The federal government explicitly concedes (in various court filings and government directives) that the USAF has an "operating location" near Groom Lake, but does not provide any further information.
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 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 Humvees, SUVs and pickup trucks. The guards are armed with M16s, but 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.
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-USA) 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.
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.
When documents that mention the NTS and operations at Groom are declassified, mentions of Area 51 and Groom Lake are routinely redacted. One notable 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: p15 section #2 ends "Three OXCART aircraft and the necessary task force personnel will be deployed from Area 51 to Kadena".
Soviet spy satellites obtained photographs of the Groom Lake area during the height of the Cold War and later civilian satellites have produced detailed images of the base and its surroundings.
Aerial imagery shows the airfield of Area 51 having seven runways including one that now appears to be closed. The closed runway, 14R/32L, is also by far the longest with a total length of approximately 23,300 feet (7,100 m), not including stopway. The other runways are two asphalt runways, the 14L/32R with a length of 12,000 feet (3,700 m) and 12/30 with a length of 5,400 feet (1,600 m), and four runways located on the salt lake. These four runways are 09L/27R and 09R/27L, which are both approximately 11,450 feet (3,490 m), and 03L/21R and 03R/21L, which are both approximately 10,000 feet (3,000 m). The base also has a helipad.
In December 2007, airline pilots noticed that the base had appeared in their aircraft navigation systems' latest Jeppesen database revision with the ICAO airport identifier code of KXTA and listed as "Homey Airport". The probably inadvertent release of the airport data led to advice by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) that student pilots should be explicitly warned about KXTA, not to consider it as a waypoint or destination for any flight even though it now appears in public navigation databases.
Road access to the facility is with Nevada State Route 375 at 37°38′03″N 115°43′10″W where an access road connects to the public highway system. The security gate and a parking facility is at 37°35′37″N 115°53′57″W about 10 miles west-southwest of the road turnoff. The gate is approximately 25 miles from the main support base along a winding road.
The support base has a series of what appears to be supply warehouses, dormitories, a fire station, some water towers and a number of support buildings that are common on military air bases. A very tall tower, perhaps used as the aircraft control tower is also visible. Open storage warehouses, and what appears to be a reclamation yard is also visible. Recreation facilities include baseball diamonds and tennis courts. Several large satellite dishes, presumably for communications are also visible. A large number of white-painted, presumably government vehicles are visible in parking lots, mostly being pickup trucks, SUVs and vans. Several Boeing 737 aircraft are parked on an open ramp, presumably for transportation of workers to the base. One military aircraft, appearing to be a black-painted Fighting Falcon F-16 is parked on another ramp; the black paint commonly used by the Air Force for aircraft engaged in night operations. Several black-painted helicopters are also parked on an open ramp. The base also has a large number of hangars, more than what is commonly found on a normal air base, presumably to insure operational aircraft are kept out of view of orbiting reconnaissance satellites as well as out of the intense desert heat.
Approximately 15.5 miles north-northeast of the base, on a peak known as Baldy Mountain, are a series of radar radomes 37°26′58″N 115°44′01″W, 37°27′06″N 115°44′06″W at approximately 9,400' elevation. The types of radar at these sites is unknown, although they may be the ARSR-4 Air Route Surveillance Radar which is used by the Air Force and FAA Joint Surveillance System throughout the United States. Another series of radars of a different type are located on a ridge at 4,300' just to the north of Groom Lake at 37°17′41″N 115°49′21″W. All of the radar sites appear to be automated and unattended.
World War II
The first known use of the area was the construction in 1941 of an auxiliary airfield for the West Coast Air Corps Training Center at Las Vegas Air Field. Known as Indian Springs Airfield Auxiliary #1, it consisted of two dirt 5000' runways aligned NE/SW, NW/SE. The airfield was also used for bombing and artillery practice, as bomb craters are still visible in the vicinity of the runways. It was abandoned after the gunnery school at Las Vegas closed in June 1946.
Main article: Lockheed U-2 The Groom Lake test facility was established by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for Project Aquatone, the development of the Lockheed U-2 strategic reconnaissance aircraft in April 1955.
As part of the project, the director, Richard M. Bissell Jr., understood that 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.
