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Top Secret Tourism, Secrets of Area 51

Top Secret Tourism, Secrets of Area 51

If you can visit only one site of the Top Secret Government, Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada is the one. Most of what you have heard about this place is false, most of what you haven’t heard is true, and no one wants to talk about the things that aren’t entirely true but aren’t entirely false either…

Harry Helms Reports from Area 51

No matter how much you’ve read about this place, nothing prepares you for the impact it makes when you visit in person. Even if you consider yourself a levelheaded skeptic, you will probably have a few moments where you wonder if you haven’t stepped into a parallel universe. And you might get to catch a brief glimpse of a top-secret aircraft undergoing tests!

If you come here wanting to see UFOs, then you will see UFOs. If you come here wanting to see secret aircraft being tested, then you’ll see them. Area 51 will reflect your expectations of it like a mirror.

Perhaps no place is both so well known and so secret. Yes, you can drive or hike right up to its borders. And, yes, you will almost certainly be arrested and fined if you step across the border. No one who really knows what’s going on inside its boundaries will talk about such things. But it’s clear something extraordinary is still going on there based on the sonic booms, low-flying jets, and bewildering display of lights over it most nights.

Area 51 was created because the CIA needed a place to test its new U-2 spy plane and the area around Edwards Air Force Base had become too populated for tests of truly top-secret aircraft. The need was for a new site with a large, hard dry lake bed that could be used for take-offs and landings. In early 1955, several isolated lake beds in the West were evaluated. Groom Lake, adjacent to the Nevada Test Site, met the CIA’s requirements. It also had the advantage of being adjacent to the Nevada Test Site; the CIA figured that fear of radioactive fallout would help keep adjacent areas lightly populated and discourage people from attempting to enter the area. In a matter of weeks, aircraft hangers, housing units, support buildings, tracking and navigation aids, and a paved runway had been added and the U-2 was able to take its maiden test flight out of Groom Lake on August 4, 1955. Training of U-2 pilots began there the next year.

Originally, the facility at Groom Lake was known as “Paradise Ranch,” a name that was a bitter commentary on the lack of amenities there. A 1960 map of the Nellis Range Complex showing its section placed the Groom Lake facility within “Area 51” on the map. While the facility was a closely guarded secret throughout the 1960s, military and civilian pilots knew something was going on there because its airspace was off-limits to all military and civilian traffic; military pilots training at Nellis or Tonopah quickly discovered that accidentally slipping only a few hundred feet inside the restricted airspace brought disciplinary action. The Groom Lake area became known as “Dreamland” among military pilots because that song was the radio call sign used by its air traffic control traffic.

Paradise Ranch/Dreamland/Area 51 still remains the premier test facility for highly advanced aircraft and other aerial weapons systems. The U-2 was only the first in a long line of remarkable aircraft tested at Area 51,including the SR-71 spy plane and the F-117 stealth fighter. It is widely assumed that new secret aircraft, such as the next generation of stealth aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are currently being tested there. In addition, there is much speculation, and some evidence, that other advanced weapons systems, such as directed energy weapons, are also being tested inside Area 51.

But most visitors to Area 51 come hoping to see UFOs. It’s impossible to discuss UFOs and Area 51 without mentioning the Papoose Lake area, known as “S-4.” S-4/Papoose Lake is immediately south of Groom Lake/Area 51 and, according to reports, is the scene of the most amazing UFO-related activity the Top Secret Government is trying to keep hidden. Unfortunately, those reports are almost certainly bullshit.

Bob Lazar

The legend of S-4 began in November, 1989, when a man named Bob Lazar came forward claiming he was a physicist who had worked on UFOs being tested at S4. Lazar said the UFOs were being reverse-engineered from alien technology recovered from crashed UFOs, and their power source was a mysterious “element 115” used to power antimatter reactors. He said he had seen golf balls bouncing off “gravity waves” emitted by the reactors, that he had read autopsy reports of aliens killed in UFO crashes, and that the government knew the UFOs came from Zeta Reticulli. Lazar said he held advanced degrees from MIT and Cal Tech, was previously a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and had been hired at S-4 as a result of a personal recommendation by Dr. Edward Teller, the developer of the hydrogen bomb.

