This FAA aeronautical chart shows the proximity of Las Vegas to the place known as Area 51. The box at top left labeled as “R-4808N” with Groom Lake in the center is the restricted air space known to Air Force pilots as Dreamland. The large airfield complex at Groom Lake, originally known as Watertown and built by Lockheed and the federal government in the late 1950s, officially does not exist and therefore appears on no US government maps. By some unofficial calculations, Area 51 comprises this whole box, by others, it is a smaller box centering on Groom Lake. FAA
In the cartography of our lives, our dreams, and our popular culture, certain landmarks are embodied with great meaning that transcends their identity as mere places. We travel to certain ones to see things of great cultural or historical importance. Whether we are fond of Michelangelo or Picasso, or of Winslow Homer or Warhol, we go to great museums to view and marvel at celebrated works of art. We go to the Smithsonian to see the tangible artifacts of American history, from the Star Spangled Banner to the Spirit of St. Louis.
Meanwhile, we visit other iconic places, such as Waikiki or Las Vegas or any numbers of Disney Worlds or Lands or their analogues with other themes, for specific genres of “fun.”
And finally, there are places we visit not for specific artifacts or specific amusements but for the intangible reason that we just want to be there or, arguably more importantly, to say that we have been there.
We go to such places to breathe a certain rarified air.
We go to such places—Times Square or the corner of Haight and Ashbury—not so much to see and touch specific things, but to stand there and sense an ethereal yet palpable energy or to soak up the vibe.
This genre of venues possesses an importance that is greater than the sum of its parts. Merely the mention of one word, such as “Sturgis” or “Graceland,” speaks volumes to those who venerate these places for what they represent. Of course, none of these places is for everyone, and that is what makes each of them so important and so special to those for whom they do resonate. For such people, even those who have never been to these places that are the nexus of their fascination, the mere mention of the name is like a mantra that is a key to unlock an emotion.
Area 51 is such a place.
Even though Area 51 devotees cannot actually go there and stand in the gravel and fine desert dust of its epicenter, they come by the thousands every year to look at the mountains beyond which lies their field of dreams. The fact that armed guards prevent them from completing their pilgrimage only adds to the rush of excitement and the belief that this place is truly special.
In the 1980s, when the term “Area 51” entered the lexicon of popular culture, it was one of those legendary but not quite mythic places like Atlantis or Shangri-La or El Dorado. There are those who vociferously believe that these places truly exist while readily admitting that their precise locations are a bit vague. In turn, the ambiguity and obscurity add to an excitement that is kept alive by the conspiracy theories woven by and for the true believers.
What is especially curious and paradoxical about this forbidden land called Area 51 is that it lies so close to Las Vegas, Nevada. In the cartography of our lives, our dreams, and our popular culture, few places are more visited—or more insistent upon being visited— than Las Vegas.
The man who did more than any other to catapult the idea of an area numbered 51 into the public consciousness was a self-described engineer named Bob Lazar. In the late 1980s, he went to the media, specifically to George Knapp at KLAS television in Las Vegas, with his vivid stories of having worked at Sector 4 (S-4) of Area 51, where he had seen evidence that the US government possessed and was studying otherworldly spacecraft and their extraterrestrial crewmen. There was even a suggestion that the US Air Force was testing the alien spacecraft in their desert hideout.
Lazar was taken seriously—even welcomed and embraced—by those who had long believed not only in the existence of such craft and green or gray beings, but also in a thoroughly institutionalized government cover-up dating back to at least the 1950s. Lazar’s detractors, meanwhile, cite a lack of concrete evidence and the fact that no record of him exists at his claimed alma maters, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Nevertheless, Lazar helped create and shape a popular mythology that spawned numerous books, movies, and magazine articles, especially during the 1990s. For instance, the idea of a government conspiracy that keep extraterrestrial beings secret from the public was the catalyst for the popular television series X-Files, which aired for nine seasons beginning in 1993. The Area 51 conspiracy theory also became a staple of Art Bell’s popular late-night radio show Coast to Coast AM, which reached fifteen million listeners during its heyday in the late 1990s. Then too, Las Vegas’s minor league baseball team, the Las Vegas Stars, renamed itself as the Las Vegas 51s and adopted a cartoon extraterrestrial as their mascot and logo.
Whatever one may say about Bob Lazar and his legacy, it can certainly be said that he played the key role in putting Area 51 on the map. Having said that, one must follow up with the question of exactly where on the map it is.
Lazar was right that Area 51 really exists, and that it is at a secret, previously undisclosed location within the more than 4,680 square miles of desert, mountains and restricted airspace across parts of Clark, Lincoln, and Nye counties that comprise the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). Within this airspace, larger that the state of Connecticut, the U.S. Air Force has long conducted training operations like the well-known Red Flag combat simulation exercises. Also known (and so identified on perimeter signage) as the Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range, the NTTR is controlled from Nellis AFB, which is located eight miles northeast of Las Vegas. Through the years, the NTTR has grown—and continues to grow—through the acquisition of adjacent public land formerly administered by the Department of the Interior. It also surrounds, on three sides, another off-limits world: the 1,360 square miles of the Department of Energy’s Nevada National Security Site (N2S2). Previously known (and referred to in this book) as the Nevada Test Site (NTS), this is where nuclear weapons were tested for more than four decades.
It has been well known for many years that the U.S. Air Force, as well as the CIA, conducted flight-test programs for secret airplanes at an air fi eld at Groom Lake, a dry lakebed within the NTTR that is roughly 84 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The fact that it went for so long without official acknowledgement lent an aura of mystery to the open secret. As late as 1984, Aviation Week & Space Technology, the industry journal that has a reputation for the best inside information about the aviation world, mistakenly referred to Groom Lake as “Broom” Lake.
