Area 51 is a military base, and a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base. It is located in the southern portion of Nevada in the western United States, 83 miles (133 km) north-northwest of downtown Las Vegas. Situated at its center, on the southern shore of Groom Lake, is a large military airfield. The base's primary purpose is to support development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems.
The base lies within the United States Air Force's vast Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), formerly called the Nellis Air Force Range (NAFR). Although the facilities at the range are managed by the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, the Groom facility appears to be run as an adjunct of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, around 186 miles (300 km) southwest of Groom, and as such the base is known as Air Force Flight Test Center (Detachment 3).
Though the name Area 51 is used in official CIA documentation, other names used for the facility include Dreamland, Paradise Ranch, Home Base, Watertown Strip, Groom Lake, and most recently Homey Airport. The area is part of the Nellis Military Operations Area, and the restricted airspace around the field is referred to as (R-4808N), known by the military pilots in the area as "The Box" or "the Container".
The facility is not a conventional airbase, as frontline operational units are not normally deployed there. It instead appears to be used for highly classified military/defense Special Access Programs (SAP), which are unacknowledged publicly by the government, military personnel, and defense contractors. Its mission may be to support the development, testing, and training phases for new aircraft weapons systems or research projects.
Once these projects have been approved by the United States Air Force or other agencies such as the CIA, and are ready to be announced to the public, operations of the aircraft are then moved to a normal air force base. The intense secrecy surrounding the base, the very existence of which the U.S. government did not even acknowledge until 14 July 2003, has made it the frequent subject of conspiracy theories and a central component to unidentified flying object (UFO) folklore.
The designation "Area 51" is somewhat contentious, appearing on older maps of the NTS and not newer ones, but the same naming scheme is used for other parts of the Nevada Test Site.
The area is connected to the internal NTS road network, with paved roads leading both to Mercury to the Northwest and West to Yucca Flats. Leading northeast from the lake, Groom Lake Road (a wide, well-conditioned dirt road) runs through a pass in the Jumbled Hills. Groom Lake Road was formerly the track leading to mines in the Groom basin, but has been improved since their closure.
Its winding course takes it past a security checkpoint, but the restricted area around the base extends further east than this (visitors foolhardy enough to travel west on Groom Lake Road are usually observed first by guards located on the hills surrounding the pass, still several miles from the checkpoint). After leaving the restricted area (marked by numerous warning signs stating that "photography is prohibited" and that "use of deadly force is authorized") Groom Lake Road descends eastward to the floor of the Tikaboo Valley, passing the dirt-road entrances to several small ranches, before joining with State Highway 375 south of Rachel.
Soviet spy satellites obtained photographs of the Groom Lake area during the height of the Cold War, but these support only modest conclusions about the base. They depict a nondescript base, airstrip, hangars, etc., but nothing that supports some of the wilder claims about underground facilities. Later commercial satellite images show the base has grown, but remains superficially unexceptional.
Senior Trend / U-2 program
Groom Lake was used for bombing and artillery practice during World War II, but was then abandoned until 1955, when it was selected by Lockheed's skunkworks team as the ideal location to test the forthcoming U-2 spyplane. The lakebed made for an ideal strip to operate the troublesome test aircraft from, and the Emigrant Valley's mountain ranges and the NTS perimeter protected the secret plane from curious eyes.
Lockheed constructed a makeshift base at Groom, little more than a few shelters and workshops and a small constellation of trailerhomes to billet its small team in. The first U-2 flew at Groom in August of 1955, and U-2s under the control of the CIA began overflights of Soviet territory by mid-1956.
During this period, the NTS continued to perform series of atmospheric nuclear explosions. U-2 operations throughout 1957 were frequently disrupted by the Plumbbob series of atomic test, which exploded two dozen devices at the NTS. The Plumbbob-Hood explosion scattered fallout across Groom and forced its (temporary) evacuation.
As U-2's primary mission was to overfly the Soviet Union, it operated largely from airbases near the Soviet border, including Incirlik in Turkey and Peshawar in Pakistan.
Blackbird (OXCART / A-10 / A-11 / A-12 / SR-71) program
Even before U-2 development was complete, Lockheed began work on its successor, the CIA's OXCART project, a Mach-3 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft later known as the SR-71 Blackbird. The blackbird's flight characteristics and maintenance requirements forced a massive expansion of facilities and runways at Groom Lake. By the time the first A-12 Blackbird prototype flew at Groom in 1962, the main runway had been lengthened to 8500 ft (2600 m) and the base boasted a complement of over 1000 personnel. It had fueling tanks, a control tower, and a baseball diamond. Security was also greatly enhanced, the small civilian mine in the Groom basin was closed, and the area surrounding the valley was made an exclusive military preserve (where interlopers were subject to "lethal force"). Groom saw the first flight of all major Blackbird variants: A-10, A-11, A-12, RS-71 (renamed SR-71 by USAF Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay and not by a presidential error as popularly believed), the abortive YF-12A strike-fighter variant, and the disastrous D-21 Blackbird-based drone project.
