For decades, Nevada's Area 51 has represented the eye of a conspiratorial hurricane that swirls around "evidence" that aliens (and their technology) exist and are hiding behind its walls. Books, TV shows, and even massive online memes have tried to glimpse beyond its stark signs warning against trespassers.
While aliens aren't taking up residence in the compound, what is going on there is just as interesting.
In the middle of the barren Nevada desert, there's a dusty unmarked road that leads to the front gate of Area 51. It's protected by little more than a chain link fence, a boom gate, and intimidating trespassing signs. One would think that America's much mythicized top secret military base would be under closer guard, but make no mistake. They are watching.
Beyond the gate, cameras see every angle. On the distant hilltop, there's a white pickup truck with a tinted windshield peering down on everything below. Locals says the base knows every desert tortoise and jackrabbit that hops the fence. Others claim there are embedded sensors in the approaching road.
What exactly goes on inside of Area 51 has led to decades of wild speculation. There are, of course, the alien conspiracies that galactic visitors are tucked away somewhere inside. One of the more colorful rumors insists the infamous 1947 Roswell crash was actually a Soviet aircraft piloted by mutated midgets and the wreckage remains on the grounds of Area 51. Some even believe that the U.S. government filmed the 1969 moon landing in one of the base's hangars.
For all the myths and legends, what's true is that Area 51 is real and still very active. There may not be aliens or a moon landing movie set inside those fences, but something is going on and only a select few are privy to what's happening further down that closely-monitored wind-swept Nevada road. "The forbidden aspect of Area 51 is what makes people want to know what's there," says aerospace historian and author Peter Merlin who's been researching Area 51 for more than three decades.
"And there sure is still a lot going on there."
The Origins of a Mystery
The beginning of Area 51 is directly related to the development of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. After World War II, the Soviet Union lowered the Iron Curtain around themselves and the rest of the Eastern bloc, creating a near intelligence blackout to the rest of the world. When the Soviets backed North Korea's invasion of South Korea in June 1950, it became increasingly clear that the Kremlin would aggressively expand its influence. America worried about the USSR's technology, intentions, and ability to launch a surprise attack—only a decade removed from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In the early 1950s, U.S. Navy and Air Force sent low-flying aircraft on reconnaissance missions over the USSR, but they were at constant risk of being shot down. In November 1954, President Eisenhower approved the secret development of a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft called the U-2 program. One of the first orders of business was to track down a remote, covert location for training and testing. They found it in the southern Nevada desert near a salt flat known as Groom Lake, which had once been a World War II aerial gunnery range for Army Air Corps pilots.
Known by its map designation as Area 51, this middle-of-nowhere site became a new top-secret military base. To convince workers to come, Kelly Johnson, one of the leading engineers of the U-2 project, gave it a more enticing name: Paradise Ranch.
Making a Myth
U-2 testing began in July 1955, and immediately reports came flooding in about unidentified flying object sightings. If you read the details in a 1992 CIA report that was declassified with redactions in 1998 (and subsequently released nearly in full in 2013), it's easy to see why.
Many of these sightings were observed by commercial airline pilots who had never seen an aircraft fly at such high altitudes as the U-2. Whereas today's airliners can soar as high as 45,000 feet, in the mid-1950s airlines flew at altitudes between 10,000 and 20,000 feet. Known military aircraft could get to 40,000 feet, and some believed manned flight couldn't go any higher than that. The U-2, flying at altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet, would've looked completely alien.
Naturally, Air Force officials knew the majority of these unexplained sightings were U-2 tests, but they were not allowed to reveal these details to the public. So, "natural phenomena" or "high-altitude weather research" became go-to explanations for UFO sightings, including in 1960 when Gary Powers' U-2 was shot down over Russia.
What's also interesting about the most recent 2013 report is that it confirms Area 51's existence. While the 1998 version does have significant redactions when referencing the name and location of the U-2 test site, the nearly un-redacted version from 2013 reveals much more, including multiple references to Area 51, Groom Lake, and even a map of the area.
"This Is Earth Technology"
U-2 operations halted in the late 1950s, but other top secret military aircrafts continued tests at Area 51. Over the years, the A-12 and numerous stealth aircrafts like Bird of Prey, F-117A, and TACIT BLUE have all been developed and tested in the Nevada desert. More declassified documents reveal Area 51's role in "Project Have Doughnut," a 1970s attempt to study covertly obtained Soviet MiGs.
"They flew them [over Area 51]..and pitted our own fighters against them to develop tactics," says Merlin, "They learned that you can't out-turn it, but you can outrun it. And it's still going on today.... Now, instead of seeing MiG-17s and 21s, there's MiG-29s and SU-27s."
The flights are ongoing. In September 2017, an Air Force Lt. Col. was killed under mysterious circumstances when his plane crashed in Nevada and the Pentagon would not immediately ID the aircraft. It seems he was most likely flying a foreign jet obtained by the United States.
Even so, the alien conspiracies gained ground in 1989 when Bob Lazar claimed in an interview on Las Vegas local news that he'd seen aliens and had helped to reverse-engineer alien spacecrafts while working at the base. Many have disregarded this as fiction and are even offended at the notion, including Merlin, who has spent years talking with former Area 51 engineers and employees angered by all the fuss about E.T.
"Some are even mad because they worked on these things and built these amazing planes," Merlin says. "This is Earth technology. You got folks claiming it's extraterrestrial when it's really good old American know-how."
The Truth Is Out There
Today, Area 51 is still very much in use. According to Google Earth, new construction and expansions are continuously happening. On most early mornings, eagle-eyed visitors can spot strange lights in the sky moving up and down. No, it's not a UFO. It's actually the semi-secret contract commuter airline using the call-sign "Janet" that transports workers from Las Vegas's McCarran Airport to the base.
As for what's happening these days in America's most secretive military base, few know for sure. Merlin has some educated guesses, including improved stealth technology, advanced weapons, electronic warfare systems and, in particular, unmanned aerial vehicles. Chris Pocock, noted U-2 historian and author of several books about the matter, told Popular Mechanics he thinks classified aircraft, more exotic forms of radio communication, directed energy weapons, and lasers are currently under development at the base.
While the lore around Area 51 may be nothing more than imaginative fiction, that won't stop people from gawking just beyond those chain link fences. "At the most basic level, anytime you have something secret or forbidden, it's human nature," says Merlin. "You want to find out what it is."
How to Explore Area 51
Fact or fiction, aliens are a big tourism draw. In 1996, the state of Nevada renamed Route 375 as the "Extraterrestrial Highway," and destinations such as the Alien Research Center and the Little A'Le'Inn (in the town of Rachel with a population around 54) dot the road.
To Area 51's west, there's the Alien Cathouse which is advertised as the only alien-themed brothel in the world. Geocaching also attracts visitors here since the highway is considered a "mega-trial" with over 2,000 geocaches hidden in the area.
Then there's the actual base. While getting inside is not in the cards for most, curious civilians can actually drive up to front and back gates. Locals will direct you, and the website Dreamland Resort is a great resource full of maps, driving directions, and first-hand accounts.
However, one should be careful when planning a trek to Area 51. It's the desert, after all, so bring plenty of water, snacks, and have proper weather gear—for the hot days and the cold nights. Phone service and GPS probably won't work, so have printouts and actual maps. Gas stations are few and far in between, so carry spare fuel and tires.
Also, remember the government doesn't really want you peering into Area 51. Both Merlin and Pocock confirmed that they have been closely observed or even intimidated by guards and security (including an F-16 fly-by). Do not trespass under any circumstances or arrests and heavy fines await you.
This story was originally published on September 14, 2017.
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