How Area 51 Works
Less than 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada is the most famous secret military installation on the planet. Rumors swirl around this base, much like the mysterious aircraft that twist and turn in the skies overhead. Although it's known by many names, most people call it by the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) designation: Area 51.
There are several theories about how Area 51 got its name. The most popular is that the facility borders the Nevada Test Site (NTS). The AEC used the NTS as testing grounds for nuclear bombs. The NTS is mapped as a grid of squares that are numbered from one to 30 (with a few omissions). Area 51, while not part of this grid, borders Area 15. Many say the site got the name Area 51 by transposing the 1 and 5 of its neighbor. Another popular theory is that the number 51 was chosen because it was not likely to be used as part of the NTS system in the future (in case the NTS expanded later on).
The first documented use of the name Area 51 comes from a film made by the company Lockheed Martin. There are also declassified documents from the 1960s and 1970s that refer to a facility called Area 51. Today, officials refer to the facility as an operating location near Groom Lake when speaking to the public -- all official names for the site appear to be classified.
The name alone inspires thoughts of government conspiracies, secret "black" aircraft and alientechnologies. Facts, myths and legends weave together in such a way that it can become difficult to separate reality from fiction. What exactly goes on in this installation? Why did the government alternatively acknowledge and deny its existence until the 1990s? Why is the airspace over it so restricted that even military aircraft are forbidden from flying through it? And, what does it have to do with Roswell, New Mexico?
Each question seems to have a million different answers. Some answers are plausible, while others stretch credulity so far that if someone said it out loud, you might feel the urge to back away from them slowly. In this article, we'll look at the facts as far as anyone outside of the facility can determine them and examine the more popular theories about Area 51.
Where is Area 51?
Area 51's coordinates are 37°14'36.52"N, 115°48'41.16"W. You can get a great view of it usingGoogle Earth. Just type "Area 51" into the "Fly To" field and the map does the rest. For decades, the base remained hidden from almost everyone, but in 1988 a Sovietsatellite photographed the base. Several publications acquired the photos and published them. The secrecy of the base is still of paramount importance, but as far as satellite coverage is concerned, the cat is out of the bag.
A dry lake bed called Groom Lake borders the base. To the west is the NTS. The closest town is Rachel, Nevada, which is 25 miles north of the base. The base itself occupies only a fraction of the more than 90,000 acres it sits on. It consists of a hangar, a guard shack, a few radar antennas, some housing facilities, a mess hall, offices, runways and shelters. The shelters are "scoot and hide" buildings, designed so aircraft can quickly move under cover when satellites pass overhead. Some allege that what you can see on the surface is only a tiny part of the actual facility. They believe that the surface buildings rest on top of a labyrinthine underground base. A few claim the underground facility has up to 40 levels and that it is attached via underground railways to other sites in Los Alamos, White Sands and Los Angeles. Skeptics are quick to point out that such a massive construction project would require an enormous labor force, the removal of tons of earth that would have to go somewhere and the need for a huge amount of concrete and other construction material. The lack of evidence convinces skeptics that, for the most part, what you see is what you get. Believers, on the other hand, dismiss the skeptics' doubts.
So what goes on at this base? According to the Air Force, the facility's purpose is for "the testing of technologies and systems training for operations critical to the effectiveness of U.S. military forces and the security of the United States." All specifics regarding the facility and the projects housed there are classified. What is known is the Air Force, the CIA and Lockheed have used the base as a staging ground for test flights of experimental, secret aircraft, also known as black aircraft. The base served as the development and testing facility for cutting edge aircraft technology from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117AStealth Fighter.In the next section, we'll look at the known security measures at Area 51.
Area 51 Security and Secrecy
Area 51 Security and Secrecy
To say access to the base is limited is an understatement. The base and its activities are highly classified. The remote location helps keep the activities figuratively under the radar, as does the proximity to the NTS. After several land seizures, the base is surrounded by thousands of acres of empty desert landscape. The Air Force has withdrawn lands from public use to help keep the base hidden from snooping eyes. For many years, observers could hike to elevated vantage points like White Sides Peak or Freedom Ridge, but the Air Force seized those lands as well. Today, the only way you'll catch a glimpse of the base in person (assuming you aren't working there) is to take the strenuous hike to the top of Tikaboo Peak, which is 26 miles from the facility.