Lazar’s claims caused a sensation in Las Vegas, and he was extensively featured on local television and radio stations. His story spread like wildfire within the UFO world and got play in several supermarket tabloids. He was soon a regular on the late night talk radio circuit, and television crews came from Europe and Japan to interview him. Lazar was a persuasive speaker. He spoke authoritatively, used scientific terms and engineering jargon, and seemed familiar with military projects. He admitted there were aspects about the saucer program he didn’t know or understand. He didn’t seem like the stereotypical wild-eyed UFO buff; his manner was calm, sincere, and rational.

Lazar claimed the best places to see these UFOs being tested was near the gate of a secret facility he called Area 51. His preferred viewing spot was near a black mailbox along Highway 375 (known ever since as the Black Mailbox, even though it was later painted white).  In fact, he said he had escorted people up to Area 51 and the Black Mailbox in the months before he went public, and these witnesses supported Lazar’s claims that strange lights and disc-shaped objects could be seen in the night skies near Rachel.

Unfortunately for him and those who wanted to believe his story, Lazar’s credibility soon crashed to Earth like the wrecked UFOs he claimed to have seen. The first big hit came in April, 1990, when he was arrested in Las Vegas on charges of pandering for prostitution (he was later convicted). With that, some previously credulous reporters finally began looking into his past. It turned out he didn’t have degrees from MIT or Cal Tech, but instead had attended (but not graduated from) Pierce Community College in California. He had indeed lived near Los Alamos, but had been employed as a photo-finishing technician, not as a scientist at the national laboratory. His biggest claim to fame in Los Alamos was apparently his attempt to mount a jet engine on his Honda CRX (he had vanity license plates that read JETUBET). His record after he moved to Las Vegas raised more questions, such as the fact that he had filed for bankruptcy in 1986 as a result of a failed photo-finishing business and had married his second wife before divorcing his first.

Amazingly enough, there are still people who believe Lazar is telling the truth and such unpleasant facts were fabricated and planted as part of a campaign by the Top Secret Government to discredit him. Others believe Lazar was a patsy set up by the Top Secret Government to ridicule the whole notion of UFO tests at S-4/Area 51, and allow those tests to continue without close public scrutiny. Still others believe that Lazar was just an articulate, personable con man who knew how to tell a good story to an audience eager to be fooled.

If nothing else, Lazar must be credited with launching the entire Area 51 mania. This section that you’re reading is a perverse tribute to his sense of drama and keen insight into the human need to believe in the unbelievable.

What’s There

As an American citizen, you can be arrested and imprisoned for taking a fuzzy, indistinct photograph of the Area 51 facilities from a mountain top over twenty miles away. Fortunately, some Russians got angry and you can now buy one-meter satellite photos of the area from an American company (and the satellite was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California).

Space Imaging, of Denver, CO, operates the IKONOS satellite and sells high-resolution photos made from space. Space Imaging includes many former military brass among its managers, and had announced that it would not sell photos of restricted military areas such as Area 51. Moreover, U.S. law prohibited U.S. companies to sell satellite photos of restricted military areas. As such, requests to Space Imaging to purchase photos of Area 51 were routinely declined.

In March, 2000, Space Imaging released “before and after” photos of Chechnya after an assault by the Russian army. A few days later, the Russians released a photo of Area 51 taken in early 1998 by their SPIN-2 satellite. While the Russians did not publicly comment on why they made the Area 51 photo available, it is believed they were angry over the Chechnya photos and the release of the Area 51 photo was in retaliation. Shortly after the release of the Russian photo, Space Imaging released its own one-meter resolution photo of Area 51 that was taken in April, 2000. No reason was given for this abrupt reversal in policy (and violation of federal law), but it was clear that the Russian release (and the photo orders the Russians were receiving) must have been the major factor. Whatever the reasons for their release, these photos give us valuable new information about Area 51.

