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April 15, 2005, by Bill Cawthon
In the Nevada desert near the dry lakebed called Groom Lake, about 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is one of the most mysterious pieces of land in the United States, if not the world. It has an address and ZIP Code that don't exist. It's served by a special airline whose planes have no markings. Now officially known as Detachment 3 of the Air Force Flight Test Center headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base in California, it's had a number of names, including Dreamland, Paradise Ranch, Watertown Strip and Area 51.
After Roswell, New Mexico, Area 51 is probably the place most closely associated with unidentified flying objects or UFOs. A persistent legend holds there is a flying saucer, and perhaps even its alien crew, stored at the base, said to be one of the most tightly-secured in the nation.
Whether or not the military has any little green men on ice, the Flight Test Center is most definitely real, operational and classified. In 2003, President Bush renewed an exemption, first granted by President Clinton in 1995, allowing the Air Force to refuse to release any information about the base, even about how it handles its trash.
While some may view all this secrecy as proof of extraterrestrial life, or some government security, it's a lot easier to explain by realizing this is the place where some of the military's most highly-classified projects are developed and based.
The origins of Area 51 can be traced to the need for a new method of espionage.
In the years following World War II the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was getting hot. The wartime Office of Strategic Services had been shut down, but there was now a new and urgent need for military intelligence. This led to the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, the legislation that created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council.
The CIA's initial purpose was to analyze information gathered by the military, FBI and other agencies. But the Agency soon got into the intelligence-gathering business and began running its own field operations. Legislation passed in 1949 classified not only the agency's activities, but even its budget. This was done so the government had "plausible deniability" in case CIA operations were compromised or exposed.
One of the most pressing intelligence needs was information about the Soviet buildup in Eastern Europe and the Communists' progress in developing nuclear weapons. Several methods of airborne surveillance were attempted, but none were successful.
The Air Force came up with a solution. John D. Seaberg, an aeronautical engineer at Chance-Vought, was recalled to active duty at the outbreak of the Korean War. Major Seaberg was assigned to aerial bombardment development office at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson AFB) in Ohio. In 1952, Seaberg realized it would be possible to match turbojet engines and airfoil design to create an aircraft with low wing-loading capable of flying at altitudes of 70,000 feet or more, well outside the range of Soviet planes and anti-aircraft weapons. Loaded with cameras, such a plane would be the perfect spy, hard to detect and nearly impossible to hit.
Seaberg took his concept to his boss, William E. Lamar, and development was approved. By March of 1953, the Air Force had settled on specifications for the new plane. Because he believed a smaller company would give the project a higher priority, Seaberg initially bypassed the big aircraft manufacturers and called in Bell, Fairchild and Glenn L. Martin. Bell and Fairchild were given contracts to develop the new jet and Martin was asked to see if the Martin RB-57 could be modified to meet the altitude requirements.
The three companies presented their studies in 1954, but Clarence (Kelly) Johnson, chief engineer at Lockheed, submitted an unsolicited proposal using an F-104 fuselage, larger wing and a GE J73 engine. Seaberg believed the new plane needed the more powerful Pratt & Whitney J57, which required a larger fuselage, and the Air Force turned down Johnson's proposal.
Johnson's plane was saved by a huge stroke of luck. During a study of potential surprise attacks, a Department of Defense committee chaired by James R. Killian learned of the Lockheed design and became convinced it would work. With the support of Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and CIA director Alan Foster Dulles, the design was presented to President Eisenhower, who approved it and put it under the control of the CIA.
Eight months later, the plane made its maiden flight. However, Seaberg was at least partially vindicated. The new plane did use the Pratt & Whitney engine he had wanted.
Normally, the new plane would have done its flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base, which is located about 90 miles north of Los Angeles on the western edge of the Mojave desert, but there was concern about security, so Kelly Johnson sent Tony LeVier, Lockheed's ace test pilot, to search for a new site.
