lights were aerial flares, and the sonic boom must have been from a night-flying aircraft.
- In 1989, a man named Robert Lazar shocked the world with the claim on television that he had worked at Area 51 and a secret facility called “S-4”. He claimed that the government had at least nine alien spacecraft, and that the base contractor, EG&G, had hired him to “reverse engineer” the alien craft to discover their secrets, and that they had powered their craft with a heavy substance he called “Element 115”. This report started the entire industry of people claiming that there are alien craft and bodies hidden on Area 51, where they base scientists are trying to create new aircraft, and make new discoveries of alien secrets. But as soon as the story was publicized, it began to unravel, because Lazar was a big liar. He claimed to have master’s degrees from Caltech and MIT, but records show he attended neither institution. The Air Force and Los Alamos National Laboratories also disavowed him, despite his claims that he worked for them. Naturally, the paranoid conspiracy theorist sees this a further evidence of cover-up, but in later interviews Lazar began to recant his story, and in interviews on the 25th anniversary of his initial claims, Lazar said he no longer involves himself in the topics about UFOs. More importantly, things that he claimed (that can be independently checked) show he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. For example, element 115 on the periodic table was first discovered by Russian scientists in 2004, then confirmed by Swedish scientists at Lund University in September 2013. It’s called ununpentium (“one one five”), and it bears no resemblance to the properties of the substance that Lazar claimed to have studied in alien craft.
- In 2012, journalist Annie Jacobsen published a best-selling book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top-Secret Military Base. Most of the book consists of the now publically documented history of the U-2, A-12, F-117 and other projects that we know occurred there. Her sources were the Roadrunners, a once-secret club of retired Area 51 employees who meet on a regular basis, typically in a secret location. They were now able to speak to her since the secrecy has been lifted, and the original CIA documents have been released. Unfortunately, Jacobsen’s training in science and technology was pretty limited, and the book has been lambasted by scientists and engineers (many who worked in Area 51) for its many blunders and simple mistakes that any scientist or engineer would never make (sound moves at 700 mph, not 100 mph; shotguns don’t shoot bullets; Burbank Airport, but called “Lockheed Air Terminal” then, is not 9 miles west of Northridge, but 19.9 miles east; and many other mistakes and misstatements). Her most startling claim to an otherwise sober and well-researched book, however, came in the last chapter. There she quotes an unnamed source who said that the 1947 Roswell UFO crash was actually a Soviet “flying saucer” built by captured Nazi rocket scientists, and that the “aliens” inside were actually children who were deformed due to Nazi breeding experiments! These, according to her source, were spirited off to Area 51, where her source claims he saw them in 1951. Needless to say, such a claim is preposterous, and even the UFO fanatics have disavowed it. There is no evidence of such Soviet aircraft expertise, nor of any Nazi breeding experiments, let alone the rest of her claim. When Jacobsen spoke before the Skeptics Society in 2012, I was among a number of scientists who questioned her strenuously about this point. Many of the others were ex-military pilots or JPL engineers and scientists, and her story began to fall apart. More importantly, the people she originally interviewed among the Roadrunners who were all there, and saw everything, denied her claim, and say that no such “Soviet-Nazi-deformed youth-saucer” was ever at Area 51. Given our rules of parsimony and the strong evidence against this extraordinary claim, two other possibilities are much more likely: that her single “source” was pulling her leg, or else turning senile (he would have been in his 80s or older); or that she made it up to spice up sales for the book. Either way, she got to laugh all the way to the bank as the book was on the best-seller lists for months, and another ridiculous story is out there fooling people who don’t know any better.
After all this huge legend built up by TV and movies and UFO believers concerning Area 51, the truth turns out to be much more mundane. It was certainly a top-secret installation with lots of projects that the CIA and Air Force would not declassify until 2013, and they practiced all sorts of misdirection and subterfuge to keep people guessing. But now that the CIA has just released all the formerly top-secret documents, there is no smoking gun in there to suggest that anything other than spy planes and stealth aircraft were being tested and developed. A huge number of early UFO reports are now explained by high-altitude supersonic planes that civilian pilots did not know about. So too are the weird patterns of lights that fly out of Groom Lake at night. The Lazar stories turns out to be from an unreliable source caught in numerous lies. Jacobsen’s “Soviet-Nazi-deformed youth-flying saucer” story has never been corroborated by a second source, so for lots of good reasons there is no reason to take it seriously.
What we DO have is huge number of pages of just-declassified CIA documents that lay out what really did happen in Area 51. What we DO have is the Roadrunners and other former Area 51 personnel, now released from their vows of secrecy, saying that there were NO alien craft or bodies being stored there. These are men that included many with highest-possible security clearance, and not one saw any aliens. And I asked my dad before he passed away in 2004 what he thought of the stories, since he had been there in the 1960s. He laughed, and said it was all hokum, myths fostered by people who couldn’t accept the idea that the secrecy was all about hiding spy aircraft, not aliens.