Bissell recalled "a little X-shaped field" in southern Nevada that he had flown over many times during his involvement with the nuclear weapons test program. The airfield was the abandoned Indian Springs Airfield Auxiliary #1 field, which by 1955 had reverted to sand and was unusable, but the adjacent Groom Dry Lake to the northwest met the requirements for a site that was "remote, but not too remote".
He notified Lockheed, who sent an inspection team out to Groom Lake. According to 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 operate the troublesome test aircraft, and the Emigrant Valley's mountain ranges and the NTS perimeter protected the test site from prying eyes and outside interference about 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
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 new airfield, then known as Site II or "The Ranch", 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. The first U-2 lifted off from Groom on 4 August 1955. A U-2 fleet under the control of the CIA began overflights of Soviet territory by mid-1956.
The Groom Lake airfield soon acquired a name: Watertown. According to some accounts, the site was named after CIA director Allen Dulles' birthplace: Watertown, New York. Upon its activation, the testing facility was used with increasing frequency for U-2 testing, however that changed in 1957 when the Atomic Energy Commission began testing nuclear weapons at the nearby Yucca Flat facility.
Once the AEC Operation Plumbbob series of tests began with the Boltzmann blast in May 1957, the Watertown airfield personnel were required to evacuate the base prior to each detonation. The AEC, in turn, tried to ensure that expected fallout from any given shot would be limited so as to permit re-entry of personnel within three to four weeks. All personnel at the base were required to wear radiation badges to measure their exposure to fallout. Once the atomic testing began, the CIA U-2 testing operations were interrupted constantly due to the explosions at Yucca Flat, which were scheduled and re-scheduled frequently.
The CIA facilities at Groom Lake were always considered by the agency as a temporary facility, to accommodate the U-2 testing. As the project began to wind down, and CIA pilot classes finished their training, Watertown became a virtual ghost town. By June 1957, most U-2 testing had moved to Edwards AFB and the first operational USAF unit to receive the U-2, the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, was active at Laughlin AFB, Texas. For two years following the departure of the U-2s from Groom Lake, the base was fairly quiet, although it remained under CIA jurisdiction.
In July 1959 USAF personnel from Edwards AFB embarked on a two-day survey trip to investigate potential emergency landing sites for the North American X-15 rocket plane. The survey crew received permission to land on the then unused CIA facility at Groom Lake. The crew tested the hardness of the lakebed surface by dropping a 10-pound steel ball from a height of six feet and measuring the diameter of the resulting imprint. The result was that the Groom Lake surface was considered excellent for emergency use.
In September 1960, NASA and Air Force Flight Test Center personnel at Edwards reviewed the results of the survey trip to Groom Lake, as well as other sites visited by the survey crew. The use of Groom Lake meant a reduction in support requirements as there was an airfield with emergency equipment and personnel at the site. Ultimately, they agreed to remove Groom from consideration as an emergency landing site due to difficulty obtaining clearance into the area.
The OXCART program
Main articles: Lockheed A-12 and SR-71 Blackbird Even before U-2 development was complete, Lockheed began work on its successor as part of the CIA's OXCART project, involving the A-12, a Mach-3 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft – a later variant of which became the famed USAF SR-71 Blackbird.
As with the previous U-2 program, security requirements of the Oxcart project necessitated an obscure, secret location for A-12 testing. Despite the success of the U-2 flight tests and the OXCART mock-up radar tests, Groom Lake was not initially considered. It was a "Wild West" outpost, with primitive facilities for only 150 people. The A-12 test program would require more than ten times that number. Groom Lake's five-thousand foot asphalt runway was both too short and unable to support the weight of the Oxcart. The fuel supply, hangar space, and shop space were all inadequate.
Ten Air Force bases programmed for closure were considered, but all were rejected. The site had to be away from any cities and military or civilian airways to prevent sightings. It also had to have good weather, the necessary housing and fuel supplies, and an eighty-five-hundred-foot runway. None of the air force bases met the security requirements, although, for a time, Edwards Air Force Base was considered. In the end, Groom Lake was the only possibility, however its short runway, austere facilities and other shortcomings meant a major overhaul was necessry prior for Oxcart A-12 testing could commence. Groom Lake had also, by this time, received a new official name. The Nevada nuclear test site was divided into several numbered areas. To blend in, Groom Lake became "Area 51."
