The Mysterious History Of Area 51, From U-2s To UFOs

Published August 25, 2019
Updated August 26, 2019
Published August 25, 2019
Updated August 26, 2019

Some are convinced the government uses Area 51 to dissect aliens and study flying saucers. In truth, the classified site has been used to build spy planes — and dump toxic waste.

Area 51 Warning Sign

Creative CommonsThis warning sign bordering Area 51 states that “photography is prohibited” and that “use of deadly force is authorized.”

Most mornings, between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m., a plane takes off from a private terminal at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport. The plane doesn’t have a corporate logo on its tail, and you won’t see its departure time listed on the airport’s flight status board. You can’t even buy a ticket for it.

After it takes off, it heads straight toward the Nevada Test Site, a nuclear weapons testing facility. Its ultimate destination: Homey Airport, or Groom Lake, just north of Area 51.

Area 51 is one of a series of top-secret, government-owned facilities in the remote Nevada desert. And it’s been the subject of public fascination — and loads of conspiracy theories — for decades.

The name “Area 51” has become a sort of shorthand for America’s paranoia of government-related secrecy. Beginning in the 1980s, the Area 51 site rose to prominence as the most (formerly) secret place in America.

The total secrecy surrounding the site – for a long time, the government denied it even existed – has made Area 51 a stand-in for every evil suspicion Americans have about their government. But most of all, it’s a place onto which Americans can project their wildest fantasies of alien invasions.

So what is it: A base for spy planes? An alien jail? Or something else?

The Beginnings Of Area 51

View Of Area 51 From Tikaboo Peak

Public DomainA view of Area 51 from Tikaboo Peak.

After the trauma of World War II, followed by various massive security breaches that put atomic secrets in the hands of Joseph Stalin, senior military leaders felt the need to keep the United States permanently mobilized and endlessly preparing for war.

And that preparation involved endless government secrets. Starting in the early 1950s, the U.S. government conducted secret human research on the effects of radiation, experimented with brainwashing techniques in a CIA project now known as MK Ultra, and plotted military coups all over the world, from Persia to Guatemala.

In this era of heightened paranoia and secrecy, in 1955, the Air Force reactivated the WWII Homey airfield at Nevada’s Groom Lake salt flat for secret projects they wanted to keep away from prying Russian eyes.

In a relatively short time, residential quarters were renovated and underground tanks were filled with jet fuel. Once a system was set up to ferry site workers from the sleepy oasis town of Las Vegas to Groom Lake by air, Area 51 was born.

The U.S. government has never acknowledged that a site by the name of Area 51 even existed until 2013, when it declassified a secret report. Since then, only a little sliver of the site’s history has come out. But what we do know about what was developed there is mind-blowing.

The First Secret Aircrafts Developed

A-12 Jet

Wikimedia CommonsA-12 jets like this one were built and tested at Area 51.

In 2014, journalist Annie Jacobsen spoke on the record with five men who worked at the top-secret site in the 1960s.

They worked on spy planes that could do what none had done before, starting with the U-2 jet and then the A-12. Gliding on thin little wings, the U-2 could reach altitudes of over 90,000 feet and carry tons of camera equipment on a straight line across half the Soviet Union.

These planes flew so high their pilots had to wear astronaut-style pressure suits, and the dark-black forms were all over the sky in every crisis of the early Cold War. They’re actually still in service, mostly doing high-altitude atmospheric research. It was a U-2 with sticky tape on its wings, for example, that picked up comet dust and tiny spiders at its maximum altitude.

The A-12 jet was a delta-wing, dual-ramjet vehicle with a long, thin fuselage made from titanium. The plane was designed to cruise at three times the speed of sound and engage with enemy planes hundreds of miles away.

In practice, it proved to be subpar as a fighter, so the government retooled it as another spy plane and called it the SR-71, which flew until the 1990s. Oddly, there wasn’t enough titanium in friendly countries to make the A-12 happen, so the CIA set up a shell company in India to buy the material from the Soviet Union. Every SR-71 in the world, therefore, is made from Russian metal.

Other types of aircraft got their start at Groom Lake, which was actively testing new designs until at least the late 1980s. The F-117A Stealth tactical bomber ran through its paces in the restricted air over Edwards, as did the B-2.

