Area 51 seen from Tikaboo Peak. Wikimedia / Public Domain.

Area 51 is a mysterious Nevada test site that has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories. The U.S. government’s desire for tight security at Area 51 has led to speculation about captured aliens and flying saucers. However, declassified documents reveal a different story.

Area 51 has been known by a variety of nicknames over the years. It is most commonly referred to as “Area 51,” a name derived from its designation on Nevada Test Site maps. However, it is also known as “Groom Lake,” named after the salt flat situated next to its airfield. Another nickname is “Dreamland,” which is believed to have originated from an Edgar Allan Poe poem and was used as a radio call sign for the area. The site has also been referred to as “Paradise Ranch,” a name given to make the facility sound more attractive to those who would be working there. It is officially known as “Homey Airport” and “KXTA” in aviation circles. Each of these names further contributes to the intrigue and mystery surrounding this highly classified site.

Tight Security

Recently released papers, which date mostly from the early 1960s into the 1970s, spotlight the U.S. government’s need for tight security at Area 51

An April 1962 document sourced to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) outlines the rationale for photographing Area 51 by either a high-flying U-2 spy plane or a then-classified CORONA reconnaissance satellite. The idea was viewed as a means of seeing what the Soviet Union might learn from its own satellite images of the facility. This would provide “a pretty fair idea of what deductions and conclusions could be made by the Soviets should Sputnik 13 have a reconnaissance capability,” explains the memorandum.

The documents also detail the debate over the possible release of a photograph “inadvertently” taken of the secret facility by NASA astronauts aboard the Skylab space station in 1974.

A satellite image taken in 2022 captured by Sentinel-2 of ESA showing the base with Groom Lake just to the north-northeast. Attribution: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2022

Stealthy Work

More than 60 declassified documents in an Area 51 file were posted on the Internet by the National Security Archive. A number of documents focus on the quest to develop stealth capability in aircraft. Others report on another type of activity at Area 51 — the exploitation of covertly acquired Soviet MiG fighter jets. American engineers assessed the design, performance, and limitations of MiGs in an attempt to learn their vulnerabilities — knowledge that could come in handy during combat situations.

Area 51 was a secret testing site for the Central Intelligence Agency’s highly classified U-2 and A-12 OXCART reconnaissance aircraft programs, as well as a training site for the pilots. The CIA, U.S. Air Force, and defense contractor Lockheed Martin worked together at Area 51. For security purposes, primary access to Area 51 was by aircraft. A daily air shuttle transported personnel and cargo between Area 51 and Burbank, California. The site was chosen because it was a remote area where the U-2 could be tested safely and secretly.

A 1966 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) diagram of Area 51, found in an untitled, declassified paper, showing the runway overrun for OXCART (Lockheed A-12) and the turnaround areas (CIA / CREST RDP90b00184r000100040001-4)

.U-2 and A-12 OXCART Programs

On August 1, 1955, during a high-speed-taxi test in the first U-2, Lockheed’s chief test pilot, Tony LeVier, inadvertently became airborne at the Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake. This test would later be considered the first unofficial flight of the U-2.

When U-2 spy planes first soared over Nevada in 1955, they flew higher than any other plane ever: 60,000 feet When people who lived nearby saw the sleek planes far above, glinting in the sun they had no idea what they were. And naturally, it became widely believed they were UFOs carrying aliens. It became a great cover. 

The A-12 OXCART was a highly classified project developed by the CIA as a successor to the U-2 spy plane. The goal was to create a fast, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that could evade Soviet air defenses. The contract for the OXCART was awarded to Lockheed, the builder of the U-2, in 1959. The A-12 was designed to meet extreme speed and altitude requirements, leading to numerous technical innovations in areas such as titanium fabrication, lubricants, jet engines, fuel, navigation, flight control, electronic countermeasures, radar stealthiness, and pilot life-support systems. Despite many technical and political challenges, the A-12 was declared fully operational in 1965, achieving a sustained speed of Mach 3.2 at 90,000 feet altitude. However, the A-12’s operational use was short-lived due to the development of imaging satellites and the SR-71, a modified version of the A-12. The A-12 was retired in 1968.

An A-12 (60-6924) takes off from Groom Lake during one of the first test flights, piloted by Louis Schalk, 26 April 1962. Central Intelligence Agency photo.

After the U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, the idea of using the A-12 OXCART as an unmanned drone was brought up in several discussions. Kelly Johnson, despite being a proponent of drone reconnaissance, was against the idea of converting the A-12 into a drone, arguing that the aircraft was too large and complex for such a transformation. Nevertheless, the Air Force decided to finance a study on a high-speed, high-altitude drone aircraft in October 1962. This decision seemed to prompt the CIA to initiate a project, which was given the designation “Q-12”. By October 1963, the design of the drone had been finalized. At the same time, the Q-12 was renamed the “D-21” to distinguish it from other projects based on the A-12 (the “12” was reversed to form “21”). The code name for the project was “Tagboard”.The D-21 was to be carried by a two-seat derivative of the A-12, designated the “M-21”

An M-21/D-21 combination sits on the runway. The aerodynamic shrouds over the D-21’s intake and exhaust (used on early flights) are visible. At the time this photo was taken this was still a very secret program. U.S. Air Fotce photo.

Recent Developments

Satellite imagery released to the public shows that Area 51 continues to undergo changes. A significant construction project has been observed, which is of high interest due to its physical size, peculiar location, and timing. This includes the building of a mysterious new hangar. The base has expanded over the years, with improvements not stopping since its founding.

It is believed that the U.S. military continues to use Area 51 to develop cutting-edge aircraft. About 1,500 people are believed to work there, many commuting on charter flights from Las Vegas. One of the reasons people can never be entirely sure about what is going on at Area 51 is that it is a highly classified secret military facility. Due to the classified nature of Area 51, the full extent of activities and developments at the site may not be publicly available or accurately reported. It has nothing to do with space aliens.

UFO/UAP drawing, authenticity unknown, attribution and date unspecified. One of hundreds of files resulting from U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1995 order to the CIA to declassify all documents with “historical value” that were at least 25 years old. Central Intelligence Agency.

There is still widespread public interest in Area 51. A Facebook® event titled “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” was created by a California resident named Matty Roberts on June 27, 2019. The event called for people to invade the top-secret military base at 3 a.m. on September 20, 2019. The event started as a joke, but it quickly gained traction and became a viral sensation. More than 2 million people responded “going” and 1.5 million “interested” on the event’s page. Despite the event’s popularity, only about 150 people were reported to have shown up at the entrances to Area 51 on the day of the event. Five people were arrested. No one succeeded in entering the site. Two music festivals, Alienstock in Rachel, Nevada, and Storm Area 51 Basecamp in Hiko, Nevada, were planned to coincide with the event. An estimated 1,500 people attended these festivals.

In Conclusion

While Area 51 has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories, declassified documents reveal that the site was used for the development and testing of spy planes and other military technology. Despite the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial activity, the secrecy surrounding Area 51 continues to fuel speculation and intrigue.


Central Intelligence Agency

National Security Archive

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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