Through the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force gradually imposed more restrictions on the airspace over the entire range, and by the 1960s, even air force pilots were being warned not to enter the 600 square miles above and around Groom Lake. To air traffic controllers and air force personnel, the mysterious place soon came to be known informally as “Dreamland.” Federal Aviation Administration charts place Groom Lake within a swath of restricted airspace called R-4808N.
In an August 13, 1984, article in Aviation Week, it was referred to furtively as “the north secret test range of Nellis Air Force Range.” At that time, as the magazine reported, the U.S. Air Force had just closed 90,000 acres of public land in the Groom Mountains contiguous to the eastern boundary of “the north secret test range” without fi ling an environmental impact statement. John O. Rittenhouse, deputy for installations management to the deputy assistant secretary of the air force for installations, environment, and safety, told the public lands and national parks subcommittee of the House of Representatives Interior and Insular Affairs that top-level Reagan administration officials made the decision to close the range to public access for “national security reasons.”
Aviation Week added that Rittenhouse had explained that the area was to be used “only as a buffer and not for . . . ‘environmentally significant activities.’”
In other words, it was attached to the range to keep out prying eyes who might be tempted to turn their binoculars upon the secret world of the air field at Groom Lake.
Had this strange thing been encountered in the mid-1980s, “otherworldly” would have been among the tamest adjectives used. Around the time that Bob Lazar was telling about the alien spaceships at Area 51, the Lockheed F-117A was operating secretly overhead. Lockheed
In the 1950s, long before it had taken on its cloak of extraterrestrial mystery, the air field was known as the Watertown landing strip—more than a bit fanciful, given that it was located on Groom’s lakebed, which is almost perpetually bone dry. Later in that decade, the foundation for later conspiracy theories was laid when Watertown became a rookery for CIA spyplanes, a secret base where they could rest between overseas deployments. These operations are discussed in detail in the CIA’s official history of the Aquatone and Oxcart spyplane programs, written by Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach and published in 1992. Copies of this report, albeit in redacted form, have been widely circulated among aerospace historians since the turn of the century.
Throughout the past few decades, most people in the aerospace world have referred to the air field complex as “Groom Lake,” just as those in the pop culture world have called it “Area 51.”
Though the Groom Lake complex was known to exist, and Dreamland well known as restricted airspace, inquiries to any government agency—military or civilian—always elicited the uniform response that there was no such place. You might as well be asking a stranger for directions to the Emerald City of Oz.
One of the strangest aspects of the CIA and air force denial of their “Emerald City” was their reticence to acknowledge that they had used the term “Area 51” themselves. One of the few potentially real official mentions came in a May 1967 memo appearing to be from Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms. This document, in which aircraft deployments from “Area 51” are discussed, has been in circulation for a number of years, but it has not been authenticated.
The first official acknowledgement that the place was officially called Area 51 came on June 25, 2013, with the release of a slightly less redacted version of the 1992 Pedlow and Welzenbach report. In it, we now see that the authors refer to the Groom Lake base as “Area 51” on sixteen pages, although the index shows that at least three additional references to Area 51 remained redacted.
It turns out that Pedlow and Welzenbach had also officially put Area 51 on the map at about the same time that Bob Lazar was doing so unofficially. In the 2013 release, a previously redacted map places Area 51 within Area R-4808N as seen in the FAA map on page seven in this book, and within the red box at the center of our map on page eight.
Why did the CIA redact the casual references to Area 51 by Pedlow and Welzenbach when their very detailed report was first released many years ago? We don’t know, and perhaps we never will. This only serves to add to the mystery surrounding Area 51, but perhaps this was not unintentional. By allowing the term to be the sole property of the UFO speculators for a quarter of a century, the CIA and the air force may have hoped for a diversion of serious scrutiny.
However, despite the redactions of the term in the 1992 report, it was in this same time frame that Area 51 was becoming the focus of a great deal of attention and speculation, some of it serious, much of it on the strange side. In the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s after Bob Lazar’s stories became part of extraterrestrial folklore, a growing number of people began bringing their binoculars to the desert, where the well-guarded perimeter of “Area 51” only gave rise to suspicions that the conspiracy theories bore at least a modicum of substance.
Both extraterrestrial believers and the merely curious came to visit, hoping to catch a glimpse of mysterious lights in the sky and to marvel at the mysterious “black mailbox,” where it was once theorized that the extraterrestrials and/or the keepers of those extraterrestrials picked up their mail. Painted white since the late 1990s, the mailbox actually belongs to rancher Steve Medlin.
In 1996, as the interest in Area 51 promised to lure even more tourists to this remote corner of the state, the state of Nevada even went so far as to designate its State Highway 375 (formerly State Highway 25) as the “Extraterrestrial Highway.”
As the initial excitement about the extraterrestrial theory faded, those who had come to drive this highway discovered that there were strange, unidentifiable lights in the sky. They were literally seeing flying objects that they could not identify! There really were UFOs in the skies over Area 51, but they were not of another world; they were from ours.
And so it was that the “black airplane” cult grew up upon ground fertilized by theories of the unexplained that had their origins among those who have longed for the extraterrestrials to be real.
The black airplanes, though, are real, and this is their story—or at least as much of it as we can tell.
About the Author: Bill Yenne is the author of more than two dozen books on military, aviation, and historical topics, including one which he co-authored with the legendary US Air Force commander, General Curtis LeMay. WWII History Magazine wrote that his book, B-17 at War, “is a source of unending pleasure to the Flying Fortress fan,” and Air Force Magazine wrote that his primer on strategic air power “deserves a place on any airman’s bookshelf.” Yenne is a member of the American Aviation Historical Society.