The United States Air Force facility commonly known as Area 51 is a highly classified remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base, within the Nevada Test and Training Range. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the correct names for the facility are Homey Airport (ICAO: KXTA) and Groom Lake, though the name Area 51 was used in a CIA document from the Vietnam War. The facility has also been referred to as Dreamland and Paradise Ranch, among other nicknames. The special use airspace around the field is referred to as Restricted Area 4808 North (R-4808N)
The base's current primary purpose is publicly unknown; however, based on historical evidence, it most likely supports the development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems (black projects). The intense secrecy surrounding the base has made it the frequent subject of conspiracy theories and a central component to unidentified flying object (UFO) folklore. Although the base has never been declared a secret base, all research and occurrences in Area 51 are Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI). On 25 June 2013, following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed in 2005, the CIA publicly acknowledged the existence of the base for the first time, declassifying documents detailing the history and purpose of Area 51.
Area 51 is located in the southern portion of Nevada in the western United States, 83 miles (134 km) north-northwest of Las Vegas. Situated at its center, on the southern shore of Groom Lake, is a large military airfield. The site was acquired by the United States Air Force in 1955, primarily for the flight testing of the Lockheed U-2 aircraft. The area around Area 51, including the small town of Rachel on the "Extraterrestrial Highway", is a popular tourist destination.
The original rectangular base of 6 by 10 miles (9.7 by 16.1 km) is now part of the so-called "Groom box", a rectangular area measuring 23 by 25 miles (37 by 40 km), of restricted airspace. The area is connected to the internal Nevada Test Site (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.
Area 51 shares a border with the Yucca Flat region of the Nevada Test Site, the location of 739 of the 928 nuclear tests conducted by the United States Department of Energy at NTS. The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is 44 miles (71 km) southwest of Groom Lake.
Groom Lake is a salt flat in Nevada used for runways of the Nellis Bombing Range Test Site airport (KXTA) on the north of the Area 51 USAF military installation. The lake at 4,409 ft (1,344 m) elevation is approximately 3.7 miles (6.0 km) from north to south and 3 miles (4.8 km) from east to west at its widest point. Located within the namesake Groom Lake Valley portion of the Tonopah Basin, the lake is 25 mi (40 km) south of Rachel, Nevada.
The Groom Lake test facility was established in April 1955 by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for Project Aquatone, the development of the Lockheed U-2 strategic reconnaissance aircraft.
As part of the project, the director, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., understood that, given the extreme secrecy enveloping the project, the flight test and pilot training programs could not be conducted at Edwards Air Force Base or Lockheed's Palmdale facility. A search for a suitable testing site for the U-2 was conducted under the same extreme security as the rest of the project. He notified Lockheed, who sent an inspection team out to Groom Lake. According to Lockheed's U-2 designer Kelly Johnson:
We flew over it and within thirty seconds, you knew that was the place ... it was right by a dry lake. Man alive, we looked at that lake, and we all looked at each other. It was another Edwards, so we wheeled around, landed on that lake, taxied up to one end of it. It was a perfect natural landing field ... as smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it". Johnson used a compass to lay out the direction of the first runway. The place was called "Groom Lake."
The lakebed made an ideal strip from which they could test aircraft, and the Emigrant Valley's mountain ranges and the NTS perimeter, about 100 mi (160 km) north of Las Vegas, protected the test site from visitors. The CIA asked the AEC to acquire the land, designated "Area 51" on the map, and add it to the Nevada Test Site.
Johnson named the area "Paradise Ranch" to encourage workers to move to a place that the CIA's official history of the U-2 project would later describe as "the new facility in the middle of nowhere"; the name became shortened to "the Ranch".
