Since its establishment in the 1950s, Area 51 has attracted the interest of a large number of people, keen to discover what lies behind the perimeter of the closely guarded military airbase. The secret location in the Nevada desert has been off limits to the public for nearly sixty years, including a large no fly zone in airspace nearby.
The lack of information available has led to wild speculation about its real purpose. In fact, to many, Area 51 has become a term associated with outlandish conspiracy theories about extraterrestrial life and government cover-ups. But all of this has diverted attention away from some of the important developments that have taken place at the base over the years, things which have remained relatively unknown among the public.
Area 51 has been the site of on-going secret programs run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since its inception. Used principally to test new technologies, some of the military’s most advanced air capabilities began their working life at the base. Work at the site continues to be developed today, with the latest satellite images indicating that new buildings are being constructed. However, their purpose remains unclear. So to try and help you separate myth from reality, here are ten things about Area 51 you probably don’t know.
10) The CIA Only Acknowledged Its Existence In 2013
The nature of the work undertaken at the base was considered so sensitive by the US government, that the CIA refused to acknowledge the existence of Area 51 in all official documents. Until 2013, references to the facility were always redacted. Initially, this was driven by the Cold War, when Washington feared that its military programs could fall into the hands of the Soviet Union. Its existence was admitted in a classified report, covering the first two decades of operations at Area 51, released following a freedom of information request by a professor at George Washington University.
9) The First Operation At Area 51 Involved The U2 Spy Plane
The site began as a test center for the U2 spy plane, an aircraft developed after World War II, capable of carrying out surveillance over the Soviet Union. Practice flights were carried out using the runways built at Area 51, which are on the bed of a dried out lake. The Lockheed designed plane had its first test flight on the 1st of August, 1955. When it began operations over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a cover story was developed to portray it as a weather research plane, rather than one for conducting surveillance. The most famous incident involving a U2 came in May 1960, when one crashed over the Soviet Union during an intelligence gathering flight.
8) First Drone Test Flight
While the use of drones by the US military is now widespread in conflicts in various countries, their development began some time ago. Area 51 was the location for the first test flight of an unmanned drone in 1964. The aircraft was referred to as D21 and was intended for use as a surveillance aircraft. It took some time before the drone was launched independently, but by 1966, the D21 model had flown to heights of 90,000 feet. But during its fourth test flight, something went wrong when the drone was released from its carrier plane and both aircrafts were destroyed, killing one crew member. The D21 drone went on to carry out four spying missions over China, between 1969 and 1971.
7) Foreign Aircrafts Were Present At The Base
This isn’t as shocking as you might think. The US actually used Area 51 as a site for testing captured technology from aircraft belonging to hostile powers. The first foreign plane to arrive was a Russian-built MiG21, that had been captured by Israel in 1966, when a member of the Iraqi air force defected. The investigations attempted to identify weaknesses in performance and design with the Russian aircraft to be exploited in case of combat involving US forces. Tests on other MiGs followed. In 1970, examinations of secretly acquired Soviet radar systems commenced at Area 51. Meanwhile, the attempts to exploit captured aircrafts was moved to another site during the 1970s.
6) Area 51 Was Accidentally Disclosed
In a government memo from 1967, all references to the Area 51 base were redacted as normal. But in an apparent oversight, one mention of the base on page 15 of the document remained. The memo, sent by CIA director Richard Helms, dealt with the deployment of surveillance aircraft from Area 51, to participate in spying over North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. The mistake doesn’t appear to have triggered undue concern at the time, and it did not reach widespread public attention. Even though the CIA now acknowledges the base’s existence, government maps continue to identify it as a restricted area, while atlases show the facility as being within the nearby Nellis air force base.
5) US Army Accused Of Using Toxic Substances At Area 51
Suggestions have been made that the military took advantage of the secrecy surrounding Area 51, and the confidentiality obligations placed on those who work there to dump large quantities of toxic waste at the site. Workers who fell ill, and the widows of those who died, brought together evidence of large drums of hazardous waste being dumped in trenches before being set alight. A court case was scheduled, but could not proceed due to national security considerations. Claims were also made that because of Area 51’s remoteness, it was used to dispose of waste gathered from other military sites.
4) Photos Were Once Inadvertently Taken Of The Base
During a flight on board Skylab in 1974, a group of inexperienced astronauts inadvertently took photographs of the Area 51 site. The incident triggered a national security debate and the possibility of officially acknowledging the base was considered. William Colby, then director of the CIA, was drawn into the controversy within the intelligence service, which ultimately decided not to release the image to the public. Confidential documents since released, reveal that Area 51 was the only site in the world that the CIA had banned from being photographed from space. This gives an indication of how valuable the work done there was seen.
3) The Latest Project May Be A Next Generation Spy Plane
Rumors are circulating, following the appearance of new satellite data showing Area 51 that a major new project is under way. A large, hangar-like building is allegedly being built at the end of one of the runways. According to defense journalist Tyler Rogoway, the US air force has implicitly admitted that a prototype of a long-range and unmanned surveillance aircraft exists, which is thought to be a likely candidate for testing. The hangar built at Area 51 has been fitted with massive doors, approximately 170 feet wide, suggesting that they have been specifically designed to deal with a large object like an aircraft.
2) Area 51 May Have Tested Helicopters Used In Bin Laden Raid
The killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, was carried out by a team of Navy Seals, carried to the location in Pakistan by two Blackhawk helicopters. But after one crashed during the mission, experts who saw photos quickly became aware that this was no ordinary helicopter. Many believe that the helicopter was a Blackhawk model which had been significantly modified by Lockheed Martin, while some have even claimed it was an entirely new and previously unknown model. One of the most likely sites where this craft would have been tested before being used in the operation would have been Area 51. Although it is not believed that the modifications would make the helicopter invisible to radar, it would have been much harder to pick up than its predecessors.
1) Area 51’s Most Ridiculous Conspiracy Theory
There are no shortage of these to choose from, but perhaps the most outrageous appeared in a 2011 book, on the history of the secret base by Annie Jacobsen. According to her, Area 51 was the center of a US cover-up that went into motion following the alleged crashing of a UFO at Roswell, in 1947. Denying that it was a UFO, she claims that the craft was a Soviet mission, piloted by genetically engineered children to make people in the US believe that it was an alien craft, in order to spread fear. In this fanciful tale, Area 51 was used as the storage site for the “Soviet” ship and the remains of its crew. As if this was not going far enough, the author also claimed that the genetic engineering of the children had been carried out by fugitive Nazi scientist, Josef Mengele, who is infamous for his experiments on concentration camp prisoners during the Second World War.
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