This aircraft flight characteristics and maintenance requirements forced a massive expansion of facilities and runways at Groom Lake. On 1 October 1960, Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company (REECo) began work on the site, referred to as "Project 51". Workers engaged in double-shift construction schedules for the next four years to overhaul and upgrade base facilities, and also expand the existing runway to 8,500-foot (2,600 m) as well as harden the existing runway to support the heavier A-12. In addition, a new 10,000-foot runway was constructed (14/32) diagonally across the southwest corner of the lakebed. An Archimedes curve approximately two miles across was marked on the dry lake so that an A-12 pilot approaching the end of the overrun could abort to the playa instead of plunging the aircraft into the sagebrush. Area 51 pilots called it "The Hook." For crosswind landings two unpaved airstrips (runways 9/27 and 03/21) were marked on the dry lakebed.
By August 1961 construction of the essential facilities were completed. The United States Navy supplied three surplus hangars which were erected on the base's north side. They were designated as Hangar 4, 5, and 6. A fourth, Hangar 7, was new construction. The original U-2 hangars were converted to maintenance and machine shops. Facilities in the main cantonment area included workshops and buildings for storage and administration, a commissary, control tower, fire station, and housing. The Navy also contributed more than 130 surplus Babbitt duplex housing units for long-term occupancy facilities. Older buildings were repaired, and additional facilities were constructed as necessary. A reservoir pond, surrounded by trees, served as a recreational area one mile north of the base. Other recreational facilities included a gymnasium, movie theatre, and a baseball diamond. A permanent aircraft fuel tank farm was constructed by early 1962 for the special JP-7 fuel required by the A-12. Seven tanks were constructed, with a total capacity of 1,320,000-gallons.
Preparations began for the arrival of OXCART; security was greatly enhanced, and the small civilian mine in the Groom basin was closed. In January 1962, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expanded the restricted airspace in the vicinity of Groom Lake. The lakebed became the center of a 600-square-mile addition to restricted area R-4808N. Restricted continuously at all altitudes, the airspace occupies the center of the Nellis Air Force Range.
Althugh remaining under the jurisdiction of the CIA, the facility received eight USAF F-101 Voodoos for training, two T-33 Shooting Star trainers for proficiency flying, a C-130 Hercules for cargo transport, a U-3A for administrative purposes, a helicopter for search and rescue, and a Cessna 180 for liaison use; and Lockheed provided an F-104 Starfighter for use as a chase plane.
The first OXCART was covertly trucked to the base in February 1962, assembled, and it made its first flight 26 April 1962. At the time, the base boasted a complement of over 1,000 personnel. It had fueling tanks, a control tower, and a baseball diamond. The A-12 was a large, loud, and distinctive-looking aircraft. During the early test flights, the CIA tried to limit the number of people who saw the aircraft. All those at Groom Lake not connected with the Oxcart program were herded into the mess hall before each takeoff. This was soon dropped as it disrupted activities and was impractical with the large number of flights.
Although the airspace above Groom Lake was closed, it was near busy Nellis Air Force Base. Inevitably, there were sightings. Some Nellis pilots saw the A-12 several times. At least one NASA test pilot from Edwards AFB saw an A-12. He radioed the Edwards tower and asked what it was. He was curtly told to halt transmissions. After landing, he was told what he had seen was vital to U.S. security. He also signed a secrecy agreement. The major source of A-12 sightings was airline pilots. It is believed that twenty to thirty airline sightings were made. One American Airlines pilot saw an A-12 twice. During one sighting, a pilot saw an A-12 and two chase planes; he radioed, "I see a goose and two goslings."
Groom saw the first flight of most major Blackbird variants: A-12, the abortive YF-12A interceptor variant designed to intercept Soviet manned bombers, and the D-21 Blackbird-based drone project. By the end of 1963, nine A-12s were at Area 51. A mock-up of the "Reconnaissance Strike-71" (RS-71) was inspected by the Air Force on 4 June 1962. The concept of a strike A-12 with strategic bombing capabilities ran into political problems from both the Air Force, which was involved with the XB-70 Valkyrie program at the time and a lack of enthusiasm from Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. McNamara and his "whiz kids" saw no need for additional manned bombers in the age of ICBMs. In addition McNamara was phasing down Air Defense Command and saw no use for the YF-12A Interceptor. Accordingly, only the reconnaissance version of the RS-71 remained (it kept the "strike" part of the name, however). Where the A-12 was deiigned for clandestine overflights of Soviet territory, the RS-71 carried additional side-looking cameras and other sensors which gave it much greater capabilities. On December 27–28, 1962, a contract was issued to Lockheed to build six test RS-71s.