These planes almost always flew at night, their black skins melting into the dark sky. They usually flew without lights, though a faint greenish glow might sometimes have been visible using night-vision scopes. If this is starting to sound like what a UFO looks like, that might go a long way to explaining many of the UFO sightings in the area from 1960 to 1990.

Aliens And Area 51

Extraterrestrial Highway Road Sign

MyLoupe/UIG/Getty ImagesNevada Highway 375 is now officially called the Extraterrestrial Highway.

The real, state-sanctioned story about the secret base beyond the hills still doesn’t sit right with some people, so in the decades-long vacuum of information a variety of narratives have been imposed on Area 51.

In 1967, a heavily redacted memo about reconnaissance in North Vietnam was partly declassified. The document went on for several pages about drone missions not being able to get good photographs of missile sites in target areas.

These sections were all blacked out in the original document, but one little section on page 15 was irresistible: in the midst of a wall of blacked-out text, were the words: “[redacted] aircraft task force and the necessary personnel will be transferred from Area 51 [redacted].”

The redactions and the mysterious nature of this sentence created an aura of intrigue about the place. (It’s since been released almost completely un-redacted. The sentence is question merely referenced transporting A-12 jets from Area 51 to an air base in Japan.)

The more conspiracy-minded members of the public now had the location of their secret base.

The UFO Craze

Little ALeInn Road Sign

David Becker/Los Angeles Times/Getty ImagesThe Little A’Le’Inn of Rachel, Nevada was called the Rachel Bar and Grill until the early 1990s.

America’s fascination with aliens and UFOs dates at least as far back as Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast, “The War of the Worlds,” in which he tricked listeners into thinking the United States was under attack by alien invaders.

Almost a decade later, an object fell out of the sky and onto the ground near Roswell, New Mexico. It was a weather balloon the federal government planned to use to detect Soviet nuclear tests, but they didn’t want to reveal their plans to the Soviets. And so the local press — followed by the national press — concluded that it was a “flying saucer.” Decades later, people interviewed about the incident claimed they saw aliens come out of the spaceship.

From then on, aliens and UFOs stayed fresh in Americans’ minds. To this day, the Roswell incident sparks curiosity from some and fury from others, who maintain the government is keeping the real story secret. They’re adamant that it wasn’t a weather balloon and that aliens crashed onto a ranch in New Mexico in 1947.

Another factor shaking things up was that, starting in the 1970s, Congress started holding public hearings about all the hijinks the Deep State had been getting up to in the previous 20 years.

hen people heard about covert assassinations, mind-control experiments, radioactive gruel fed to retarded children for atomic bomb research, and so forth, the covered-up Area 51 started taking on all the trappings of a cultural black hole, into which citizens’ darkest concerns about power-mad generals and CIA super-technology could be poured.

But Area 51 wouldn’t really take hold of the public consciousness until 1989, when one “whistleblower” put it on the map.

Bob Lazar: The Ultimate UFO Truther

Bob Lazar During His 1989 Interview

YouTubeThis is the fuzzy, shadowy figure Las Vegas TV viewers saw in May 1989. He said he had been hired by the government to reverse-engineer alien spacecraft that had fallen to Earth.

On May 12, 1989, a Las Vegas TV news outlet interviewed an anonymous, shadowy-faced man who claimed to be a scientist at “S-4,” a secret government facility a few miles south of Area 51. The man, who identified himself as “Dennis,” told the news anchors that there were “nine flying saucers” of “extraterrestrial origin” at S-4 that scientists were working on reverse-engineering.

“Some of them are 100 percent intact and operate perfectly,” he said. “The other ones are being taken apart.”

He said he didn’t have “the slightest idea” where the flying discs came from, but that it was “totally impossible” they were made on Earth, citing their hyper-advanced propulsions systems and anti-matter reactors.

“This technology does not exist at all,” he said. In fact, he considered it a “crime against the scientific community” that the government had its hands on this technology without sharing it with researchers.

The interview caught fire and was broadcast in six different countries. As George Knapp, the investigative journalist who conducted the interview, said years later, the scoop “really put Area 51 on the map.”

In the intervening decades, the site gained immense notoriety. UFO enthusiasts flocked to it. To capitalize on the surge of tourists, the local watering hole in nearby Rachel, Nevada was renamed The Little A’Le’Inn. State Route 375, the closest highway to the secret site, was officially dubbed the Extraterrestrial Highway.