Have Blue / F-117 program
The first Have Blue prototype stealth fighter (a smaller cousin of the F-117) first flew at Groom in late 1977. Testing of a series of ultra-secret prototypes continued there until mid-1981, when testing transitioned to the initial production of F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters. In addition to flight testing, Groom performed radar profiling, F-117 weapons testing, and was the location for training of the first group of frontline USAF F-117 pilots. Subsequently active-service F-117 operations (still highly classified) moved to the nearby Tonopah Test Range, and finally to Holloman Air Force Base.
Since the F-117 became operational in 1983, operations at Groom Lake have continued unabated. The base and its associated runway system have been expanded, and daily flights bringing civilian commuters from Las Vegas continue. Some commentators, after examining recent satellite photos of the base, estimate it to have a live-in complement of over 1000 people, with a similar number commuting from Las Vegas. In 1995 the federal government expanded the exclusionary area around the base to include nearby mountains that had hitherto afforded the only decent overlook of the base.
Rumored aircraft that have supposedly been tested at Groom include the D-21 Tagboard drone, a small stealthy VTOL troop-transport aircraft, a stealthy cruise missile, and the hypothetical Aurora hypersonic spyplane.
Area 51 Commuters
Defense contractor EG&G maintains a private terminal at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. A number of unmarked aircraft operate daily shuttle services from McCarran to sites operated by EG&G in the extensive federally-controlled lands in southern Nevada. These aircraft reportedly use JANET radio callsigns (e.g. "JANET 6"), said to be an acronym for "Joint Air Network for Employee Transportation" or, (perhaps as a joke) "Just Another Non-Existent Terminal". EG&G advertises in the Las Vegas press for experienced airline pilots, saying applicants must be eligible for government security clearance and that successful applicants can expect to always overnight at Las Vegas. These aircraft, painted white with a red trim, include Boeing 737s and several smaller executive jets. Their tail numbers are registered to several unexceptional civil aircraft leasing corporations. They are reported to shuttle to Groom, Tonopah Test Range, to other locations in the NAFR and NTS, and reportedly to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Observers counting departures and cars in the private EG&G parking lot at McCarran estimate several thousand people commute on JANET each day.
The Government's position on Area 51
The U.S. Government does not explicitly acknowledge the existence of the Groom Lake facility, nor does it deny it. Unlike much of the Nellis range, the area surrounding the lake is permanently off-limits both to civilian and normal military air traffic. The area is protected by radar stations, buried movement sensors, and uninvited guests are met by helicopters and armed guards. Should they accidentally stray into the exclusionary "box" surrounding Groom's airspace, even military pilots training in the NAFR are reportedly grilled extensively by military intelligence agents.
The base does not appear on public US government maps; the USGS topological map for the area only shows the long-disused Groom Mine, and the civil aviation chart for Nevada shows a large restricted area, but defines it as part of the Nellis restricted airspace. Similarly the National Atlas page showing federal lands in Nevada doesn't distinguish between the Groom block and other parts of the Nellis range. Although officially declassified, the original film taken by US Corona spy satellite in the 1960s have been altered prior to declassification; in answer to freedom of information queries, the government responds that these exposures (which map to Groom and the entire NAFR) appear to have been destroyed (Corona image). Terra satellite images (which were publicly available) were removed from webservers (including Microsoft's "Terraserver") in 2004 ( Terraserver image), and from the monochrome 1m resolution USGS datadump made publically available. NASA Landsat 7 images are still available (these are used in the NASA World Wind program and are displayed by Google Maps). In Non-US images, including high-resolution photographs from Russian satellites and the commercial IKONOS system are also easily available (and abound on the Internet).
In response to environmental and employee lawsuits (including a class-action lawsuit brought by employees of the base for toxic waste exposure), a Presidential Determination is issued annually, exempting the Air Force's Operating Location Near Groom Lake, Nevada from environmental disclosure laws (2002 determination, 2003 determination). This (albeit tacitly) constitutes the only formal recognition the US Government has ever given that Groom Lake is more than simply another part of the Nellis complex.Nevada's state government, recognising the folklore surrounding the base might afford the otherwise neglected area some tourism potential, officially renamed the section of Nevada Highway 375 near Rachel "The Extraterrestrial Highway", and posted fancifully-illustrated signs along its length.Interlopers discovered on (or, some say, near) the restricted area are generally detained by armed private security guards (reportedly employees of defence contractor EG&G) and are then handed over to the Lincoln County sheriff.
Modest fines (of around $600) seem to be the norm, although some visitors and journalists report receiving follow-up visits from FBI agents.Although federal property within the base is exempt from state and local taxes, facilities owned by private contractors are not. One researcher has reported that the base only declares a taxable value of $2 million to the Lincoln County tax assessor, who is unable to enter the area to perform an assessment. Some Lincoln County residents have complained that the base is an unfair burden on the county, providing few local jobs (as most employees appear to live in or near Las Vegas) an iniquitous burden of land-sequestration and law-enforcement costs.
UFO and conspiracy theories concerning Area 51
- meetings or joint undertakings with extra-terrestrials
- the development of exotic energy weapons (for SDI applications or otherwise) or means of weather control
- activities related to a supposed shadowy world government