The centerpiece of Area 51 is a runway, reportedly built sometime in the early 1990s, that is 11,960 feet long and 140 feet wide. The length and width of this runway is far beyond required for normal military and civilian aviation; such a runway would be ideal for short-winged aircraft that needed to achieve a high speed before obtaining enough lift to become airborne. Tire skid marks on this runway show it is heavily used. There also shorter runways, including one used by the “Janet” flights from Las Vegas and else (see entry in this section) and a terminal where the Janet flights arrive.

There are numerous aircraft hangers at Area 51, with the most interesting being one that has become known as Hanger 18. From the photos, it is estimated that its doors are over 100 feet high. Several hangers are of the “scoot and hide” variety, meaning they can be moved. These are used to conceal certain aircraft and activities during times when spy satellites are due to make a pass overhead. Fuel tanks, radar and satellite dishes, and aircraft maintenance facilities are numerous.

A large building with a white roof adjacent to the Janet airlines terminal is believed to be an engineering facility for employees who fly in from Las Vegas, Palmdale, or other locations. What is believed to be the base headquarters building is located near the original hangers built for the U-2 project. There are also housing units for personnel that do not commute daily on Janet airlines. Most of Area 51 is laid out in a neat grid-like pattern; from space, Area 51 looks a bit like a neat housing subdivision adjacent to an airport. There are also several parking areas and a surprising number of cars even though all personnel arrive by either plane or bus; as far as is known, personnel are not allowed to drive their private cars into Area 51.

While personnel who lived inside Area 51 on previous projects (like the F-117 stealth fighter) do not talk about projects they worked on, they do talk about the living and recreational facilities. A baseball diamond and tennis courts are visible in the satellite photos, and an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, and gymnasium are available to on-base personnel. The dining facility (named Sam’s Club, after the last CIA director of Area 51) offers fresh seafood such as shrimp and lobster along with a well-stocked bar. However, duty at Area 51 is generally difficult. Since most tests are conducted at night, many personnel keep a vampire-like schedule.

The secrecy of the projects here means that personnel cannot discuss their work with their families or co-workers; they may be ordered inside or told to look away when a secret aircraft or other project is scheduled to come into view. Personnel are restricted to only those sections of Area 51 essential for their work and living and are not permitted to wander the base freely. Several of the mountains inside Area 51 have radar domes and communications facilities on their summits. The most widely visible of these is atop Bald Mountain, a 9380-foot tall peak that dominates much the western skyline along Highway 375 near Rachel.

Security Force

The boundary of Area 51 is patrolled by a legendary security force that has become known as the “Cammo Dudes” because of the camouflage clothing they often wear (although you may sometimes glimpse them in khakis). At the time this book was written, the Cammo Dudes are employees of EG&G, but in the past have been employees of Wackenhut. For years, their vehicle of choice has been the white Jeep Cherokee, although they have also used tan Ford pickups that blend in well with the desert. They are heavily armed, including automatic weapons, and they are authorized (just like the warning signs say) to use deadly force to stop trespassers. While the Cammo Dudes work inside Area 51, they are restricted to its perimeters and probably know nothing more about its inner workings than the average person.

When Area 51 first burst into national attention in the early 1990s, the Cammo Dudes were famous for their aggressive behavior toward visitors, even those on public land miles from the actual boundary. They would leave Area 51 to challenge any approaching visitors, such as those driving the gravel road from Highway 375 to the Main Gate. Such visitors would find their cars closely followed or the road ahead blocked by one of the Jeep Cherokees; the local sheriff was invariably called and a deputy would soon arrive. Even though nothing could be done to such visitors as long as they remained on public land and roads, such tactics discouraged all but the most determined visitors. Those who hiked on foot to then-public areas from which Area 51 could be viewed were routinely followed by Cammo Dudes, and occasionally buzzed by low-flying helicopters. Campers on public land near the boundary could expect a middle of the night visit from Cammo Dudes. Area 51 folklore was full of tales of firearms being brandished and even tires of cars approaching the boundary being shot out.

