Area 51

Updated: March 31, 2020
In this Article

    Area 51 Depending on which source you trust, the history and reputation of the infamous Area 51 in Reno, Nevada involves either the presence of experimental aircraft, or alien technology.

    Since the 1950s, there have been many reports of SOMETHING seen in the skies in and around the area locals call Groom Lake, or its more official name, the Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake.

    The Defense Department purchased the land in 1955, although some of the land had been used by the military as Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field on the site in 1942.

    What’s hiding at Groom Lake, also known as Area 51? Aliens? Stealth fighters? GPS research and design? Time Magazine reports that until 2013, there was no official admission that the facility existed–at least not until it had to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Jeffrey Richelson in 2005.

    That FOIA request sought information on what Time reports as “the CIA’s Lockheed U-2 plane reconnaissance program” and what is reported as a “heavily redacted” response including mention of the spy plane R&D program happening at Groom Lake.

    Origin Of The Name “Area 51”

    Area 51 is an official designation of the site as found on maps published by the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

    What Is Area 51?

    In the press, Area 51 is referred to as a “top secret Air Force installation.” The area is a restricted access zone, with the use of deadly force authorized. Many classified research projects have been carried out there with the previously mentioned U2 spy plane, but also the Lockheed A-12 reconnaissance plane and tests on captured Soviet military aircraft.

    Some conspiracy-minded people want to read special significance into those signs warning people of deadly force, but the reality is that many military installations have such warnings posted. Flightline operations, “elephant cage” type arrays used in intelligence gathering or air traffic control operations may have similar authorized uses of deadly force.

    Area 51: The Airfield

    Some sources including Time Magazine report that Area 51 contains an airfield not used since World War Two. These same reports also include mention of the types of secret testing done at the base on spy plane platforms, Stealth fighter technology, and other exotic-sounding missions.

    This work seems to be ongoing at Groom Lake–reports of unusual flight operations will likely persist for the duration of the facility’s existence. The F-117 Stealth alone is exotic-looking enough to fool the unsuspecting, let alone more modern developments that may be in the works at the facility.

    How The Mystique Of Area 51 Began

    The story of how Area 51 became a go-to destination for UFO followers is linked to another very famous UFO story. The Roswell, New Mexico incident featuring reports of a crashed alien spacecraft. This incident happened in New Mexico, not Nevada, but many view the Roswell story as the beginnings of the American fascination with strange lights in the sky.

    In 1947, an object plummeted to Earth. Roswell Army Air Field issued a statement claiming the object was a weather balloon. But not long after, The United States Air Force began investigating unidentified flying objects. Project Blue Book ran from 1947 to 1969, and even inspired a television series of the same name in the 1970s and again in 2019.

    The 1978 Project Blue Book ran for two seasons and is said to have used actual Air Force case files as source material for the plots. The other Project Blue Book TV show debuted in 2019 and stars Aidan Gillen.

    The fascination with UFOs was not a regional one–the entire country caught UFO fever from the time of the Roswell crash; Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada would soon become an area of interest, and by the time aircraft testing was getting noticed at Groom Lake, interest in aliens was at an all-time high.

    The American public has experienced several periods of elevated interest in UFOs and Groom Lake activities, one of the most recent of these in 2019 (see below).

    The Military Doesn’t Talk About Its Secret Work

    The military does not generally discuss its research and design work with the public, but such tight-lipped attitude should not, in context, be read to mean anything more than what it is.

    What is that approach? Often just a simple refusal to (in the minds of some) waste time trying to explain all the nuances of test aircraft operations to a public that seems to want the more sensational talk of aliens and UFOs rather than mundane research and design work.

    The military also does not talk openly about its work in cyberwarfare, developing intelligence assets abroad, or how it monitors air traffic communication in other parts of the world where its own operations are running. Silence about Area 51 seems ominous until you recognize this as a general pattern across other DoD operations, not just Groom Lake.

    None of these things are associated with extraterrestrials, but it’s easy to see a similar level of secrecy involved–the military simply doesn’t like to talk publicly about its behind-the-scenes work unless it is deemed necessary to do so by law or other means.

    Keeping Secrets, Creating Mystery

    The more the U.S. military refuses to discuss its work at Groom Lake, the more people want to know what’s “really going on,” regardless of how mundane (or not) the reality of those missions may be. That curiosity may have reached a peak in 2019 with a surge of social media interest in Area 51.

    The global cybersecurity website reports that as much as 12% of “all meme search requests” were related to Groom Lake. Some of the most used search terms in this context included: “area 51 coordinates”, “area 51 ufo”, “storm area 51”, and “area 51 raid sign up”.

    Of those search terms, it’s the last one that drew the ire of DoD officials.

    The 2019 Storm Area 51 Controversy

    KNTV Las Vegas reports that in June 2019, a Facebook event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” went viral, bringing the creators of the event a conversation with the FBI according to the event creator’s Facebook page.

    “Storm Area 51” became a social media sensation with reports of as many as 400,000 internet users promising to converge at the event to, presumably, force their way into the restricted area at Groom Lake.

    Soon there were not one, but TWO Area 51 festivals scheduled, and public fascination with UFOs and top secret testing areas in Nevada seemed to be at an all-time high.

    Storm Area 51 evolved into the Storm Area 51 Basecamp Experience, and the second festival was dubbed Alien Stock. At one point, talk of running into the restricted access area seemed to dial back. Permitting troubles for Storm Area 51 may have helped event planners realize they had compliance issues to contend with.

    The entire viral meme may have started as a joke or a PR stunt to promote an Area 51-themed party, but Nevada authorities had no choice but to deal with the potential problems the meme suggested could have happened. USA Today reports, “The event started out as a joke. Then the RSVP list grew to 2 million.”

    In the end, “Storm Area 51” wound up being a music festival in Rachel, Nevada, which USA Today describes as the “closest habitation to the Nellis Air Force Range,” and Area 51.

    Camping At Area 51

    Published reports have quotes from at-the-time law enforcement officials discussing what can happen when people start hovering around Area 51.

    The land surrounding the facility is public. Visitors are free to approach the gate and the signs surrounding the base, but moving beyond the fence into the installation is not allowed. Violations of the perimeter are taken very seriously.

    Those who breach Area 51 security are liable to be detained, held for long periods of time (likely longer than any prankster or curiosity seeker is willing to submit to), and eventually released IF their conduct was deemed unworthy of further legal attention.

    There are plenty of off-site camping areas nearby, many with tourist-minded names. The Space Station RV Park and the Death Valley Inn and RV Park are just two you’ll find. There are also free camping sites in the area such as Big Dune Dispersed and Indian Springs Valley Dispersed.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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