On 4 May 1955, a survey team arrived at Groom Lake and laid out a 5,000-foot (1,500 m), north-south runway on the southwest corner of the lakebed and designated a site for a base support facility. "The Ranch", also known as Site II, initially consisted of little more than a few shelters, workshops and trailer homes in which to house its small team. In a little over three months, the base consisted of a single, paved runway, three hangars, a control tower, and rudimentary accommodations for test personnel. The base's few amenities included a movie theatre and volleyball court. Additionally, there was a mess hall, several water wells, and fuel storage tanks. By July 1955, CIA, Air Force, and Lockheed personnel began arriving. The Ranch received its first U-2 delivery on 24 July 1955 from Burbank on a C-124 Globemaster II cargo plane, accompanied by Lockheed technicians on a Douglas DC-3. Regular Military Air Transport Service flights were set up between Area 51 and Lockheed's Burbank, California offices. To preserve secrecy, personnel flew to Nevada on Monday mornings and returned to California on Friday evenings, later years in a Boeing 717 or DC-9 painted all black.
The Lockheed Have Blue prototype stealth fighter (a smaller proof-of-concept model of the F-117 Nighthawk) first flew at Groom in December 1977.
In 1978, the Air Force awarded a full-scale development contract for the F-117 to Lockheed Corporation's Advanced Development Projects. On 17 January 1981 the Lockheed test team at Area 51 accepted delivery of the first full Scale Development (FSD) prototype 79–780, designated YF-117A. At 6:05 am on 18 June 1981 Lockheed Skunk Works test pilot Hal Farley lifted the nose of YF-117A 79–780' off the runway of Area 51.
Meanwhile, Tactical Air Command (TAC) decided to set up a group-level organization to guide the F-117A to an initial operating capability. That organization became the 4450th Tactical Group (Initially designated "A Unit"), which officially activated on 15 October 1979 at Nellis AFB, Nevada, although the group was physically located at Area 51. The 4450th TG also operated the A-7D Corsair II as a surrogate trainer for the F-117A, and these operations continued until 15 October 1982 under the guise of an avionics test mission.
Flying squadrons of the 4450th TG were the 4450th Tactical Squadron (Initially designated "I Unit") activated on 11 June 1981, and 4451st Tactical Squadron (Initially designated "P Unit") on 15 January 1983. The 4450th TS, stationed at Area 51, was the first F-117A squadron, while the 4451st TS was stationed at Nellis AFB and was equipped with A-7D Corsair IIs painted in a dark motif, tail coded "LV". Lockheed test pilots put the YF-117 through its early paces. A-7Ds was used for pilot training before any F-117A's had been delivered by Lockheed to Area 51, later the A-7D's were used for F-117A chase testing and other weapon tests at the Nellis Range.
15 October 1982 is important to the program because on that date Major Alton C. Whitley, Jr. became the first USAF 4450th TG pilot to fly the F-117A.
Although ideal for testing, Area 51 was not a suitable location for an operational group, so a new covert base had to be established for F-117 operations. Tonopah Test Range Airport was selected for operations of the first USAF F-117 unit, the 4450th Tactical Group (TG). From October 1979, the Tonopah Airport base was reconstructed and expanded. The 6,000 ft runway was lengthened to 10,000 ft. Taxiways, a concrete apron, a large maintenance hangar, and a propane storage tank were added.
By early 1982, four more YF-117A airplanes were operating out of the southern end of the base, known as the "Southend" or "Baja Groom Lake". After finding a large scorpion in their offices, the testing team (Designated "R Unit") adopted it as their mascot and dubbed themselves the "Baja Scorpions". Testing of a series of ultra-secret prototypes continued at Area 51 until mid-1981, when testing transitioned to the initial production of F-117 stealth fighters. The F-117s were moved to and from Area 51 by C-5 under the cloak of darkness, in order to maintain program security. This meant that the aircraft had to be defueled, disassembled, cradled, and then loaded aboard the C-5 at night, flown to Lockheed, and unloaded at night before the real work could begin. Of course, this meant that the reverse actions had to occur at the end of the depot work before the aircraft could be reassembled, flight-tested, and redelivered, again under the cover of darkness. In addition to flight-testing, Groom performed radar profiling, F-117 weapons testing, and was the location for training of the first group of frontline USAF F-117 pilots.
