When it comes to top secret military bases, none is more mysterious than Area 51. It’s where the US government tests state-of-the-art aircraft technology. Trespassing is strictly forbidden — camo-clad guards are authorized to shoot trespassers.
And although there have been sightings of UFOs at the base (and some people even claim to have been abducted), that’s not what it’s mostly known for.
What is Area 51?
The US government has kept the specifics of Area 51 a secret for decades. That secrecy has created a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and wild speculation about the base. Some people think the military is storing alien spacecraft there or even reverse-engineering them to learn about their technology. Others have claimed that the Roswell, New Mexico, incident of 1947 involving a crashed UFO was a cover up by the government for testing experimental aircraft with alien technology.
In 2013, the US government officially acknowledged the existence of Area 51, a remote detachment of Nellis Air Force Base built in 1955. It was originally chosen as a site to test the U-2 spy plane because it could reach higher altitudes than any other plane at the time. The government also selected the location because it was far away from civil aviation control and the press. The base has been known by a variety of names over the years, including Paradise Ranch, Watertown Strip, and Groom Lake.
A dusty road leads to the entrance of the base, which is guarded by a chain link fence with a boom gate and intimidating trespassing signs. Locals say that the military even knows when a desert tortoise or jackrabbit hops over the fence. The sign at the entrance tells visitors that photographs are not allowed and that trespassing is punishable by fine.
Many of the conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51 center on its role in developing espionage technologies, including U-2 flights and other overhead surveillance aircraft. According to Annie Jacobsen, author of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, the base has been a lab for the CIA and other agencies to develop secret projects, including planes that travel three times the speed of sound. In her book, she interviewed 74 individuals who had rare firsthand knowledge of the base. Some worked there, while others lived nearby. One of the keys to a successful career at the base is having a clean criminal record and having security clearance. If you can manage that, living in the Las Vegas area doesn’t hurt your chances of landing a job there.
What is the History of Area 51?
เอเรีย 51 is a military base with runways stretching up to 12,000 feet, nestled in the Nevada mountains near the towns of Rachel and Hiko. It’s part of a wider complex of restricted military areas, including the Nevada Test and Training Range, where nuclear weapons tests took place from the 1950s to the 1990s, and Groom Lake Airport. The base is accessible only via private planes with permission from the government, and people are kept away by armed guards, electronic surveillance and warning signs.
Despite all that secrecy, the location is still known around the world as a site for conspiracy theories about aliens and UFOs. There are many theories about what goes on inside the base, ranging from communicating with aliens for some sinister reason to simply testing and storing new technologies. Some of those technologies include improved stealth technology, advanced weapons systems and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The official story is that the US government hasn’t actually acknowledged the existence of the facility until 2013; it had previously been referred to only by its map designation, and later as Paradise Ranch, an attempt by aerospace company Lockheed to attract employees to the project. That year, the National Security Archive at George Washington University obtained a heavily redacted CIA document through a Freedom of Information Act request that revealed details about the base’s history. It confirmed that the remote site was chosen in 1955 to test the U-2 spy plane, which could fly much higher than other aircraft at the time. Local UFO sightings matched up closely with the dates of these flights.
Since then, the mysterious nature of the base has made it a popular subject for movies and TV shows. Most famously, it was the setting of the 1998 season-six episode “Dreamland” of “The X-Files,” in which Mulder and Scully witnessed the flight of a mysterious craft at the base. In more recent years, the facility has also been featured in an episode of “Agents of Shield” and as a location for one of Netflix’s first original films, “Bloody Sunday.” It even appears on the cover of an album by the band White Stripes.
What is the Future of Area 51?
Although Area 51 has long been a focus of conspiracy theories about aliens and UFO sightings, the US military maintains that it is just a flight testing facility. The area is surrounded by other restricted military areas, and trespassers are subject to arrest. There are also warning signs and electronic surveillance. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for curious people to see what goes on inside the base, as satellite images have been uncensored and the facility is visible from highways in the area.
During the Cold War, the Groom Lake site became famous for being home to technicians trying to reverse-engineer technologies from countries other than the United States. Among the most intriguing of these projects was the CIA’s Oxcart, a plane that could travel three times faster than sound at 90,000 feet and spy on the Soviet Union and Cuba. During its time at Groom Lake, the Oxcart was flown by pilots who were defectors from the Soviet Union and Iran, giving the Americans a firsthand look at what other countries had in their arsenal.
More recently, the Groom Lake facility has been home to early work on drone aircraft. The facility has also served as a test site for new nuclear weapons. It is also the location of the Dreamland Air Force Base, which is currently used by the Nevada Test and Training Range to conduct aircraft and weapons testing.
The government has been careful not to let too many details of its activities at Area 51 spill out into the public, and it has done a good job of keeping the general population away from the facility. The area is patrolled by armed guards, and it’s illegal to fly any aircraft over the runways at the base.
Those who want to visit the base can take a bus from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas or fly in on one of several private planes that are allowed to fly in and out of the restricted airspace over Groom Lake (airspace R-4808N). People can also visit the nearby town of Rachel, which has become a tourist destination.
What are the Aircraft Tested at Area 51?
Since the 1950s, locals and visitors to Area 51 have spotted top-secret military aircraft that use never-before-seen technology. These aircraft are seen at high speeds and perform unusual aerial maneuvers. These sightings have led to countless conspiracy theories about alien spacecraft and extraterrestrial pilots at the mysterious site. But the truth is that what people were spotting was not alien spacecraft, but prototypes of new spy planes that the government is working on at Area 51.
Those prototypes are often tested at higher altitudes than regular commercial or private aircraft, and they may also fly over remote areas where no other planes are present. This makes the planes difficult to detect from the ground, but satellites and other intelligence systems are able to pick them up. It is not uncommon for the government to test new spy planes at secret locations, including Area 51.
To work at a facility as classified as Area 51, you must be a US citizen with a high-level security clearance and extensive background checks. The facility is a national laboratory and government scientific research center, so it handles highly-classified — even Top Secret — information. The Air Force is responsible for a large portion of the work at Groom Lake, and it takes special care to secure the facilities.
Before Groom Lake became Area 51, Lockheed engineers needed a place to assemble and test their new U-2 spy plane. They picked Groom Lake because it was remote, unassuming, and had an airstrip. The plane was designed to fly undetected at supersonic speeds over the Soviet Union, and the remote location would allow it to avoid detection by the KGB and other intelligence agencies.
In addition to the U-2, Groom Lake is known as the home of the stealth F-117 Nighthawk. The National Security Archive at George Washington University obtained through a FOIA request a heavily-redacted CIA document that chronicled the development of the U-2 and other spies in the early Cold War era. That document and subsequent ones have provided details about the testing of aircraft at Groom Lake, including accident reports (Document 15, Document 16, and Document 17).
The infamous Area 51 has become the subject of many popular movies and video games, as well as in numerous conspiracy theories. But the truth is that the mysterious site does exist, and there are plenty of opportunities to work with classified military technology at a facility that is not only a lab but an active military base.