According to legend, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked an aide soon upon taking office after the Kennedy Assassination what the RS-71 was for. The aide responded, "strategic reconnaissance." Thus, when Johnson announced the existence of a new reconnaissance aircraft, on 24 July 1964, President Johnson called it the "SR-71." President Johnson's announcements created an unusual security situation. Whle the USAF SR-71 project was a "White" or open project, the CIA's A-12 was not. Its existence would remain a secret until 1981. To maintain the secret, all those involved were told of the coming SR-71 announcement and warned to keep the A-12 separate.
The SR-71 first flew at the Lockheed facilities at Palmdale, California in December 1964, and Palmdale and Edwards AFB served as the primary operation sites for that model. The 4200th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing activated at Beale AFB on 1 January 1965, however the first SR-71 did not arrive until 7 January 1966.
Starting in November 1965, even as the A-12 was declared operational for use by the CIA and planning was made for its use, doubts were expressed about the cost of operating the two separate groups of A-12s and SR-71s. After a year or more of debate, it was decided on 10 January 1967, to phase out the CIA A-12 program. Although the Oxcart was gone, its USAF descendant, the SR-71, would continue to fly intelligence missions for the next twenty-two years. Finally, in 1990, the SR-71 was retired.
The A-12s would remain at Groom Lake until 1968 and occasionally were deployed to other United States bases overseas. The CIA's nine remaining A-12s were placed in storage at Palmdale in June 1968. All surviving aircraft remained there for nearly 20 years before being sent to museums around the United States.
Main article: Lockheed D-21 Following the loss of Gary Powers's U-2 over the Soviet Union, there were several discussions about using the A-12 OXCART as an unpiloted drone aircraft. Although Kelly Johnson had come to support the idea of drone reconnaissance, he opposed the development of an A-12 drone, contending that the aircraft was too large and complex for such a conversion. However, the Air Force agreed to fund the study of a high-speed, high-altitude drone aircraft in October 1962. The air force interest seems to have moved the CIA to take action, the project designated "Q-12". By October 1963, the drone's design had been finalized.At the same time, the Q-12 underwent a name change. To separate it from the other A-12-based projects, it was renamed the "D-21." (The "12" was reversed to "21"). "Tagboard" was the project's code name.
The first D-21 was completed in the spring of 1964 by Lockheed. After four more months of checkouts and static tests, the aircraft was shipped to Groom Lake and reassembled. It was to be carried by a two-seat derivative of the A-12, designated the "M-21". When the D-21/M-21 reached the launch point, The first step would be to blow off the D-21's inlet and exhaust covers. With the D-21/M-21 at the correct speed and altitude, the LCO would start the ramjet and the other systems of the D-21. With the D-21's systems activated and running, and the launch aircraft at the correct point, the M-21 would begin a slight pushover, the LCO would push a final button, and the D-21 would come off the pylon".
Difficulties were addressed throughout 1964 and 1965 at Groom Lake with various technical issues. Captive flights showed unforeseen aerodynamic difficulties. By late January 1966, more than a year after the first captive flight, everything seemed ready. The first D-21 launch was made on 5 March 1966 with a successful flight, with the D-21 flying 120 miles with limited fuel. A second D-12 flight was successful in April 1966 with the drone flying 1,200 miles, reaching Mach 3.3 and 90,000 feet. An accident on 30 July 1966 with a fully fueled D-21, on a planned checkout flight suffered from a non-start of the drone after its separation, causing it to collide with the M-21 launch aircraft. The two crewmen ejected and landed in the ocean 150 miles offshore. One crew member was picked up by a helicopter, but the other, having survived the aircraft breakup and ejection, drowned when sea water entered his pressure suit. Kelly Johnson personally cancelled the entire program, having had serious doubts from the start of the feasibility. A number of D-21s had already been produced, and rather than scrapping the whole effort, Johnson again proposed to the Air Force that they be launched from a B-52H bomber.
