What do we really know about the top-secret United States Air Force facility located on the edge of Groom Lake in Lincoln County, Nevada—popularly known as Area 51? Until recently, the answer to that question was: Not much.
Although there has been a runway on the dry salt flats of Groom Lake since at least 1942, and the CIA established a test facility for experimental aircraft there in 1955, no official details of its operations were declassified and released to the public until 2013. At that time, the CIA released an official history of several of the projects undertaken at the Groom Lake facility, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by George Washington University’s National Security Archive.
Prior to 2013, however, the secrecy surrounding the base led to innumerable conspiracy theories, with the most common being variations on the idea that Area 51 was a secret location where the government stored downed alien spacecraft—and, in some iterations, alien corpses—recovered from nearby Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. In recent decades, this story of alien craft at Area 51 has appeared in such high-profile films as Independence Day, while in 2019 some two million people responded “Going” to a jokey Facebook event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us.” Only 150 or so are reported to have actually arrived at the gates to the facility on the designated day.
Why Area 51?
What is it about the so-called Area 51 that has drawn so much attention from the conspiratorially-minded? In no small part, it can probably be laid at the feet of the facility’s own high security and veil of secrecy. Because the airstrip at Groom Lake was used for testing experimental aircraft, the operations there had to remain top secret. There is a no-fly zone above the spot to this day, while signs posted at the edges of the area prohibit photography and warn that “use of deadly force is authorized.”
Then there’s the base’s location. When the CIA first acquired the land, it was described as being “in the middle of nowhere.” This helped the facility gain one of its many nicknames, as Kelly Johnson, the designer of the Lockheed U-2, one of the experimental aircraft tested there, called it “Paradise Ranch” in an attempt to sway workers to move to the remote facility. The name stuck, and was eventually shortened to simply “the Ranch.”
While “the Ranch” may have been in the middle of nowhere, it wasn’t in a spot that was chosen at random. Though the salt flats of Groom Lake, which Johnson described as “smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it,” were the reason for the airfield’s location, the area itself shared a border with the site of another highly secretive government operation. Along the western edge of Area 51 is the Nevada Test Site, where some 928 nuclear tests were conducted between 1945 and 1992, involving more than a thousand detonations.
Finally, the aircraft being tested at Groom Lake probably added to the area’s reputation among ufologists. “The shape of OXCART was unprecedented, with its wide, disk-like fuselage designed to carry vast quantities of fuel,” states a report published by the New York Post, describing the code name of one of the planes tested at Groom Lake, the Lockheed A-12. “Commercial pilots cruising over Nevada at dusk would look up and see the bottom of OXCART whiz by at 2,000-plus mph. The aircraft’s titanium body, moving as fast as a bullet, would reflect the sun’s rays in a way that could make anyone think, UFO.”
So what really went on at Area 51?
As an active facility for more than six decades, the answer is: A lot of things. What we now know, thanks to those documents declassified as part of that aforementioned Freedom of Information Act request, is that Area 51 was home to several now-familiar aircraft that were top-secret at the time, including the Lockheed A-12, the earlier Lockheed U-2, and the later Nighthawk F-117, the first operational aircraft designed using stealth technology.
In addition to these and other experimental aircraft, the base at Groom Lake really was home to technicians trying to reverse-engineer technologies from places other than the United States. These technologies just didn’t quite come from as far away as outer space. Instead, technicians at Area 51 were busily trying to reverse-engineer Soviet MiG fighter jets beginning in the 1960s and lasting throughout the Cold War. Early work on drone aircraft also appears to have been carried out at the Groom Lake facility.
What is Area 51 like today?
Though numerous documents were declassified and released to the public by the CIA, the region known as Area 51 remains a United States Air Force facility under heavy security protocols to this day. Indeed, in 2017, a crash at the site resulted in the death of a USAF pilot, though few further details were revealed, while in 2019, the same year as the Storm Area 51 Facebook event, an unidentified man drove through a security checkpoint headed for the base and was eventually shot to death by security officers and Lincoln County sheriff’s deputies.
When the CIA first acquired the land in 1955, the spot that would become known as Area 51 only covered a rectangular area of about six by 10 miles. Today, the restricted airspace above the base is some 23 by 25 miles across, while the exclusionary area on the ground has expanded to consume much of the surrounding landscape, including land formerly administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Keeping the curious out of such a large area could prove challenging, but the facility at Groom Lake is amply protected, including guards who patrol the perimeter in white pickup trucks and camouflage fatigues, known as “cammo dudes” among UFO enthusiasts who sometimes haunt the edges of the region. Aside from the guards, the base is protected by motion sensors and surveillance cameras, including ones placed beyond the borders of the base itself, to warn guards of approaching intruders, while the roads leading to and from Area 51 are monitored with security checkpoints.
So, while there’s no real way to know what’s happening at Area 51 today, we have a pretty good idea of what has taken place there over the past half-century, including a variety of experimental aircraft tests that helped to give the base its reputation among ufologists and conspiracy theorists. Who knows what the next Freedom of Information Act request will reveal?