Eventually, Groom Lake was chosen. The area had been used for target practice during World War II and had been sprayed by fallout from weapons tests at the nearby Atomic Energy Commission Proving Ground. The dangers of residual radiation, remote location and tight security already ensured most people stayed away, making expansion of the secured area easy.
By 1955, the CIA had a base for its new airplane. In the best CIA tradition, a dummy company was created to oversee construction of the mile-long runway, control tower and other buildings. At the time, the base was called Watertown Strip, in honor of Alan Foster Dulles' hometown of Watertown, New York, but Kelly Johnson, no doubt inspired by the bleak landscape, called it "Paradise Ranch."
The new aircraft project was called "Aquatone" by the CIA and "Angel" by Lockheed and the first prototype was dubbed "Article 341." Its actual first flight was on a cargo plane. Disassembled and concealed by tarps, it was flown from the Lockheed "Skunk Works" to Groom Lake, arriving on July 24, 1955.
The plane was assembled and Tony LeVier took it up on its maiden flight. The Aquatone had only two landing gear arranged bicycle-style. LeVier wanted to land with the rear wheel touching first, but Kelly Johnson insisted the touchdown be on the front wheel. After two unsuccessful front-wheel attempts, LeVier made a perfect rear-wheel-first landing. Legend says LeVier saluted Johnson with a single finger. Johnson returned the gesture and yelled, "You, too!" The story circulated among other pilots and that, supposedly, is how the plane became known as the U-2.
The U-2 flew its first operational mission on July 4, 1956 and continues flying today in a variety of roles. But by the time the first U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, a successor was already in development at the Skunk Works.
Called the "Archangel" by Lockheed and "Project Oxcart" by the government, the new plane required new construction at the CIA base. A longer runway was built and a small town with a movie theater and a bar was constructed for the support personnel who lived at the facility. At the same time, Watertown Strip got a new name, at least on government records: Area 51.
In 1962 the first prototype of the new plane, now called the A-12, arrived at Area 51. Airspace restrictions were expanded to a 600-mile diameter circle with Area 51 at the center. Flight crews from Nellis Air Force Base, located just northeast of Las Vegas, began referring to the site as "Dreamland," the call sign of Area 51's control tower.
The A-12 was originally conceived as an interceptor, but Lockheed developed a reconnaissance version. This plane, made of special materials and painted black, evolved into the SR-71 Blackbird, still the fastest jet aircraft ever built.
Area 51 was also where the early testing and development of the new generation of today's stealth aircraft took place, including the F-117, beginning in 1977. In addition, the facility is used for evaluation and testing of captured foreign aircraft, like the MIG-21, which may be why so many believe the UFO that supposedly crashed at Roswell is now at Groom Lake.
Today, Area 51 is still used for testing as well as military training and Red Flag war games. Work includes modern unmanned vehicles and other top-secret technologies and many believe there is also a new radically different type of aircraft, codenamed "Aurora" that is being flown out of Groom Lake.
The airfield also serves the "Janet" flights. The name comes from the radio call sign used by the aircraft which shuttle passengers from a secure terminal at Las Vegas' McCarran Airport. The planes, mostly white Boeing 737s with no markings other than a red stripe and registration number, and Beechcraft KA 1900s, are part of a fleet operated by EG&G, an engineering and support services company that performs a variety of jobs at Groom Lake, including security patrols, known as "Cammos" to the faithful watchers.
Area 51 is also still a hot spot for UFO buffs who will camp out on mountaintops with telescopes to attempt to catch a glimpse of what is happening there or gather at the Little A'Le'Inn in nearby Rachel, Nevada, a tiny town located on the world's only Extraterrestrial Highway. Really - In April 1996, Nevada Highway 375, which runs through Rachel and is close to Area 51, was renamed the Extraterrestrial Highway because of the number of UFO sightings in the area.
So are there aliens or flying saucers? I don't know, but I do know there is a celebration planned for next month, marking Area 51's fiftieth birthday. Check out the Dreamland Resort website for more details.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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