By late summer of 1967, the modification work to both the D-21 (now designated D-21B) and the B-52Hs were complete. The test program could now resume. The test missions were flown out of Groom Lake, with the actual launches over the Pacific. The first D-21B to be flown was Article 501, the prototype. The first attempt was made on September 28, 1967, and ended in complete failure. As the B-52 was flying toward the launch point, the D-21B fell off the pylon. The B-52H gave a sharp lurch as the drone fell free. The booster fired and was "quite a sight from the ground". The failure was traced to a stripped nut on the forward right attachment point on the pylon. Several more tests were made, none of which met with success. However, the fact is that the resumptions of D-21 tests took place against a changing reconnaissance background. The A-12 had finally been allowed to deploy, and the SR-71 was soon to replace it. At the same time, new developments in reconnaissance satellite technology were nearing operation. Up to this point, the limited number of satellites available restricted coverage to the Soviet Union. A new generation of reconnaissance satellites could soon cover targets anywhere in the world. The satellites' resolution would be comparable to that of aircraft, but without the slightest political risk. Time was running out for the Tagboard.
Several more test flights, made from Beale AFB, California, including two over Communist China were made in 1969 and 1970 to varying degrees of success. On July 15, 1971, Kelly Johnson received a wire canceling the D-21B program. The remaining drones were transferred by a C-5A and placed in dead storage. The tooling used to build the D-21Bs was ordered destroyed. Like the A-12 Oxcart, the D-21B Tagboard drones remained a Black airplane, even in retirement. Their existence was not suspected until August 1976, when the first group was placed in storage at the Davis-Monthan AFB Military Storage and Disposition Center. A second group arrived in 1977. They were labeled "GTD-21Bs" (GT stood for ground training).
Davis-Monthan is an open base, with public tours of the storage area at the time, so the odd-looking drones were soon spotted and photos began appearing in magazines. Speculation about the D-21Bs circulated within aviation circles for years, and it was not until 1982 that details of the Tagboard program were released. However, it was not until 1993 that the B-52/D-21B program was made public. That same year, the surviving D-21Bs were released to museums.
Foreign technology evaluation
Main article: Tonopah Test Range Airport During the Cold War, one of the missions carried out by the United States was the test and evaluation of captured Soviet fighter aircraft. Beginning in the late 1960s, and for several decades, Area 51 played host to an assortment of Soviet-built aircraft. Under the HAVE DOUGHNUT, HAVE DRILL and HAVE FERRY programs, the first MiGs flown in the United States, were used to evaluate the aircraft in performance and technical capabilities, as well as in operational capability, pitting the types against U.S. fighters.
This was not a new mission, as testing of foreign technology by the USAF began during World War II. After the war, testing of acquired foreign technology was performed by the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC, which became very influential during the Korean War), under the direct command of the Air Materiel Control Department. In 1961 ATIC became the Foreign Technology Division (FTD), and was reassigned to Air Force Systems Command. ATIC personnel were sent anywhere where foreign aircraft could be found.
The focus of Air Force Systems Command limited the use of the fighter as a tool with which to train the front line tactical fighter pilots. Air Force Systems Command recruited its pilots from the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California, who were usually graduates from various test pilot schools. Tactical Air Command selected its pilots primarily from the ranks of the Weapons School graduates.
In August 1966, Iraqi Air Force fighter pilot Captain Munir Redfa defected, flying his MiG-21 to Israel after being ordered to attack Iraqi Kurd villages with napalm. His aircraft was transferred to Nevada within a month. In 1968 the US Air Force and Navy jointly formed a project known as Have Donut in which Air Force Systems Command, Tactical Air Command, and the U.S. Navy's Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Four (VX-4) flew this acquired Soviet made aircraft in simulated air combat training. Because U.S. possession of the MiG-21 was, itself, secret, it was tested at Groom Lake. A joint air force-navy team was assembled for a series of dogfight tests.