While the "Baja Scorpions" were working on the F-117, there was also another group at work in secrecy, known as "the Whalers" working on Tacit Blue. A fly-by-wire technology demonstration aircraft with curved surfaces and composite material, to evade radar, it was a prototype, and never went into production. Nevertheless, this strange-looking aircraft was responsible for many of the stealth technology advances that were used on several other aircraft designs, and had a direct influence on the B-2; with first flight of Tacit Blue being performed on February 5, 1982, by Northrop Grumman test pilot, Richard G. Thomas.
Production FSD airframes from Lockheed were shipped to Area 51 for acceptance testing. As the Baja Scorpions tested the aircraft with functional check flights and L.O. verification, the operational airplanes were then transferred to the 4450th TG.
On 17 May 1982, the move of the 4450th TG from Groom Lake to Tonopah was initiated, with the final components of the move completed in early 1983. Production FSD airframes from Lockheed were shipped to Area 51 for acceptance testing. As the Baja Scorpions tested the aircraft with functional check flights and L.O. verification, the operational airplanes were then transferred to the 4450th TG at Tonopah.
The R-Unit was inactivated on 30 May 1989. Upon inactivation, the unit was reformed as Detachment 1, 57th Fighter Weapons Wing (FWW). In 1990 the last F-117A (843) was delivered from Lockheed. After completion of acceptance flights at Area 51 of this last new F-117A aircraft, the flight test squadron continued flight test duties of refurbished aircraft after modifications by Lockheed. In February/March 1992 the test unit moved from Area 51 to the USAF Palmdale Plant 42 and was integrated with the Air Force Systems Command 6510th Test Squadron. Some testing, especially RCS verification and other classified activity was still conducted at Area 51 throughout the operational lifetime of the F-117. The recently inactivated (2008) 410th Flight Test Squadron traces its roots, if not its formal lineage to the 4450th TG R-unit.
The amount of information the United States government has been willing to provide regarding Area 51 has generally been minimal. The area surrounding the lake is permanently off-limits to both civilian and normal military air traffic. Security clearances are checked regularly; cameras and weaponry are not allowed. Even military pilots training in the NAFR risk disciplinary action if they stray into the exclusionary "box" surrounding Groom's airspace. Surveillance is supplemented using buried motion sensors. Area 51 is a common destination for Janet, the de facto name of a small fleet of passenger aircraft operated on behalf of the United States Air Force to transport military personnel, primarily from McCarran International Airport.
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, defined as part of the Nellis restricted airspace. The National Atlas page showing federal lands in Nevada shows the area as lying within the Nellis Air Force Base. Higher resolution (and more recent) images from other satellite imagery providers (including Russian providers and the IKONOS) are commercially available. These show the runway markings, base facilities, aircraft, and vehicles.
When documents that mention the Nevada Test Site (NTS) and operations at Groom are declassified, mentions of Area 51 and Groom Lake are routinely redacted. One exception is a 1967 memo from CIA director Richard Helms regarding the deployment of three OXCART aircraft from Groom to Kadena Air Base to perform reconnaissance over North Vietnam. Although most mentions of OXCART's home base are redacted in this document, as is a map showing the aircraft's route from there to Okinawa, the redactor appears to have missed one mention: page 15 (page 17 in the PDF), section No. 2 ends "Three OXCART aircraft and the necessary task force personnel will be deployed from Area 51 to Kadena."
On 25 June 2013, CIA released an official history of the U-2 and OXCART projects that officially acknowledged the existence of Area 51. The release was in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted in 2005 by Jeffrey T. Richelson of George Washington University's National Security Archives, and contain numerous references to Area 51 and Groom Lake, along with a map of the area. More on Wikipedia
Late night talk radio host Art Bell, who lives in the area, says he has personally seen daily buses pick up local workers with the destination placard reading "Area 51" on the bus
Area 1 (X-ray, gamma ray, and subcritical detonation tests continue to be conducted in Nevada Area 1.
