Since 1955 when President Eisenhower approved it as a test site, Area 51 has become shorthand for “scary secret government facility used to keep paranormal secrets.” It remains enough of a pop culture touchstone that as recently as 2015, the director of Paranormal Activity released a terrible movie on the subject. While we can’t say with complete certainty that nothing supernatural is stored or tested at Area 51 (just like we can’t say that with complete certainty about every other government facility) there are many interesting things we do know about the famous testing place one hundred miles north of Las Vegas, NV in the Groom Lake Bed.
10. The CIA Only Confirmed Its Existence Very Recently
Although it was one of the most open of secrets in military history for decades that the facility existed (even being given network television coverage in 1994 on a special hosted by Larry King) the government was very reluctant to say anything on the matter of Area 51. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged the existence of this experimental facility. The method used to confirm it wasn’t to make an official statement or anything obviously public, so much as it was through releasing documents a full eight years after Freedom of Information Act laws were enacted. The main points that came to light were that the facility was used for testing planes like the U-2 and the A-12 and certain matters related to the Atomic Energy Commission. As we’ll see later, this prolonged secrecy had a very horrible impact on people’s lives.
9. Drone Testing
The U-2 spy plane which the personnel at Area 51 were instrumental in developing is still in use today, but in 2013, Area 51 was seen testing a new model of a completely different sort of military hardware that became public in 2014. In 2011, the Iranian government displayed a captured RQ-170 surveillance drone and quickly began reverse-engineering it. This seemed to expedite the creation of a new model drone, so only two years later, the RQ-180 model, which was meant to correct some of the issues the previous model had with aerodynamics, was released. It was sleeker, more maneuverable, and had a range of over 1,200 miles while being able to stay aloft for 24 hours (compared to the previous model’s six hours maximum). Not a bad contribution to the USAF for a site that was reported as being abandoned in 1997 by Popular Mechanics magazine.
8. Boyd Bushman’s Confession Video
In October 2014, the internet was briefly rocked by a video of Boyd Bushman shot two months earlier before his death, where he claimed to have interacted with extraterrestrial beings and to had been involved in implementing their anti-gravity technology at Area 51. The specifics of his outlandish claims included that there were essentially “wrangler” and “rustler” aliens that he interacted with and that they could travel between Earth and their home planet in only forty-five minutes. On paper, Bushman did not seem like the sort to engage in crank conspiracy theories. He had worked as an aeronautical engineer with Lockheed Martin for forty years and his twenty-five patents mostly owned by the same company included developing laser-guided smart bomb systems. But as news outlets like Snopes were quick to point out, he did not provide any information about how the anti-gravity technology was supposed to work, which as an engineer who’d been part of the project, would be presumably be well within his abilities. Also a purported alien in a photo was quickly identified as a doll that was available at Walmart.
7. Mine Fight
Few families have been as directly affected by Area 51 and the operations that took place in it as the Sheahan family. In 1880, they purchased mining rights for an area three miles from the testing runway for Area 51. Practically as soon as the base opened, they started getting trouble from it. Over the years, the family claimed that rounds were fired by planes flying over their home in an attempt to get them to leave. Members further claim to have been held at gunpoint on their property. In 1954, they filed a lawsuit against the base when they claimed their mill (previously rendered unusable by nuclear testing) was firebombed by the Air Force, dropping the suit only when they ran out of money. Eventually, the family was offered $5.2 million for a government expansion, which they refused to accept. In October, the four hundred acres of land was simply seized after the offer expired and the USAF sued them, meaning that the Sheahan’s have received nothing for their trouble.
6. Paradise Ranch
A lot of people think of members of the scientific community as being willing to go anywhere or do anything in the name of following an order. Apparently though, according to radar tester Edward Lovick, who worked on the base for three decades, one of the senior aircraft designers felt a need to try to entice scientists and personnel with a deceptive name. So Clarence Johnson originally dubbed the Area 51 location “Paradise Ranch” in the hope it sounded more appealing than calling it “Groom Lake” or anything that more accurately reflected what a dry, uncomfortable place it was. There’s something ominous about naming a location used for testing weapons, especially nuclear weapons, a paradise.
