Area 51 is a nickname for a military base located in the southern portion of Nevada in the western United States. Situated at its center, on the southern shore of Groom Lake is a large military airfield and one of the most secretive places in the world. The base's primary purpose is to support development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems.
The base lies within the United States Air Force's vast Nevada Test and Training Range. Although the facilities at the range are managed by the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, the Groom facility appears to be run as an adjunct of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, around from Groom, and as such the base is known as Air Force Flight Test Center (Detachment 3).
Other names used for the facility include "Dreamland", "Paradise Ranch", "Home Base", "Watertown Strip", Groom Lake and most recently "Homey Airport". The area is part of the Nellis Military Operations Area, and military pilots refer to the forbidden airspace around it (R-4808N) as The Box.
The intense secrecy surrounding the base, the very existence of which the U.S. government barely acknowledges, has led it to become the frequent subject of conspiracy theories and a central component to UFO folklore.
The designation "Area 51" is contentious, appearing on older maps of the NTS but not newer ones, yet the same naming scheme is used for other parts of the Nevada Test Site.
The area is connected to the internal NTS road network, with paved roads leading south to Mercury and west to Yucca Flat. Leading northeast from the lake, the wide and well-maintained Groom Lake Road runs through a pass in the Jumbled Hills. The road formerly led to mines in the Groom basin, but has been improved since their closure. Its winding course runs past a security checkpoint, but the restricted area around the base extends further east. After leaving the restricted area, Groom Lake Road descends eastward to the floor of the Tikaboo Valley, passing the dirt-road entrances to several small ranches, before converging with State Route 375, the "Extraterrestrial Highway", south of Rachel.
Soviet spy satellites obtained photographs of the Groom Lake area during the height of the Cold War, and later civilian satellites produced detailed images of the base and its surroundings. These images support only modest conclusions about the base; they depict a nondescript base, long airstrip, hangars and the lake, but nothing that supports some of the claims about underground facilities. Though no ICAO identifier for the base appears on any official document, in December 2007, airline pilots noticed that the base had appeared in their aircraft navigation systems' latest Jeppesen database revision as "KXTA".
Lockheed constructed a makeshift base at Groom, consisting of little more than a few shelters, workshops and trailer homes in which to house its small team. The first U-2 flew at Groom in August 1955, and U-2s under the control of the CIA began overflights of Soviet territory by mid-1956.
During this period, the NTS continued to perform a series of atmospheric nuclear explosions. U-2 operations throughout 1957 were frequently disrupted by the Plumbbob series of atomic tests, which detonated over two-dozen devices at the NTS. The Plumbbob-Hood explosion on July 5 scattered fallout across Groom and forced a temporary evacuation.
Even before U-2 development was complete, Lockheed began work on its successor, the CIA's OXCART project, a Mach-3 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, a later variant of which became the famed USAF SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird's flight characteristics and maintenance requirements forced a massive expansion of facilities and runways at Groom Lake. By the time the first A-12 Blackbird prototype flew at Groom in 1962, the main runway had been lengthened to 8,500 ft (2,600 m), and the base boasted a complement of over 1,000 personnel. It had fueling tanks, a control tower, and a baseball diamond. Security was greatly enhanced, the small civilian mine in the Groom basin was closed, and the area surrounding the valley was made an exclusive military preserve. Groom saw the first flight of all major Blackbird variants: A-12, SR-71, the abortive YF-12 interceptor variant, and the D-21 Blackbird-based drone project. The A-12 would remain at Groom Lake until 1968.
Commuter service is provided along Groom Lake Road by a bus, catering to a small number of employees living in several small communities beyond the NTS boundary (although it is not clear whether these workers are employed at Groom or at other facilities in the NTS). The bus travels Groom Lake Road and stops at Crystal Springs, Ash Springs, and Alamo, and parks at the Alamo courthouse overnight.
Unlike much of the Nellis range, the area surrounding the lake is permanently off-limits both to civilian and normal military air traffic. Radar stations protect the area, and unauthorized personnel are quickly expelled. Even military pilots training in the NAFR risk disciplinary action if they accidentally stray into the exclusionary "box" surrounding Groom's airspace. Perimeter security is provided by uniformed private security guards working for EG&G's security subcontractor Wackenhut, who patrol in desert camouflage Jeep Cherokees and Humvees, and more recently, champagne-colored Ford F-150 pickups and gray Chevy 2500 4X4 pickups. Although the guards are armed with M16s, no violent encounters with Area 51 observers have been reported; instead, the guards generally follow visitors near the perimeter and radio for the Lincoln County Sheriff. Deadly force is authorized if violators who attempt to breach the secured area fail to heed warnings to halt. Fines of around $600 seem to be the normal course of action, although some visitors and journalists report receiving follow-up visits from FBI agents. Some observers have been detained on public land for pointing camera equipment at the base. Surveillance is supplemented using buried motion sensors and by HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.
