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A Jaunt to Area 51

by Brian Dunning, Dec 11 2008
The Mysterious Black Mailbox

The Mysterious Black Mailbox

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.

Area 51 Perimeter

Area 51 Perimeter

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.

Chart showing the Nellis MOA

Chart showing the Nellis MOA

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.

Telephoto view of Area 51 from our plane

Telephoto view of Area 51 from our plane

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.

17 Responses to “A Jaunt to Area 51”

  1. Slow night in Blogsville, eh?

  2. Badger3k says:

    Interesting. I had heard that they had closed this down (or at least reduced what goes on there – I had heard there is still a big civilian operation there) and that security was a lot less than what it was claimed to be before. I remember some show where somebody went to a sign that carried whatever warning, and then they went beyond for a bit and were never challenged or anything. Did they (for a time) shrink the borders of the restricted area, or might this guy (I can’t remember the show or channel) been full of BS? Sorry I can’t give more information.

    Any idea if the “sensitive projects had been moved to another base” idea that had been released a few years back has any truth? Just curious.

  3. Stacy Kennedy says:


    Phil Patton’s “Dreamland” gives the history of Area 51, and it’s a perfectly marvelous book. He goes into what’s known (or was at the time the book was written) about the military’s use of the place and the aircraft that were tested there, as well as the folklore that grew up around it. (In Dreamland, you will learn that the Black Mailbox used to be, in fact, black). He also takes side trips to Roswell, and other places where military secrecy, fantasies of national threat and power, and the wonders of cutting-edge technology fostered fantasy and rampant speculation. He talks to army guys and to the ufo chasers.

    For years, Area 51 really was kept off the maps (and trespassers could be shot on sight). The place is no longer the Big Secret it was during Cold War and so its legend is winding down, but it makes a hell of a story.

    BTW, Phil Patton did not pay me to write this. Really. I just, um, dig the book.

  4. You always hear “trespassers could be shot on sight”. Despite the fact that it’s never happened once.

  5. Badger3k says:

    Aah – but Brian, you see, they shot everyone dead, then used their conspiracy-powers to erase the fact that anyone ever went out there. Thus, they leave no evidence for their evil-doings. Where’s your tinfoil hat!


  6. Max says:

    This seems like a good rational website on Area 51.

    From its FAQ:
    What’s up with the Black Mailbox, and why isn’t it black ?
    The original Black Mailbox was a regular black country mailbox. After the owner found his mail frequently searched for letters to Area 51, and supposedly even with bullet holes in it, he replaced the mailbox with a more solid white mailbox with a padlock.

    What happens if I cross the Area 51 border ?
    If you cross the border of the restricted area surrounding Area 51 FOR ANY REASON, the security guards, known as Cammo Dudes, will detain you. You will be pulled out of your vehicle, and held at gunpoint, face down on the ground. The cammos will call the Lincoln County Sheriff.

    US Air Force on Area 51
    “Neither the Air Force nor the DOD owns or operates any location known as ‘Area 51.’ … There is an operating location near Groom Dry Lake.”

    “Use of deadly force is authorized” under the terms of the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act.

  7. Max says:


    From FAQ

    Is Area 51 closed ?
    No, the base is not closed. A poorly researched article in Popular Mechanics started this rumor in 1997. The author failed to meet his “contact” in Rachel, then got lost in the desert and ended up at the gate to Bombing Range 61… In reality, Area 51 is not going anywhere. The base is well alive…

    Is there an Area 52 ?
    Yes. The Tonopah Test Range (TTR) is officially known as Area 52.

    Another site of the Air Force’s most secret test programs is the North Base of the Edwards Air Force Base in California.

  8. Max says:

    I spent many formidable years at the housing facility near Nellis AFB, my father was stationed there. He worked up at the test sight and was very familiar with “area 51″. He would always get a good chuckle when ever my brothers and I would try and get “alien” stories out of him. He loved the article from PopSci laughed all the way through it.

  9. Ground Tech says:

    I spent a week at the “fly on Area 51’s hide” — Rachel, NV. My advice, if you’re looking for mesmerizing aerial displays: don’t waste your nights by sleeping. Arrive, as well, during summer’s RED FLAG operations. About midnight, your eyes, ears and mind will be overcome. “Conventional (military) aircraft” are the culprits, primarily, though I dare you not to be headscratching at some of their maneuvers.

    Oh, and, should one cross the outer signs — minimum $700.00 fine plus holding cell sleepover at Lincoln County jail.

  10. TonyK says:

    When my wife and I headed to Vegas a few years back to get married, we’d planned to try and take a drive out to just see the area. Given the distance, we never found the time, but we did have a “connection”. On our first night there, we were watching the tourist channel in the room and there was a Discovery Channel show about Area 51 repeated every two hours. During the show they commented how employees are flown out every day from the Vegas airport on unmarked but distinctive planes. From our room, we could see these planes parked very clearly and watched them line up on Monday morning to get folks to work.

  11. Cary Snowden says:

    Here’s a fun story about an experience I had at Nellis: I was traveling late one night with my wife from SLC to Vegas where I worked construction on Nellis Air Force Base.

    As we came over the hill on I-15 we spotted the familiar air strip lights (now hidden by the race track). As we got closer, an unusual thing happened; all the runway lights went out and the entire base went dark. We got pretty excited because this was very unusual. Now curious, we were looking to-and-fro and wondering what was up. a few minutes later a very large triangular-shaped aircraft flew right over our car and, as we watched, landed on the darkened runway.

    Screaming to ourselves in virtual panic and excitement, we were laughing about having seen a ‘UFO’ and were pretty thrilled, certain this was a secret military aircraft. Sure enough, about four months later the military announced the B-2 stealth bomber, and answered all our questions about that night.

  12. Wow, that’s a cool story!! One of my college teachers, who had fought in Vietnam, used to tell how one night he was told to stand sentry over a hangar, and not talk about it. They saw a big black thing “that looked nothing like an airplane” roll in, closed the doors, and stood guard. When I knew him years later, he had since learned of the SR-71 and figured that’s what it was.

  13. Wench says:

    Having been in the military, military conspiracy stories inevitably make my belly shake like a bowl full of jelly. In ordered to be accurate, *every* military story needs to end up with “and then I woke up the next morning in a puddle of my own vomit, wearing tinsel and combat boots and hugging an olive drab chihuahua.”

  14. Andres says:

    Oh man. Me thinks the comments section is more interesting than the blog itself (no offense. ^-^)

  15. Max says:

    Here’s an interesting website by Area 51 veterans, with declassified info on old black projects like U-2 and A-12.

  16. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    I saw a documentary about this. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, the dude from ‘Taxi’, and Mr.Data from Star Trek were in it. They apparently saved us all.

  17. Thanks for the great post! One of the best post I have seen in a long time.