“Dennis” revealed himself soon after his initial TV interview. His real name was Bob Lazar, and he claimed to have master’s degrees from MIT and Caltech and to have worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory before his brief stint at S-4.

An interview with Area 51 truther Bob Lazar soon after he revealed his true identity.

There appeared to be no concrete evidence that Lazar attended those schools — investigators haven’t found him in any yearbook, and the schools’ administrators say they can’t find his name in their records — but Lazar contends that the government may have scrubbed his name from the books in order to discredit him.

Though Los Alamos officially denies he ever worked there, investigators have found a 1982 internal phone book containing a listing for “Robert Lazar,” and former employees have said they remember Lazar working there.

Parts of his story have actually panned out. Back in ’89, Lazar said that S-4 used a high-tech biometric scanner to identify employees by measuring the lengths of the bones in their hands. Recently, photos have come out of a similar scanner used in another secret government program. “I never thought I would see one of these again,” Lazar said in a 2018 documentary after seeing the photos for the first time.

And then a major bombshell dropped in 2017, when the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had been studying UFOs for years. It also released video of a UFO flying in a similar pattern to what Lazar described.

For the first time — in the Times, no less — high-ranking officials like former Sen. Harry Reid acknowledged that the government-funded UFO research, that it was interested in UFOs, and that it was studying how they flew. This funding didn’t happen while Lazar was supposedly at S-4, but to UFO truthers it was a crucial link.

Another piece of compelling evidence: For the past 30 years, Lazar has stuck to his story. He’s shied away from interviews since the late 80s, and in 2018 he said speaking out has changed his life for the worse, but nonetheless he hasn’t wavered. He still says he went to MIT and Caltech and he still says he saw alien ships near Area 51.

Area 51’s Actual Dark Secrets

Aerial View Of Groom Lake

An aerial view of Groom Lake, which is part of Area 51, and its surrounding area.

It’s possible the real secret of Area 51 is at once more pedestrian and more terrifying than crash-landed UFOs in sealed hangars.

In the years since the late 1940s, no place in the world has been as heavily nuked as southern Nevada. Literally hundreds of American and British nuclear bombs have been set off there, and in places, the dust in the air is both radioactive and toxic from heavy metals.

There’s even a suspicion that actor John Wayne’s fatal cancer may have been caused by the time he spent shooting a movie about Genghis Khan in Nevada. We don’t know how long the radioactive isotopes will linger in the soil of Area 51 and its surroundings, but some of them have half-lives measured in millennia.

But the vast pall of secrecy over Area 51 may hide a different kind of danger. If the government forbids the public from entering a place and forbids the press from asking questions, abuses are bound to happen.

According to attorney Jonathan Turley, who represented Area 51 workers in two lawsuits in the 1990s, “the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as ‘London fog’ by workers.”

They sued the government, and a court acknowledged that the burning of toxic waste amounted to a federal crime, but the government refused to divulge the name of the base and what substances it had burned. All it had to do was utter the magic words — “national security” — and the court couldn’t force it to answer any more questions.

From Mystery To Kitschy Americana

Customer With Area 51 T Shirts

David Becker/Los Angeles Times/Getty ImagesA costumer peruses Area 51-themed merchandise at a store aptly named Area 51 Alien Center in Amargosa Valley, Nevada.

There’s little doubt as to whether secret stuff still goes on there – those unmarked, unregistered Boeing 737s still fly from Las Vegas’s McCarren International Airport to Groom Lake and back again nearly every day – but the old days are definitely over for America’s Mordor.

Today, it’s almost impossible to drive through the region without alien bobbleheads and commemorative spoons spontaneously appearing in your luggage. Being kitschy and spooky is an industry for the nearby towns of Alamo and Rachel, Nevada, and frankly nobody in the place would like those tourist-drawing mysteries dispelled.

It would seem that America’s consumer culture ultimately triumphs over even advanced alien civilizations and the underground research centers we build to reverse-engineer them.


Enjoying reading about America’s darkest secrets? Make sure you read about Project Blue Book, when the U.S. government actually hunted for aliens. Then read up on Project Chariot, the government’s secret plan to nuke Alaska.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.