The base does not appear on public U.S. government maps; the USGS topographic map for the area only shows the long-disused Groom Mine. A civil aviation chart published by the Nevada Department of Transportation shows a large restricted area, but defines it as part of the Nellis restricted airspace. The official aeronautical navigation charts for the area show Groom Lake but omit the airport facilities. Similarly the National Atlas page showing federal lands in Nevada does not distinguish between the Groom block and other parts of the Nellis range. Although officially declassified, the original film taken by U.S. Corona spy satellite in the 1960s has been altered prior to declassification; in answer to freedom of information queries, the government responds that these exposures (which map to Groom and the entire NAFR) appear to have been destroyed. Terra satellite images (which were publicly available) were removed from web servers (including Microsoft's "Terraserver") in 2004, and from the monochrome 1 m resolution USGS data dump made publicly available. NASA Landsat 7 images are still available (these are used in the NASA World Wind). Higher resolution (and more recent) images from other satellite imagery providers (including Russian providers and the IKONOS) are commercially available. These show, in considerable detail, the runway marking, base facilities, aircraft, and vehicles.
Nevada's state government, recognizing the folklore surrounding the base might afford the otherwise neglected area some tourism potential, officially renamed the section of State Route 375 near Area 51 "The Extraterrestrial Highway", and posted fancifully illustrated signs along its length.
Although federal property within the base is exempt from state and local taxes, facilities owned by private contractors are not. Area 51 researcher Glenn Campbell claimed in 1994 that the base only declares a taxable value of $2 million to the Lincoln County tax assessor, who is unable to enter the area to perform an assessment.
Citing the State Secrets Privilege, the government petitioned trial judge U.S. District Judge Philip Pro (of the United States District Court for the District of Nevada in Las Vegas) to disallow disclosure of classified documents or examination of secret witnesses, alleging this would expose classified information and threaten national security. When Judge Pro rejected the government's argument, President Bill Clinton issued a Presidential Determination, exempting what it called, "The Air Force's Operating Location Near Groom Lake, Nevada" from environmental disclosure laws. Consequently, Pro dismissed the suit due to lack of evidence. Turley appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, on the grounds that the government was abusing its power to classify material. Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall filed a brief that stated that disclosures of the materials present in the air and water near Groom "can reveal military operational capabilities or the nature and scope of classified operations." The Ninth Circuit rejected Turley's appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear it, putting an end to the complainants' case.
The President continues to annually issue a determination continuing the Groom exception. This, and similarly tacit wording used in other government communications, is the only formal recognition the U.S. Government has ever given that Groom Lake is more than simply another part of the Nellis complex.
An unclassified memo on the safe handling of F117 material was posted on an Air Force website in 2005. This discussed the same materials for which the complainants had requested information (information the government had claimed was classified). The memo was removed shortly after journalists became aware of it.
The memo details debate between federal agencies regarding whether the images should be classified, with Department of Defense agencies arguing that it should, and NASA and the State Department arguing against classification. The memo itself questions the legality of unclassified images to be retroactively classified.
Remarks on the memo, handwritten apparently by DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) Colby himself, read:
Many of the hypotheses concern underground facilities at Groom or at nearby Papoose Lake, and include claims of a transcontinental underground railroad system, a disappearing airstrip (nicknamed the "Cheshire Airstrip", after Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat) which briefly appears when water is sprayed onto its camouflaged asphalt, and engineering based on alien technology. In 1989, Bob Lazar claimed that he had worked at a facility at Papoose Lake (which he called S-4) on such a U.S. Government flying saucer.
The 1996 documentary Dreamland directed by Bruce Burgess included an interview with a 71 year old mechanical engineer who claimed to be a former employee at Area 51 during the 1950s, working on a "flying disc simulator" built to train US Pilots, based on a disc originating from a crashed extraterrestrial craft. During his career at Area 51 he claimed to have worked with an extraterrestrial being whose name was "J-Rod", described as a telepathic translator.
Dan Burisch (real name, Dan Crain) claimed in 2004 to have worked on cloning alien viruses at Area 51, alongside the alien named "J-Rod". Crain's scholarly credentials and credibility fell to pieces when it was revealed that he was working as a Las Vegas parole officer in 1989 when he was supposedly earning a PhD at SUNY.
The 1998-2001 television series Seven Days took place largely inside the Area 51 complex itself, with the base depicted as being run by a covert National Security Agency operation which used time-travel made possible by alien technology recovered from the 1947 Roswell UFO incident.
Joanna Dark infiltrates Area 51 in the multi-million selling first person shooter video game Perfect Dark. Her objectives are to meet up with a fellow secret agent, find the autopsy lab of the assumed to be dead alien named Elvis, and to get out successfully.
In the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, "Hangar 51" is revealed to be the location of the government warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and where KGB agents go to recover the remains of the Roswell alien, eventually revealed to be an interdimensional being with a crystalline skeleton. In his review of the film, the scene was likened to "a kind of Area 51" by Popular Mechanics writer Jack Donaldson.
In the television series Stargate SG-1, Area 51 is used as a facility for storage and research of technology brought back to Earth from other planets.
In the Metal Gear Solid series, Area 51 turns out to be one of the headquarters of the Illuminati group known as The Patriots, who manipulate the government, public, and economy from behind the scenes. Character Raiden is injured during an attempt to rescue Sunny.