The radioactivity on the ground provides a radiologically contaminated environment for the training of first responders)
Area 2 (Nevada Test Site in the Mojave Desert, located 18 miles south-west of Area 51)
Area 3 (Nevada site of 266 nuclear tests, the most of any Area, including Operation Julin in the 1990s)
Area 4 (Nevada home to the Big Explosives Experimental Facility)
Area 5 (Nevada test site of the Atomic Canon)
Area 6 (Nevada former nuclear test site. In 1982, while a live nuclear bomb was being lowered underground, the base came under attack by armed combatants who turned out to be a security team conducting an improperly scheduled drill)
Area 7 (abandoned Nevada nuclear test site and location for the novel Area 7)
Area 8 (Nevada site of nuclear tests including one underground test that accidentally broke the surface, raining fallout on workers)
Area 9 (Nevada site of over 100 nuclear tests and 133 detonations including one with 2000 ground troops)
Area 10 (Nevada site for 71 nuclear detonations, including one that exploded approximately three miles above five volunteers and a photographer who stood unprotected at "ground zero" to show the apparent safety of battlefield nuclear weapons to personnel on the ground
Area 11 (Nevada nuclear test site)
Area 12 (in Nevada, held 61 nuclear tests between 1957 and 1992)
Area 13 (Nevada Test & Training Center)
Area 14 (various outdoor experiments are conducted in this area of Nevada by the Atomic Energy Commission)
Area 15, AEC grid number adjacent to Area 51 (site of underground nuclear tests, and later EPA experiments to study effects of pollution on live farm animals)
Area 16 (Nevada, nuclear test site)
Area 17 (Nevada, unused)
Area 18 (Nevada nuclear testing, and Pahute Mesa Airstrip)
Area 19 and 20 (Nevada's Pahute Mesa, used for underground nuclear testing, and later for astronaut training)
Area 21 (Nevada, unused)
Area 22 (Nevada's Camp Desert Rock and Desert Rock Runway)
Area 23 (containing the secret town of Mercury, Nevada)
Area 24 (no info available)
Area 25 (in Nevada, off State Route 95, contains Yucca Mountain)
Area 26 (Nevada test site for Project Pluto)
Area 27 (a Nevada security site)
Area 28 (Nevada, absorbed into Areas 25 and 27)
Area 29 (Nevada, used as buffer zone between other Areas)
Area 30 (Nevada, used primarily for military training and exercises, site of Operation Plowshare nuclear detonation)
Area 31 (Wyoming)
Area 32 (Japan)
Area 33 (in Camp Pendleton, CA)
Area 34 (a coworking site)
Area 35 (Minnisota)
Area 36 (in Malawi)
Area 37 (New Mexico)
Area 38 (in New York)
Area 39 (in Idaho, all weapons allowed)
Area 40 (Elephant Mountain, California)
Area 41 (Nebraska)
Area 42 (in Tonopah, Nevada)
Area 43 (in Cardigan, UK)
Area 44 (in Canada)
Area 45 (in Houston, Texas)
Area 46 (in Harare, Zimbabwe)
Area 47 (in Austria)
Area 48 (Army Foreign Area Officer Jobs)
Area 49 (Operation HAARP in Gakona, Alaska)
Area 50 (US Army)
Note: the F-117A Stealth Fighter first flew in Area 51 in June 1981 and became operational two years later. As of 1988 a total of 52 of them had been assigned to nearby Nellis Air Force Base at the Tonopah Test Range Airfield. They were first used in battle in the first Gulf War (1990) to take out strategic targets in Iraq including Saddam Hussein's radar. They could be used the same way in North Korea tomorrow. Theoretically
An exact outline of the then-secret SR-71 being tested at Area 51 in 1964 was photographed by a Russian spy satellite using thermal imaging of its shadow in the hot sun, they are more careful now. The SR-71 remains the fastest manned aircraft ever flown, at 2200 mph (with a cruising speed of over Mach 3). According to NASA, an armed version called the YF-12A (portrayed in the Clint Eastwood movie Firefox) was also tested. A CIA pilot unofficially flew one to an altitude of 90,000 feet on 8/14/65, high enough to shoot down a satellite using air-to-air missiles as portrayed in the movie Kingsman.