Comparisons between the F-4 and the MiG-21 indicated that, on the surface, they were evenly matched. But air combat was not just about technology. In the final analysis, it was the skill of the man in the cockpit. The Have Doughnut tests showed this most strongly. When the Navy or Air Force pilots flew the MiG-21, the results were a draw; the F-4 would win some fights, the MiG-21 would win others. There were no clear advantages. The problem was not with the planes, but with the pilots flying them. The pilots would not fly either plane to its limits. One of the Navy pilots was Marland W. "Doc" Townsend, then commander of VF-121, the F-4 training squadron at NAS Miramar. He was an engineer and a Korean War veteran and had flown almost every navy aircraft. When he flew against the MiG-21, he would outmaneuver it everytime. The Air Force pilots would not go vertical in the MiG-21. The Have Doughnut project officer was Tom Cassidy, a pilot with VX-4, the Navy's Air Development Squadron at Point Mugu. He had been watching as Townsend "waxed" the air force MiG 21 pilots. Cassidy climbed into the MiG 21 and went up against Townsend's F-4. This time the result was far different. Cassidy was willing to fight in the vertical, flying the plane to the point where it was buffeting, just above the stall. Cassidy was able to get on the F-4's tail. After the flight, they realized the MiG-21 turned better than the F-4 at lower speeds. The key was for the F-4 to keep its speed up. What had happened in the sky above Groom Lake was remarkable. An F-4 had defeated the MiG 21; the weakness of the Soviet plane had been found. Further test flights confirmed what was learned. It was also clear that the MiG-21 was a formidable enemy. United States pilots would have to fly much better than they had been to beat it. This would require a special school to teach advanced air combat techniques.
On August 12, 1968, two Syrian air force lieutenants, Walid Adham and Radfan Rifai, took off in a pair of MiG-17Fs on a training mission. They lost their way and, believing they were over Lebanon, landed at the Beset Landing Field in northern Israel. (One version has it that they were led astray by an Arabic-speaking Israeli). In 1968 these ex-Iraqi MiG-17s were transferred from Israeli stocks were added to the operation. These aircraft were given USAF designations and fake serial numbers so that they may be identified in DOD standard flight logs. As in the earlier program, a small group of Air Force and Navy pilots conducted mock dogfights with the MiG-17s. Selected instructors from the Navy's Top Gun school at NAS Miramar, California, were chosen to fly against the MiGs for familiarization purposes. Very soon, the MiG-17's shortcomings became clear. It had an extremely simple, even crude, control system which lacked the power-boosted controls of American aircraft. The F-4's twin engines were so powerful it could accelerate out of range of the MiG-17's guns in thirty seconds. It was important for the F-4 to keep its distance from the MiG 17. As long as the F-4 was one and a half miles from the MiG-17, it was outside the reach of the Soviet fighter's guns, but the MiG was within reach of the F-4's missiles.
The data from the Have Doughnut and Have Drill tests were provided to the newly formed Top Gun school at NASA Miramar. By 1970, the Have Drill program was expanded; a few selected fleet F-4crews were given the chance to fight the MiGs. The most important result of Project Have Drill is that no Navy pilot who flew in the project defeated the [MiG 17] Fresco in the first engagement The Have Drill dogfights were by invitation only. The other pilots based at Nellis Air Force Base were not to know about the U.S.-operated MiGs. To prevent any sightings, the airspace above the Groom Lake range was closed. On aeronautical maps, the exercise area was marked in red ink. The forbidden zone became known as "Red Square.
During the remainder of the Vietnam War, the Navy kill ratio climbed to 8.33 to 1. In contrast, the Air Force rate improved only slightly to 2.83 to 1. The reason for this difference was Top Gun. The navy had revitalized its air combat training, while the Air Force had stayed stagnant. Most of the Navy MiG kills were by Top Gun graduates,
In May 1973, Project Have Idea was formed which took over from the older Have Donut, Have Ferry and Have Drill projects and the project was transferred to the Tonopah Test Range Airport. At Tonopah testing of foreign technology aircraft continued and expanded throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Area 51 also hosted another foreign materiel evaluation program called HAVE GLIB. This involved testing Soviet tracking and missile control radar systems. A complex of actual and replica Soviet-type threat systems began to grow around "Slater Lake", a mile northwest of the main base, along with an acquired Soviet "Barlock" search radar placed at Tonopah Air Force Station. They were arranged to simulate a Soviet-style air defense complex.
