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Declassified: The CIA’s Secret History of Area 51

Declassified: The CIA’s Secret History of Area 51

Area 51 is a touchstone of America’s cultural mythology. It rose to notoriety in 1989, when a Las Vegas man claimed he had worked at the secret facility to discover the secrets of crashed alien hardware, spawning two decades of conspiracy theories and speculation about little green men. But the facility’s history — and the history of the strange, secret aircraft that were developed there — extends back to 1955. Since its inception, the government has obliquely acknowledged its existence only a handful of times, and even the CIA’s 1996 declassified history of the OXCART program — the development of the SR-71 Blackbird at the secret site — refers only to tests conducted in "the Nevada desert." The government has never publicly discussed the specific facility … until now.

On Thursday, the National Security Archive reported that it had gotten its hands on a newly declassified CIA history of the development of the U-2 spy plane. The report, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, contains the CIA’s secret record of how Area 51 came to be.

In 1955, CIA Special Assistant for Planning and Coordination Richard Bissell, Col. Osmund Ritland, an Air Force officer working on the U-2 project, and Lockheed aircraft designer Kelly Johnson began looking for a location in California or Nevada to test the U-2 prototype. The location had to be remote — far from the view of the public (or potential Soviet spies). On April 12, 1955, they were scouting locations from the air with the help of Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier. While flying over the Groom Lake salt flat, they noticed an airstrip that had been abandoned after being used by the Army Air Corps during World War II. The CIA history describes their first encounter with the site:

After debating about landing on the old airstrip, LeVier set the plan down on the lakebed, and all four walked over to examine the strip…. From the air the strip appeared to be paved, but on closer inspection it turned out to have originally been fashioned from compacted earth that had turned into ankle-deep dust after more than a decade of disuse. If LeVier had attempted to land on the airstrip, the plane would probably have nosed over when the wheels sank into the loose soil, killing or injuring all of the key figures in the U-2 project.

The salt flat and old airstrip were added to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada Test Site, which the land abutted. On the AEC maps, like the one above, the area was designated "Area 51." For the U-2 developers, it went by a different name. Johnson, the plane’s lead designer, called the facility Paradise Ranch, and it came to be informally know as "the Ranch" — or "Watertown Strip," after bouts of flooding. The site became operational three months later, in July 1955, and testing of the spy plane was underway by the end of the month.

The UFO sightings began almost immediately. The U-2’s operating altitude of 60,000 feet was higher than any other aircraft at the time — higher than some people even thought possible. "[I]f a U-2 was airborne in the vicinity of the airliner [during twilight hours] … its silver wings would catch and reflect the rays of the sun and appear to the airliner pilot, 40,000 feet below, to be fiery objects," the CIA history notes. These sightings were reported to air-traffic controllers and the Air Force, and were compiled in the Air Force’s Operation BLUE BOOK, another subject of decades of alien conspiracy theories. "U-2 and later OXCART [the SR-71 development program] flights accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports during the late 1950s and most of the 1960s," according to the CIA.

The Ranch was evacuated in June 1957 for a series of nuclear tests "whose fallout was expected to contaminate the Groom Lake facility," the report notes, but by September 1959 the CIA was back, using the site to develop the A-12, the forerunner to the SR-71. Over the next year, flights shuttled work crews to and from Area 51; the runway was lengthened, new hangars and 100 surplus Navy housing buildings were installed, and 18 miles of highway to the site were resurfaced. The facility seems to have remained in operation since.

The latest declassified documents aren’t exactly new revelations for Area 51 scholars — much of this is known from interviews and inferences. In researching this article, I spoke to Bill Sweetman, an expert on secret U.S. military projects, who recounted the story of Bissell, Ritland, Johnson, and LeVier finding the site in the same detail as the declassified history. Sweetman directed me to the work of Chris Pocock, who has been reading between the lines of the CIA’s redactions for decades. But the new report, all 355 pages of which you can read here, does tell a fascinating story about the origins of one of America’s great mysteries.