Now that Area 51 is a tourist attraction, the Cammo Dudes are likely to leave you alone so long as you remain in plain sight on the main access roads; be advised—they routinely photograph all cars and visitors near the Area 51’s gates. You will be followed if you hike away from the road toward the base; you might even get treated to a helicopter zooming a few feet over your head. Campers near the boundary can expect to have Cammo Dudes wandering around their campsite during the night, and since it’s public land, they have as much right to be there as the campers. If you do encounter them on public land or roads, the encounters will usually be friendly but make no mistake—these guys are intent on keeping you from entering Area 51.

The Black Mailbox

Notable landmarks outside of Area 51 itself include the Black Mailbox made famous by Bob Lazar and the town of Rachel. The Black Mailbox is located on Highway 375 approximately 19.5 miles south of Rachel and five miles north of the turnoff for the Main Gate of Area 51. It’s the only thing resembling a mailbox for miles and is unmistakable. As mentioned previously, it has been painted white since it was named. It is an actual working mailbox belonging to the Medlin family, which operates a ranch adjacent to Area 51. From this spot, you do have a good view of the airspace over Area 51 and S-4 (although even better viewing spots can be found along Highway 375). The dirt road at the mailbox eventually leads to an intersection with Groom Lake Road, the road leading to the Main Gate of Area 51. However, it is easy to take the wrong turn on this road and end up somewhere else.

You are more likely to have an encounter with local sheriff’s deputies at the Black Mailbox than you are along the boundaries of Area 51. The Medlin family has been ranching here long before anyone had heard of Area 51, but visitors cruising through their ranch operations have disrupted their lives (even their mail has sometimes been stolen). You may be told to move (or you might even be cited) by local deputies if you are parked here, block access to the mailbox, or disturb the ranching operations. The best advice is to stop for a quick look and photograph, and then move on.

The Little A’Le’Inn

The “town” of Rachel is little more than a collection of trailers in the high desert; total population hovers at slightly over 100. The main attraction in Rachel is the Little A’Le’Inn. The Little A’Le’Inn caters to those who come to Area 51 looking for UFOs; its walls are plastered with UFO photos and posters and it carries an extensive selection of UFO merchandise for sale. It also has a restaurant and operates the “Dreamland Resort,” a Spartan motel cobbled together from trailers that provides the only accommodations for over fifty miles. The Little A’Le’Inn now has a melancholy air compared to its heyday in the 1990s; one of its co-owners died in 2003 and it gets only a fraction of the visitors/customers it once did. Another UFO-related Rachel business, the Area 51 Research Center, closed in 2002 (although attempts have periodically been made to open similar businesses on the same site). While the UFO fanatics seem to be losing interest, Area 51 and Rachel still draw visitors interested in trying to glimpse still-secret aircraft undergoing development and testing.

The Aurora

Despite the number of visitors to its boundary, most of Area 51 is still safe from prying eyes and it will likely remain the main test and development facility for secret aircraft and other exotic weaponry well into the future. Other than the UFO stories, most of the speculation about things under development at Area 51 revolves around stealth aircraft, a rumored hypersonic craft named the “Aurora,” unmanned aerial combat vehicles, and flight tests of fighter aircraft from Russia and China.

It is almost a sure bet that any new generation of stealth vehicles would be undergoing tests at Area 51. The two known stealth craft in America’s inventory, the F-117 fighter and B-2 bomber, completed their flight testing over two decades ago and it is almost inconceivable that more advanced stealth designs are not being tested, especially since Russian and Chinese radars are developing the capability to detect the F-117 and B-2.  In addition to improvements on radar-scattering designs of existing stealth planes, it is widely speculated that tests of daytime stealth technology are going on here. In addition to radar-scattering, daytime stealth would involve electroluminescent surfaces that would change to match the color and brightness of the background sky and low noise engines. Many reliable witnesses have reported silent lights that abruptly change color, and these may be tests of such advanced stealth techniques.