The Air Force began funding improvements to Area 51 in 1977 under project SCORE EVENT. In 1979, the CIA transferred jurisdiction of the Area 51 site to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, California. Mr. Sam Mitchell, the last CIA commander of Area 51, relinquished command to USAF Lt. Col. Larry D. McClain.
Have Blue/F-117 program
Main articles: Lockheed Have Blue, Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, and Tonopah Test Range AirportThe 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 June 18, 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-l17A, 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-111A 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.
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 Tonoaph 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 deactivated the unit was reformed as 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. 
Since the F-117 became operational in 1983, operations at Groom Lake have continued. The base and its associated runway system were expanded. In 1995, the federal government expanded the exclusionary area around the base to include nearby mountains that had hitherto afforded the only decent overlook of the base, prohibiting access to 3,972 acres (16.07 km2) of land formerly administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
United States military aircraft likely have been flown against Soviet-type radar systems and the Dynamic Coherent Measurement System (DYCOMS). The airborne RCS range likely has been used to measure the L.O. characteristics of all known stealth aircraft from the F-117A to the B-2 Spirit and F-22 Raptor.
Over the past 20 years since the end of F-117A testing, the base has been expanded with new facilities, and a new main runway being built in the 1990s. Ongoing projects at Area 51 may include stealth aircraft development, weapons development, unmanned aerial vehicles, and avionics testing. Workers toil in relative isolation and inhospitable conditions at the site to prove revolutionary technologies and enhance the readiness of today's warfighter and support national requirements.
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.
Area 51 shares a border with the Yucca Flat region of the Nevada Test Site (NTS), 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.
The original rectangular base of 6 by 10 miles (9.7 by 16 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 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.
In 1994, five unnamed civilian contractors and the widows of contractors Walter Kasza and Robert Frost sued the USAF and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Their suit, in which they were represented by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, alleged they had been present when large quantities of unknown chemicals had been burned in open pits and trenches at Groom. Biopsies taken from the complainants were analyzed by Rutgers University biochemists, who found high levels of dioxin, dibenzofuran, and trichloroethylene in their body fat. The complainants alleged they had sustained skin, liver, and respiratory injuries due to their work at Groom, and that this had contributed to the deaths of Frost and Kasza. The suit sought compensation for the injuries they had sustained, claiming the USAF had illegally handled toxic materials, and that the EPA had failed in its duty to enforce the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which governs handling of dangerous materials.) They also sought detailed information about the chemicals to which they were allegedly exposed, hoping this would facilitate the medical treatment of survivors. Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl, "The Air Force is classifying all information about Area 51 in order to protect themselves from a lawsuit."
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 F-117 Nighthawk 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.
1974 Skylab photography
In January 2006, space historian Dwayne A. Day published an article in online aerospace magazine The Space Review titled "Astronauts and Area 51: the Skylab Incident." The article was based on a memo written in 1974 to CIA director William Colby by an unknown CIA official. The memo reported that astronauts on board Skylab 4 had, as part of a larger program, inadvertently photographed a location of which the memo said:
There were specific instructions not to do this. <redacted> was the only location which had such an instruction.Although the name of the location was obscured, the context led Day to believe that the subject was Groom Lake. As Day noted: [I]n other words, the CIA considered no other spot on Earth to be as sensitive as Groom Lake.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: He did raise it—said State Dept. people felt strongly. But he inclined leave decision to me (DCI)—I confessed some question over need to protect since:
- USSR has it from own sats
- What really does it reveal?
- If exposed, don't we just say classified USAF work is done there?
The declassified documents do not disclose the outcome of discussions regarding the Skylab imagery. The behind-the-scenes debate proved moot as the photograph appeared in the federal government's archive of satellite imagery along with the remaining Skylab 4 photographs, with no record of anyone noticing until Day identified it in 2007.
UFO and other conspiracy theories
Its secretive nature and undoubted connection to classified aircraft research, together with reports of unusual phenomena, have led Area 51 to become a focus of modern UFO and conspiracy theories. Some of the activities mentioned in such theories at Area 51 include:
- The storage, examination, and reverse engineering of crashed alien spacecraft (including material supposedly recovered at Roswell), the study of their occupants (living and dead), and the manufacture of aircraft based on alien technology.
- Meetings or joint undertakings with extraterrestrials.
- The development of exotic energy weapons for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or other weapons programs.
- The development of means of weather control.
