You only have to mention Area 51 to imagine extraterrestrials, flying saucers, and futuristic devices, but what's really going on at this secret military base? Here are 20 unusual facts about Area 51 you may not know yet.
While Area 51 has sparked imaginations for decades, the CIA only officially acknowledged its existence in 2013! The official confirmation occurred after a declassified 1992 report by this U.S. intelligence agency was released.
While the name Area 51 refers simply to the site's location on Nevada maps, the famous military base did not always have such an enigmatic moniker. During its construction, the site was also called Paradise Ranch. Why such a charming name? The government just wanted to make the installation more attractive to the personnel working there.
Area 51 was initially constructed to test spy planes. The CIA chose the site in 1955 to conduct test flights of Lockheed's U-2, a reconnaissance plane capable of flying at unprecedented altitudes of up to 21,000 metres (70,000 feet).
During tests of the U-2 in the late 1950s, several local residents began seeing unidentified flying objects near Area 51. The aircraft's silver exterior tended to reflect the rays of the sun when flying at high altitudes, possibly giving the impression of spaceships soaring through the sky.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, other futuristic planes were tested at Area 51, including the Archangel-12 Oxcart. Transporting the aircraft required a custom-built trailer that cost nearly US$100,000 to produce (equal to about US$830,000 today). Because the A-12 was one of the fastest planes ever made, the CIA ordered air traffic controllers from the Federal Aviation Administration to refrain from mentioning over the radio the existence of supersonic aircraft flying at high altitudes. They had to record their observations in writing instead.
Many conspiracists think that humans never actually walked on the moon and that scenes of the lunar landing were filmed at Area 51 by a crew directed by Stanley Kubrick. This theory was first proposed in the book We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle, self-published in 1976 by William Kaysing. According to the author, the absence of stars in the background proves that the images were filmed in a studio, specifically Area 51. The authorities have, of course, rejected this idea, arguing that the phenomenon was due to a narrow lens aperture, but that didn't stop it from contributing to the aura of mystery surrounding Area 51.
Since the 1970s, those in charge of Area 51 have refused to reveal the technology on which they are working, prompting all sorts of speculation. Are they working on spaceships or perhaps cutting-edge machinery? Will we ever find out?
Area 51, officially known as the Nevada Test and Training Range, is considered part of Nellis Air Force Base, a military installation northeast of Las Vegas. While the base has its own website, it remains silent about the famous Area 51, devoting no section of the site to it.
In the 1980s, Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore published The Roswell Incident, a book that would significantly enhance the myth of Area 51. The authors claimed that the U.S. Army recovered debris from a flying saucer in 1947. The craft and its extraterrestrial occupants were supposedly transported to a secret base to be studied. A link was quickly made with Area 51. The U.S. Army later revealed that the machine recovered in 1947 was, in fact, a sounding balloon sent up to detect Soviet nuclear weapons.
Extraterrestrial research centre?
In a 1989 televised interview and using the pseudonym “Dennis,” alleged physicist Bob Lazar declared that he had worked at S4, an installation near Area 51. He reportedly worked on propulsion technology used by flying saucers. To this day, his testimony continues to spark intense controversy (there is even a documentary about it on Netflix) and fan the flames of the Area 51 myth.
First official presidential mention by Barack Obama
While Area 51 has existed since the 1950s, no president spoke publicly about the base before Barack Obama did at the Annual Kennedy Center Honors in 2013.
Nuclear test site
During the Second World War, the region surrounding Area 51 was used primarily as a nuclear test site. The terrain was vast enough to test nuclear weapons at a suitable distance from civilization. A 2003 report, however, found that nuclear testing had a severe impact on the region's water, climate, and animals.
In 1996, former Area 51 employees sued the government, claiming that they had been repeatedly exposed to toxic substances—two have since died. Tests performed on samples have been unable to definitively confirm that the employees were affected by chemical substances.
Base exempt from environmental laws
Also in 1996, President Bill Clinton exempted Area 51 directors from complying with environmental laws requiring them to divulge classified information. In other words, no confidential information about Area 51 could be disclosed during a trial concerning environmental law.
Constantly expanding base
Area 51 has expanded significantly in recent years. In 2019, photos taken by a Cessna pilot showed the presence of new structures, including a large building and hangar.
Fly to work
Area 51 employees don't drive to work. They take a plane operated by the airline Janet from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Never heard of Janet? That's no surprise. The company belongs to Aecom, a large engineering company working as a subcontractor for the military.
Perimeter under surveillance
Don't even try approaching the Area 51 perimeter. You risk getting bullied by “camo dudes,” private security agents who patrol the area's boundaries. Armed and dressed in camouflage, they can often be seen driving unmarked pick-up trucks.
Visiting Area 51? You'll have to wear “foggles”
If you ever get permission to visit Area 51, expect to have to wear “foggles,” glasses that block a large part of the wearer's field of vision, allowing them to see only what is directly in front of them. Visitors are thus prevented from seeing ultra-secret devices and technology.
If you're ever tempted to enter Area 51 illegally, be aware that you risk some severe penalties. In addition to paying a fine, you may also see jail time. Patrols are even authorized to use force if necessary. In 2019, two young Dutch citizens attempted to go beyond the authorized boundaries and were sentenced to one year in prison. In the end, they spent only three days in jail but were required to hand over their electronic equipment and pay a fine of US$2,280 each.