The Nevada Test and Training Range, which spreads across the high-plains desert northwest of Las Vegas, occupies 4,687 square miles—making it the largest federally-owned parcel of land in the United States. It encompasses the Nellis Air Force Base, the Nevada Test Site (where from 1951 to 1992 some 900 atomic bombs were test-detonated), plus a seemingly-random assortment of numbered “Areas”. One of these Areas, number 51, includes a vast dry lake bed called Groom Lake. In 1955 the Central Intelligence Agency was looking for a remote location to test Lockheed’s new high-altitude U-2 spy plane. Assistant Director of the CIA Richard Bissell, then assigned to oversee the project, and Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s designer of the U-2 (and founder of the “Skunkworks”), picked Groom Lake. It was nicely hidden by mountains on two sides and would have been perfect except that it was right next to (and usually downwind from) the atomic bomb test site. Nevertheless, under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission (now called the Department of Energy) a temporary base was completed at the dry lake bed by mid-year. They named it Watertown. Interestingly, at first it was not entirely secret. The AEC actually sent out press releases announcing that they were testing a new high-altitude airplane for “weather observation”, but after that the site became an entirely “black operation”. Although there were interruptions—they had to evacuate during atomic bomb detonations, the “temporary base” eventually became permanent, and expanded as subsequent top-secret airplane testing continued there. Next came Project Oxcart—Lockheed’s mach-3-capable Blackbird SR-71 (and its Air Force equivalent the Archangel-12). In the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, all manner of stealth aircraft were developed and tested there, including the Lockheed F117 fighter and the bat-winged Northrop-Grumman B-2 bomber.
In 1989 a (purported) engineer named Bob Lazar (who had built his own jet car) did a TV interview with Las Vegas news reporter George Knapp. Lazar claimed that he had worked for an engineering company called E G & G at a location he called S-4 at Area 51. (I say “claimed” because MIT, where he said he received his degrees, says he never attended the university.) His story was somewhat fantastic. He would fly daily from Las Vegas McCarran Airport, in government-owned 737s with other Area 51 workers (who all went by aliases, per the rules), and spend his day at S-4 working on reverse-engineering the propulsion system in a captured extraterrestrial craft—a flying saucer. Lazar’s story gained some credibility when he befriended John Lear, one of the most experienced and decorated pilots in the world, and son of the founder of the Learjet Company. Lear believed Lazar’s story and went with him in the middle of the night, out to a spot on the side of Highway 375 noted by a black mailbox on the side of the road, where they watched flying saucers being test-flown over the desert. Lazar has since fallen off the public radar screen, but his story spawned one of the most famous conspiracy theories of all time—that the United States Government had UFOs at Area 51.
So, you might think that this would bring droves of UFO nuts in tour buses out to the Nevada desert to see the place, but when Doug Davidson and I drove out to see it for ourselves we came across less than a dozen other people doing the same. Perhaps that’s because it is out in the middle of nowhere—a three-hour drive from Las Vegas to Rachel, the only town near Area 51. The last gas station is in Alamo, an hour from Rachel. Our cell phones lost signal about the time we turned on to Nevada State Highway 375—now officially dubbed the Extraterrestrial Highway. 375 winds over a few mountains, and then opens up to a long-range desert view. In some spots it rolls perfectly straight for fifteen or twenty miles at a stretch. It is desolate out here. Tumble weeds blow across the road. An occasional free-range cow saunters across as well. Gravel Groom Lake Road veers off to the left and goes arrow-straight for twenty-two miles to one of the two (reported) entrances into Area 51. We ventured about half way down Groom Lake Road before turning around and getting back on 375. The “black mailbox” (now painted white) is easy to find. It’s the only mailbox on the side of the highway. We stopped for the obligatory photos, and scanned the skies to no avail. Of course it was mid-afternoon not midnight, and it was Sunday (maybe the UFO pilots take Sunday off?).
Another twenty miles down 375 and we arrived at Rachel, population 54 according to the 2010 Census. There is only one commercial venue in Rachel: The Little Ale’ Inn, a bar-and-grill with an alien/UFO theme. Pat Travis and her husband Joe opened the Rachel Bar and Grill in 1989, and changed the name a year later. Joe has since passed away but Pat still runs the place. Ravenous from travel, I feasted on their Alien Burger, with special saucer sauce (which Susie, our waitress, confessed was really Thousand Island dressing—although homemade!) And a darn fine burger it was! More photos, tee shirts, a book, a secret Area 51 map (price 33 cents), and some chocolate chip cookies and we were back on the road.
Susie had given us directions to the other Area 51 “back gate” entrance road, which runs out from behind Rachel. “Don’t try to go through that gate”, she sternly advised. Ten miles down the road we finally reached the gate. The guard shack and an adjacent building appeared to be unoccupied, but they did have mirrored windows, so who knows? All the “WARNING!”, “US AIR FORCE INSTALLATION”, “NO TRESPASSING”, and “PHOTOGRAPHY OF THIS AREA IS PROHIBITED” signs were posted, but the original “USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED” sign has been replaced by “MAXIMUM PUNISHMENT $1000 FINE, SIX MONTHS IMPRISONMENT, OR BOTH, STRICTLY ENFORCED”.
Bruce’s newest book: Florida’s Best Bed and Breakfasts and Historic Hotels just released in September.