The truth about Area 51

Myths and conspiracy theories aside, what is really happening at this mysterious air base?

Image source: Pixabay

Isolated in the Nevada Desert, a dusty path leads to the heavily guarded Area 51 – an area marked only by orange poles. Covered with blinking surveillance cameras and sensors, the warning signs threaten that deadly force will be used on those who trespass. Has Area 51 been used as a landing spot designated for extraterrestrial passengers on a comet? Perhaps it is the home to aliens held captive by the government or the site of a reconstructed Moon to fake the landing footage? These imaginative stories from conspiracy theorists are very unlikely. Instead, Area 51 seems to be where secret military planes and weapons are tested.

The airfield first began service in WWII as an aerial gun range before the CIA established the site as the location for Project AQUATONE. This project was developing Lockheed U-2, a strategic reconnaissance plane. The new aircraft would allow the military to fly at much higher altitudes and enable them to fly over the USSR without the risk of being shot down. Keeping this secret was a matter of national security, but people noticed the unusually high-flying craft that civilians couldn’t explain, so when the test flights started it wasn’t long before UFO sightings were reported.

While the U-2 operations stopped in the 1960s the base continued to test experimental planes. The base’s primary purpose today is not publicly known, but we can say that almost certainly there are no aliens at Area 51. Almost.

Top security

Whatever is happening in Area 51, the US Government has gone to a lot of trouble to make it difficult for anyone to find out. Historically, the site has been hidden from maps and not recorded on official documents. The land is patrolled by private security guards; they are kitted out with long-range viewing devices, night-vision equipment and 4×4 vehicles with monitors fed by movement sensors around the border of the base. If you are found to be trespassing on the grounds the guards are authorised to shoot to kill. Even if you were to gain top security clearance, you would still be kept in the dark about the true nature of Area 51. Staff arrive on unmarked planes, there are no windows at the facility and teams are not informed about anything outside their own duties.

5 facts about declassified projects

1. Tacit Blue and Have Blue (1975)

These two planes were the first developed with stealth technology and carried an active radar system to scan ground forces. Have Blue was a prototype for the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter and arrived at Area 51 in 1977.

2. The Bird of Prey (1992)

This single-seat, gull-wing experimental aircraft with a radar-evading shape and is rumoured to have also tested active camouflage – the changing of its surface’s colour or luminosity to match the surroundings.

3. The Suntan (1960)

This plane was developed as the successor of the U-2 after one was shot down by the USSR. The Suntan used liquid hydrogen fuel and could fly at a much faster 3,200 kilometres per hour.

4. TR-3A Black Manta (1993)

A rumoured project that is described by the website of the Federation of American Scientists as a “subsonic stealthy reconnaissance aircraft”, little is known about this aircraft.

5. Aurora (1985)

This code name was accidentally leaked in a budget document and described a reconnaissance and strike plane capable of flying at least 6,100 kilometres per hour and was able to reach anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 121, written by Charlie Evans 


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