5. Moon Landing Tests
One of the many conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51 is that it’s the place where the supposedly fake 1969 Apollo 11 Moon Landing was filmed. Although the claim that the moon landing was staged at all has been thoroughly debunked, it does hit close to the mark. Sort of. The Area 51 facility itself did not have anything to do with the landing, but at a nearby base that was part of the Nellis Range Complex, equipment that NASA used for the moon landing was developed and tested. Probably the best known piece of equipment was the lunar rover. It’s almost as if Area 51 decided it just couldn’t get enough intrigue and decided to steal some of its neighbor’s.
4. The Runway
As stated before, the A-12 spy plane was tested at Area 51 during the 1950s and 1960s, but there was a pretty big issue with that. See, while the Nevada desert was great for keeping the operations isolated and cheap, the weather was almost always perfect for flights, and the lake bed was flat and good for building a runway, it was so dusty that the plane’s engines would get jammed. To combat this, the crew onsite had to literally sweep and vacuum the runway. Anyone who served as a private in the military knows that a lot of it is dusting or greasing the same surfaces to a ridiculous extent over and over again, but vacuuming the runway almost seems like a joke.
3. Slight Basis in Truth
Shortly before the CIA’s official releasing of documents confirming the existence of Area 51, Annie Jacobsen interviewed a number of former workers for her 2011 book Area 51: An Uncensored History. Although the book was subsequently criticized for factual errors by some of its interview subjects and indulging in nonsensical theories that the claims aliens were at Area 51 was the result of a Soviet scare hoax, truths came out which explained where some of the more ridiculous theories about Area 51 came from, such as that alien technology was being adapted for military use, that there are underground tunnels for storing secrets, or that there were flying saucers about.
The notion that aerospace technology was being reverse-engineered from alien technology seems to be based on the fact there actually was reverse-engineering of foreign technology going on, such as the Soviet jet fighter known as the MiG. There actually were secret underground tunnels, but they were part of a nuclear program called Project NERVA which was conducted near Area 51 in a spot called Jackass Flats. And the flying saucers? Those were a misidentified vehicle dubbed the OXCART, which had a fuel carrying pod in a circular shape that when viewed from the ground looked much more like a flying disc than a conventional airplane.
2. BBC Crew Barged In
The BBC holds itself up as a respectable, time-honored news organization (at least, as far as people in America know). But in 2012, a camera crew with BBC Channel 3 sunk to what can best be described as a news stunt when they attempted a break in at Area 51, or at least knowingly trespassed on government property. When they arrived at the location, there was no one to greet them and nothing going on, so they did things like silly dances just to have something to record. Onsite personnel were naturally not happy with this, and the crew was held at gunpoint and forced to lay face down in the dirt for three hours while a background check was run on them. In light of what the government is willing to suppress in the name of national security (as we’ll see in the next entry), the crew should have been thanking their lucky stars they got out unharmed.
1. The True Crime
While there probably haven’t been any paranormal secrets being kept at Area 51, something really quite heinous came to light in the 1990s. That was when a class action lawsuit was filed against the government because during Areas 51’s operations, hazardous material had been disposed of in an extremely unsafe manner, along with classified equipment. Specifically, it had been dumped into deep ditches, doused with jet fuel, and burned. In 1980, the ground began being removed en masse, which spread more hazardous material into the air.
Naturally, people onsite developed severe skin and respiratory problems, and cancer rates even in surrounding communities increased. Government workers sued just so that it could be disclosed what they had been poisoned with so that doctors could better determine how to treat them. In 1996, President Clinton signed an executive order protecting the administration of Area 51 from disclosing anything to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the lawsuit was dismissed for the same reason.
Dustin Koski can be followed on Twitter, but if you work for the government of course you were already following him.