- The development of time travel and teleportation technology.
- The development of unusual and exotic propulsion systems related to the Aurora Program.
- Activities related to a supposed shadowy one world government or the Majestic 12 organization.
Many of the hypotheses concern underground facilities at Groom or at Papoose Lake (AKA "S-4 location"), 8.5 miles (13.7 km) south, 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. Publicly available satellite imagery, however, reveals clearly visible landing strips at Groom Dry Lake, but not at Papoose Lake.
Veterans of experimental projects such as OXCART and NERVA at Area 51 agree that their work (including 2,850 OXCART test flights alone) inadvertently prompted many of the UFO sightings and other rumors: The shape of OXCART was unprecedented, with its wide, disk-like fuselage designed to carry vast quantities of fuel. Commercial pilots cruising over Nevada at dusk would look up and see the bottom of OXCART whiz by at 2,000-plus mph. The aircraft's titanium body, moving as fast as a bullet, would reflect the sun's rays in a way that could make anyone think, UFO.They believe that the rumors helped maintain secrecy over Area 51's actual operations. While the veterans deny the existence of a vast underground railroad system, many of Area 51's operations did (and presumably still do) occur underground.
Several people have claimed knowledge of events supporting Area 51 conspiracy theories. These have included Bob Lazar, who claimed in 1989 that he had worked at Area 51's S-4 (a facility at Papoose Lake), where he was contracted to work with alien spacecraft that the U.S. government had in its possession. Similarly, 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. His claims included that he had worked on a "flying disc simulator" which had been based on a disc originating from a crashed extraterrestrial craft and was used to train US Pilots. He also claimed to have worked with an extraterrestrial being named "J-Rod" and described as a "telepathic translator". In 2004, Dan Burisch (pseudonym of Dan Crain) claimed to have worked on cloning alien viruses at Area 51, also alongside the alien named "J-Rod". Burisch's scholarly credentials are the subject of much debate, as he was apparently working as a Las Vegas parole officer in 1989 while also earning a PhD at SUNY.
Portrayal in media and popular culture
Novels, films, television programs, and other fictional portrayals of Area 51 describe it—or a fictional counterpart—as a haven for extraterrestrials, time travel, and sinister conspiracies, often linking it with the Roswell UFO incident. In the 1996 action film Independence Day, the United States military uses alien technology captured at Roswell to attack the invading alien fleet from Area 51. The "Hangar 51" government warehouse of the Indiana Jones films stores, among other exotic items, the Ark of the Covenant and an alien corpse from Roswell. The television series Seven Days takes place inside Area 51, with the base containing a covert NSA time travel operation using alien technology recovered from Roswell. The 2005 video game Area 51 is set in the base, and mentions the Roswell and moon landing hoax conspiracy theories.
Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us (Area 51 Raid)
Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us was a Facebook event that took place on September 20, 2019, at Area 51, a United States Air Force (USAF) facility within the Nevada Test and Training Range, to raid the site in search for extraterrestrial life. The event was created by Matty Roberts, who confirmed that the event was purely comedic and disavowed responsibility for any casualties to occur if there are actually any attempts to raid the military base. Roberts posted the event on June 27, 2019.
Air Force spokeswoman Laura McAndrews stated that government officials were briefed on the event and discouraged people from attempting to enter military property. Nevada law enforcement also warned potential participants in the event against trespassing. The event, although intended as a joke, had an effect on businesses both locally in Nevada and around the United States, which prepared products for visitors for those attending the event.
In Lincoln County, Nevada, two music festivals were also planned: Alienstock in Rachel, Nevada and Storm Area 51 Basecamp in Hiko, Nevada. Local governments and police feared that even these legal events could be problematic if too many people showed up. Alienstock was cancelled by Roberts due to poor planning and planned for it to be relocated to Las Vegas, although the Little A'Le'Inn owner Connie West attempted to continue with the name in Rachel. Roberts' lawyers sent her a cease and desist regarding use of the name.
Over 2 million people have responded "going" and 1.5 million "interested" on the event's page. However, fewer than 200 people were reported to have shown up at the entrance to Area 51, with none attempting to pass the gate; an estimated 1,500 attended the related festivals. A male was arrested for public urination; meanwhile a female was detained for reasons yet to be disclosed.