A few years after Roswell, Area 51 became the center of a swirling conspiracy theory of aliens and government cover-ups. But what really happens there?
Since the 1950s, top-secret military aircraft have been developed and tested at the remote desert facility. These include the high-altitude U-2 spy plane, the single-seat OXCART, and stealth jets like the SR-71 Blackbird.
Despite a government ostrich-like head buried in the sand, Area 51 has always been a big deal. The US Air Force has never been shy about experimenting with its weapons and technology in the Nevada desert, resulting in some of the most controversial nuclear tests ever to take place. But it’s what happened after those explosions that made Area 51 a hotbed of conspiracy theories and UFO sightings.
After World War II, the US was concerned about what the Soviet Union could do with its newly developed nuclear weapons. Combined with the US’ fear that the Soviets were covertly obtaining sophisticated stealth fighter aircraft, this led to the creation of a top-secret military base in the middle of nowhere. Groom Lake was chosen in 1955 as the location to develop and test a new secret spy plane. CIA engineers nicknamed it Paradise Ranch to make the project sound more appealing to workers, according to a CIA history of the U-2 program that was declassified with significant redactions in 1998 and then released nearly in its entirety in 2013.
When reports of unexplained flying objects started to surface, the Air Force blamed them on the secret U-2 tests. But this didn’t stop the rumors, and by the 1960s, Area 51 had become synonymous with alien spacecraft.
As the U-2 program ended in the late 1950s, the CIA began using Area 51 to develop other secret aircraft, including the A-12 OXCART single-seat high-altitude spy plane and the two-seat SR-71 Blackbird. These planes helped the CIA keep an eye on enemy forces around the world, and later they gave the US the ability to reverse-engineer foreign jets that had been captured during wartime.
The U-2, a single-seat high-altitude spy plane developed by engineers at Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” was one of the first secret aircraft to be tested at เอเรีย 51. It could fly three times the speed of sound and reach 90,000 feet in the air, providing the CIA with unprecedented surveillance capabilities over Soviet targets such as Cuba and the Soviet Union. Later, the base would be used to test such secret planes as the A-12 Oxcart, which could travel even faster than the U-2, and the two-seat F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. It was also the testing site for foreign warplanes that the United States had acquired covertly during the Cold War, such as the Mach-2 fighter jet codenamed Fishbed-E (now declassified CIA documents show the Air Force referred to it as a Have Doughnut), according to Jacobsen.
Secrecy was baked into the base from its start, and its remote location made it easy to confuse U-2 flights with unidentified flying objects reported by residents of Roswell in 1947, fueling conspiracy theories that aliens have been visiting the area for decades. Even today, some former workers at the base believe in such rumors and are angered by them, says Jacobsen.
The Air Force plans to retire its last U-2s in 2024, and the service has started to shift away from low-altitude reconnaissance to more sophisticated drones such as the RQ-4 Sentinel. The RQ-4 can fly at twice the speed of a U-2 and has a range of up to 15,000 miles, making it possible to monitor activity across multiple borders from the same location. A retired Air Force official told Congress in April that the Pentagon’s budget request for the next fiscal year would include funding to replace the U-2 with a new generation of drones such as the Sentinel.
In the late 1950s, calls and letters started trickling in to air traffic control from pilots who claimed they saw “flying saucers” at altitudes that were too high for any human-made plane. The CIA set up an office to handle these reports and launched a heavy disinformation campaign, says Jacobsen. One of the key messages was to tell pilots not to report sightings, and not to mention Area 51.
The secret was that the CIA was building something called the A-12, which could fly at three times the speed of sound and reach heights of 70,000 feet — more than twice as high as the U-2. To get the plane in the sky, a special launch pad was built at Area 51. The CIA told reporters that the A-12 was being tested, but not what it was being used for. The secrecy allowed the story to spread that the CIA was reverse-engineering alien spaceships at Area 51.
Soon, Area 51 became a regular feature in science fiction and conspiracy theories. It appeared in several Atari arcade games, was a backdrop in the 1996 blockbuster alien invasion movie Independence Day, and continues to hold a prominent place in the imagination of people who believe the government is hiding evidence of extraterrestrial life.
But despite the fact that signs at Area 51 tell visitors that pictures are not allowed and trespassing is punishable by fine, many curious civilians still want to visit. They should be prepared for a bumpy ride, though: No cell service, no GPS, and no running water are available on the remote base. It’s important to bring plenty of water, snacks, and desert gear for hot days and cold nights.
The emergence of the F-117 brought Area 51 into popular culture. This stealthy plane could fly three times the speed of sound and was unaffected by radar detection, making it an ideal spy plane. The project needed a remote, unassuming place to build and test the aircraft, and Groom Lake fit the bill perfectly. The bare-bones facility quickly became a fully functioning spy-plane factory. Workers poured new runways, moved Naval housing units and plane hangars to the site and added the necessary warehousing, shops and fuel storage facilities.
As the US military developed advanced new weapons and technology, a whole host of conspiracy theories sprouted up around Area 51. It’s become a focal point of ideas about aliens, time travel and sinister government conspiracies.
Declassified documents reveal that the base has also played host to foreign warplanes that the US government covertly obtained during the Cold War. For example, a Soviet MiG-21 jet fighter known as Fishbed-E was flown to Area 51 in 1968 after an Iraqi pilot defected to the United States. It was inspected and reverse-engineered for the sake of comparison with select American fighter jets.
One of the most popular theories is that Area 51 is home to an elusive super secret project codenamed F-19. This is the rumored successor to the A-12 and would enable the US military to intercept enemy drones. The rumor has been fueled by the fact that the aircraft was originally referred to as the SR-71 Blackbird, and LBJ made the mistake of leaving out the F.
Although it is highly unusual for a civilian to gain access to Area 51, rumors persist that people do just that. The site is kept off-limits by armed guards, warning signs and electronic surveillance. It’s also illegal to fly over the base, and anyone caught trying to do so faces serious consequences. Those who want to work at the base have to pass extensive background checks and be cleared for top-secret access.
As time went on, Area 51 remained a shadowy place shrouded in mystery. Bits and pieces of rumors would emerge, including those regarding alien technology. This fueled conspiracy theories that the government was reverse-engineering UFOs or had tucked away the remains of the infamous 1947 Roswell crash in one of the base’s hangars.
Over the years, the Air Force developed a number of surveillance and attack planes at Paradise Ranch. Some of these included the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-117 Nighthawk. Declassified documents show that the site also played a role in testing foreign radar systems and, during the Cold War, examining covertly acquired Soviet MiG fighters.
Then came the drones. As more and more surveillance capabilities have been built into these flying machines, the need for a facility like Area 51 has diminished. But the Air Force is still using the remote Nevada desert as an testing ground for some of the most advanced military technology platforms around.
In the modern day, Area 51 is a military facility that’s off-limits to all but a small handful of people. But it’s also a popular setting for more overtly fictional movies and TV shows, from sci-fi to thrillers to romantic comedies.
For decades, the idea that Area 51 was home to secret research into aliens and extraterrestrial technology has been a part of pop culture. And even though those rumors have mostly been disproven, the base continues to loom over us. It’s still surrounded by a chain-link fence, a boom gate, and intimidating trespassing warnings. But it’s also a place that’s constantly changing. In the next article, we’ll look at what’s happening behind those gates in 2019.