No other aircraft rumored to be operational at Area 51 has attracted as much attention as the now-legendary Aurora. The Aurora was supposedly a Mach 6 (over 4000-miles per hour) spy plane to replace the Mach 3 SR-71 spy plane, which was retired in 1990. On January 10, 1988, the New York Times reported that the Air Force was developing a new reconnaissance aircraft capable of travel at Mach 6. The name “Aurora” came about as a result of a 1987 Pentagon budget request that included a request for a project with that name in the amount of $2.3 billion dollars; the “Aurora” project was in the same category as budget requests for the U-2 and SR-71. In the 1998 budget request, however, there was no mention of Aurora. It was widely assumed that Aurora was the name of the Mach 6 plane in the Times story, that it was mentioned by accident in the 1997 budget document, and that it had gone into operation when the SR-71 was retired.

In 1988 and 1989, a sound variously described as “the sky being ripped open,” “a deep, throbbing roar,” and “a pulsing like the lowest notes on a pipe organ.” around Edwards Air Force Base in California. The “Aurora roar” was reported in the hours between midnight and 5:00 a.m. Speculation was that this was a new type of jet engine, known as a pulse-detonation wave engine, which literally exploded liquid methane for propulsion. In 1991 and 1992, a series of “skyquakes” were heard in southern California. These skyquakes were not earthquakes, but were detected on seismographs as if they were. An analysis conducted by the seismological laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena found them similar to the ones made by the Space Shuttle when it landed at Edwards Air Force Base, but were made by objects traveling at Mach 2 to 4 and traveling toward the Nellis Range Complex. During this same period, the “Aurora roar” was also being heard in Rachel, including daytime instances when the sky was overcast.

However, there was never a reliable eyewitness sighting of the Aurora, nor were any photographs taken of an airplane matching any of the reported descriptions of the Aurora or similar hypersonic craft. The sky quakes and the Aurora roar stopped being reported in late 1993. Some stories claimed the Aurora project had been moved outside the United States, but the most likely explanation is that some sort of hypersonic vehicle was being tested in the early 1990s but is no longer flying for some reason (for example, it didn’t work as expected). Both NASA and the Air Force have conducted research into hypersonic vehicles since 1993 and have plans for their eventual development, so the existence of Aurora, and the results obtained from the project, could remain classified until hypersonic aircraft military are operational and publicly known. (It wasn’t until the F-117 stealth fighter was publicly acknowledged that details of earlier stealth aircraft prototypes, such as “Tacit Blue,” became known. Such prototypes were built and tested, but never became operational.)

In early 2006, Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported that a secret manned spaceflight program was operating out of Area 51 and may have been responsible for the Aurora reports. According to the magazine, a rocket-powered “space plane” carrying a single pilot—similar to the old X-15 rocket plane—was taken aloft by a “mother ship” airplane similar to the prototype B-70 bombers of the 1960s. The space plane and pilot were launched from the “mother ship” on a sub-orbital flight to elevations of about 100 miles. While Aviation Week & Space Technology is normally considered a reliable source, this report was widely ridiculed by aviation experts and journalists. The consensus is that such a “rocket plane” system may be undergoing tests at Area 51, but is likely unmanned and not fully operational.

Perhaps the hottest area of testing these days at Area 51 involves unmanned aerial vehicles, like the Predator. The new generation of UAVs rumored to be undergoing testing at Area 51 are supposedly faster than the Predator (some are reported to be jet powered), fly at a higher altitude, and incorporate a form of neural network computing to give it the ability to monitor its operating environment and make adjustments without human intervention. This new generation of UAVs could replace manned bombers for many combat missions in the future.

©2008 Harry Helms. Harry is the author of the book, Top Secret Tourism, published by Feral House (www.feralhouse.com). See more about the book at http://feralhouse.com/press/mini_sites/top_secret_tourism/blog/. Harry Helms has served as an editor for such publishers as McGraw-Hill and Academic Press. His previous book, Inside the Shadow Government, was also published by Feral House.


  • http://locationvillaespagne.com/espagne/cost-blanca/ Costa Blanca

    This post is simply great. It has explained a lot about travel and tourism. The black mailbox, the Aurora, everything is very well written. Thanks for this great contribution. :)

  • mw stuntz

    Interesting, but like a lot of articles and documentaries, much information has been ignored. Pretty poor really.