For many years, mapmakers wouldn't include the facility on any maps. It fell within the borders of Nellis Air Force Range, but the road leading to the facility was never shown. Today, the location of the base is general knowledge, but for many years officials went to great lengths to obscure its location.
Everyone who works at Area 51, whether military or civilian, must sign an oath agreeing to keep everything a secret. Buildings at the site lack windows, preventing people from seeing anything not related to their own duties at the base. By some reports, different teams would work on similar projects at the same time, but their supervisors would keep each team ignorant of the other team's project. When testing a secret aircraft, officials ordered all uninvolved employees to stay inside until the test flight was over and the aircraft returned to its hangar.
Getting to Area 51
Getting to Area 51
Most commuters to Area 51 travel on unmarked Boeing 737s or 727s. Planes depart from the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas(located right across the street from the Luxor Hotel and Casino). Defense contractor EG&G owns the terminal. Each plane uses the word "Janet" followed by three digits as a call sign to the airport'scontrol tower.
The airspace above Area 51 is known as R-4808 and is restricted to all commercial and military flights not originating from the base itself (except the Janet commuters, of course). Area 51 is believed to be part of either Edwards Air Force Base in California or the Nellis Air Force Range in Nevada, even though pilots from those bases are forbidden to fly in Area 51's airspace. In fact, pilots who fly into one of the buffer zones surrounding R-4808 reportedly face punishment from their commanders, though it's reported as fairly lenient. Whenever a pilot flies through a buffer zone, the training exercise immediately ends and the pilot is ordered back to base. Knowingly flying into R-4808 is a much more serious offense, and pilots can face a court martial, dishonorable discharge and time in prison as a result.
The military classifies Area 51 as a Military Operating Area (MOA). The borders of Area 51 are not fenced, but are marked with orange poles and warning signs. The signs tell you that photography isn't allowed and that trespassing on the property will result in a fine. The signs also offer this sobering note: Security is authorized to use deadly force on people who insist on trespassing. Rumors circulate amongconspiracy theorists over how many unfortunate truth seekers have died as a result of tromping around the grounds of Area 51, though most believe that trespassers are dealt with in a much less violent manner.
Pairs of men who don't appear to be in the military patrol the perimeter. These guards are likely civilians hired from firms like Wackenhut or EG&G. Observers call them "cammo (sic) dudes," because they often wear desert camouflage. The cammo dudes usually drive around in four-wheel-drive vehicles, keeping an eye on anyone near the borders of Area 51. Supposedly, their instructions are to avoid contact with intruders, if possible, and act merely as both an observer and deterrent. If someone seems suspicious, the cammo dudes will call in the local sheriff to deal with him. Once in a while, the cammo dudes have confronted trespassers, allegedly seizing any film or other recording devices and intimidating the trespassers. Sometimes, helicopters provide additional support. There are rumors that the helicopter pilots occasionally use illegal tactics like hovering very low over trespassers to harass them.
Other security measures include sensors planted around the perimeter of the base. These sensors detect movement, and some believe they can even discern the difference between an animal and a human being. Since Area 51 is effectively a wildlife preserve, it was important to create warning devices that could not easily be tripped by a passing animal. One theory held by observers is that the sensors can detect the scent of the passing creature (the sensors detect an ammonia signature). While that has yet to be substantiated, it's certain that there are buried sensors all around Area 51. One Rachel resident named Chuck Clark discovered several of the sensors, and at one point the Air Force accused him of interfering with signal devices and ordered him to either return a missing sensor or pay a fine -- Clark reportedly complied.
In the next section, we'll look at why all the secrecy and security measures are necessary as we examine some of the aircraft tested at Area 51.