Military Facility, Social Phenomenon and
State of Mind
Area 51, also known as Groom Lake, is a
secret military facility about 90 miles north of Las Vegas. The number refers to
a 6-by-10-mile block of land, at the center of which is a large air base the
government will not discuss. The site was selected in the mid-1950s for testing
of the U-2 spyplane, due to its remoteness, proximity to existing facilities and
presence of a dry lake bed for landings. Groom Lake is America's traditional
testing ground for "black budget" aircraft before they are publicly
acknowledged. The facility and surrounding areas are also associated -- with
varying levels of credibility -- with UFO and conspiracy stories. In 1989, Bob
Lazar claimed on a Las Vegas television station that he had worked with alien
spacecraft at Papoose Lake, south of Area 51. Since then, "Area 51" has become a
popular symbol for the alleged U.S. Government UFO cover-up.
Something big is in the works at Nevada's legendary Area 51 military base. A massive new building is under construction at the top secret location. Aviation experts say there's a good chance that a new, highly classified aircraft might soon be zipping around the Nevada skies. What kind of aircraft? One possibility is a successor to the SR-71 spy plane, the SR-72. The SR-71 Blackbird is widely regarded as thegreatest airplane ever built.
It sliced through the sky at Mach 3 and still reigns, officially anyway, as the fastest plane in history. Groom Lake, also known as Area 51, was home for the Blackbird during its early days. The question is -- will Area 51 also be the location of choice for the development of a successor, and maybe more than one? A photo of a new building under construction at Area 51 has raised tantalizing possibilities for the civilian researchers who dabble in such topics. No one can say for certain what the buildingwill be used for, but aviation historian Peter Merlin says the one thing we can say is that it's one big hangar. "It probably measures 275 feet by 600 feet. It's no larger than hangars at other bases, but it certainly is the largest at Area 51," Peter Merlin said.
It would be logical for this town to consider sisterhoodwith Loch Ness, Scotland, home to a putative aquatic monster whose reported "sightings" have fired up imaginations for decades. Rachel, population about 100, also has a lake, a mystery at the bottom of it and the business savvy to turn it into a lucrative enterprise. Groom Lake, about 25 miles southwest of here, has not held any water since probably the last ice age, but even an attempt to sneak a peak from one of the surrounding mountaintops will bring out the authorities. Pat Travis has seen many a truth seeker ending up in handcuffs. "Remember, if even as much as your toe gets inside therestricted area, they'll grab you, and you'll end up paying a $600 fine," Mrs.
Travis said. She is the owner of Little A'Le'Inn, Rachel's only restaurant, bar and motel, which is booming with curious visitors. Mrs. Travis tells the story about a man who set off a major security alert as he stretched his hand across the boundary to grab a rock as a souvenir. Sirens blared, she recalls, searchlights pierced the dark and black helicopters swooped down from out of nowhere to nab the intruder. Bone-dry Groom Lake and its immediate surroundings are known as Area 51, the U.S. government's single most closely guarded facility. It is so secret that Pentagon officials are not authorized even to acknowledge its existence. It is protected bysomber-looking camouflage-clad men who careen around the ridges in sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, backed up by a network of cameras, motion sensors and listening devices. For local residents, what could be better for business than a good secret next door? A dusty gravel road runs through a picturesque Joshua tree grove, then veers to the right before revealing a slew of red-and-white warnings not to proceed any further. The camouflage men are parked on the hill above -- engine running, ready to pounce.
Those robo-dragonflies may not be the only creatures keeping an eye on you. For many years now intelligence agencies have been looking at drones disguised as birds. These days flapping-wing "ornithopters" are not easy to tell apart from birds -take a look at this video of a robo-peregrine and some seagulls and see how long it takes you to spot the impostor. But even back in the 1970"s you could build something that did a pretty good impression of a soaring bird seen from a distance. This was the CIA"s 1970 Project Aquiline, one of those top-secret program carried out at Area 51. That"s the only known model of it in the photo. The plane"s mission was to intercept signals from deepinside enemy territory, hence the need for the bird camouflage.
The project was headed by Lt Col John H. "Hank" Meierdierck, who tells the story in his online autobiography. The relationship with contractors McDonnell Douglas was the problem: The vehicle was a six foot long plane that had a small pusher prop and actually looked like an eagle or buzzard when it was in the air. It was designed to fly at very low levels along communications lines and intercept their messages. It also had a small television in the nose as an aid to navigation and to photograph targets of opportunity. There were several successful flights and some crashes [reason unknown] and some lousy landings. This small vehicle was launched from inclined rails and was recovered in a large net strung between two poles. Progresswas passable, but then came budget time. The contractor predicts the amount of money needed since I did not have the intimate knowledge of the development expenses. I had $11 million for the following year and I advised McDonnell of this fact and asked for the next years operating budget. They came back to me with a $110 million forecast. Ridiculous! I returned to HDQ and discussed it with the bosses and they suggested that I give them two weeks to adjust the amount and then to come to DC with the result and have Macdonald Douglas present their budget.