National GeographicNat Geo Wild


By Patrick J. Kiger

A 2009 Los Angeles Times article once called Area 51 “the most famous military institution in the world that doesn’t officially exist.” Since the testing facility was founded in the 1950s on an abandoned World War II bombing and artillery range 80 miles north of Las Vegas, Area 51’s presence has been perhaps the worst-kept secret in the history of secrecy. The site does not appear on U.S. Geological Survey maps, and images of the area have been deleted from recent government-produced satellite imagery. The Air Force long has responded to civilian requests for information about Area 51 by denying that there was a facility by that name, though in this 1998 letter, the service did acknowledge the existence of an “operating location near Groom Dry Lake” that conducted classified activities.

Nevertheless, newspaper articles, such as this 1955 United Press account of the crash of a secret plane at Area 51, long have routinely reported the existence of the secret base. And over the years, slip-ups occasionally put officials in the awkward position of having to walk back or scrub the public record to remove confirmation of Area 51. This Space Review article reports, that in 1974, for example, astronauts on the Skylab orbital station innocently aimed their camera at Nevada and took pictures of the secret facility. (This CIA memo to then-agency director William Colby describes the resulting cover-up efforts.)

Such efforts at enforcing secrecy had limited success. This 1980 Cox News Service dispatch, apparently based upon information leaked by aerospace industry sources, describes the testing of B-2 stealth bomber at the site. Other holes have been poked in the shroud by amateur aircraft spotters who’ve hovered for years around Area 51’s perimeter, laboriously scrutinizing the sky with binoculars and picking up bits and pieces and gradually assembling the puzzle. This 2005 Las Vegas Sun article profiles Glenn Campbell, the leader of a ragtag group of spotters called the Interceptors, who included a builder of scale models of secret aircraft and a former traffic engineer fixated on gravity research (a long-rumored activity at the site).

Pictures taken by a Russian satellite and published on the Web in 2000, they confirmed what amateur aircraft spotters, conspiracy buffs and UFOologists had long assumed—thaat the site contained a complex of buildings, a gigantic hangar and a runway to enable testing of secret next-generation aircraft prototypes. From the Federation of American Scientists, here are the pictures, including some computer-enhanced versions, and a detailed analysis. FAS has even been able to track improvements made to Area 51, including a new 11,960-foot-long, 140-foot-wide runway that apparently was built in the 1990s to replace an older runway.

In addition to U.S. experimental aircraft, the Air Force apparently has tested captured enemy planes at Area 51 as well. This 1984 Associated Press article mentions a captured Soviet MiG-21 that crashed nearby in 1984, killing the Air Force general who was piloting it.

But whatever actually goes on inside Area 51, those real activities undoubtedly pale in comparison to the outlandish rumors. As this 1996 New York Times article notes, some UFOologists have suggested that the government may be testing captured extraterrestrial spacecraft inside the restricted site. The Internet rumor mill also maintains that wreckage and bodies of alien spacemen recovered from the alleged 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico were spirited away to Area 51 for analysis and reverse-engineering. In the late 1980s, a man who claimed to be a former Area 51 employee surfaced to claim that the military was developing an anti-matter-powered flying saucer there. (Here’s a TV news interview with him.)

The state of Nevada actually has given nearby state route 375 the official name of the Extraterrestrial Highway, a tongue-in-cheek inducement to the UFO-seeking tourists who pump dollars into the local economy. The “official” Area 51 website maintained by the Las Vegas Tourism Bureau, breathlessly notes rumors that Area 51 has been used “for the creation of exotic energy weapons, weather control experimentation and most interesting, time travel and teleportation technology.”