Area 51 has been firmly embedded in American lore, often as the home of little green men secreted away in the Nevada desert. Now, the U.S. government has acknowledeged the existence of the site in a history of the Lockheed CL-282, also known as the U-2 spy plane.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2002, George Washington University’s National Security Archive has published the CIA-authored report, The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, to its site, complete with a full torrent of the document to minimize the load on its servers.
The report, authored in 1992, was originally classified as “secret,” but was declassified with redactions in 1998. Secreted away within those redactions were the references to Area 51, the site also known as “Groom Lake” in the Nevada desert. Those redactions were almost all eliminated in June; the university then published the report.
Following World War II, the government's goal was to keep tabs on known and potentially hostile countries, with airborne surveillance seen as a means with great potential. The government also believed that a plane flying above 65,000 feet would evade the early-warning radars used by Russia and other hostile nations, and set out to develop a plane to do just that: the Lockheed CL-282 , which was renamed the U-2 in July 1955, according to the report.
The U-2 was fitted with a camera sensitive enough that it could take high-resolution photos even at those high altitudes. The A1 camera, as it was known, would take continuous, horizon-to-horizon photos of the ground beneath the aircraft.
Subequent “B” and “C” camera revisions were actually developed using the first instances of “ray-tracing,” where the movement of light through the camera’s lens was simulated via an IBM card-programmed calculator at nearby Boston University, according to the report.
Unfortunately, the government also needed a site to build and test the aircraft, which was how Area 51 came to be. According to the report:
“As work progressed in California on the airframe, in Connecticut on the engines, and in Boston on the camera system, the top officials of the Development Projects Staff flew to California and Nevada to search for a site where the aircraft could be tested safely and secretly,” the report says.
“On 12 April 1955, Richard Bissell and Col. Osmund Ritland (the senior Air Force officer on the project staff) flew over Nevada with Kelly Johnson in a small Beechcraft plane piloted by Lockheed’s chief test pilot, Tony LeVier,” the report added. “They spotted what appeared to be an airstrip by a salt flat known as Groom Lake, near the northeast corner of the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Nevada Proving Ground."
The report continued: "After debating about landing on the old airstrip, LeVier set the plane down on the lakebed, and all four walked over to examine the strip. The facility had been used during World War II as an aerial gunnery range for Army Air Corps pilots. 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 project.”
To make the site more attractive, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the leader of the Lockheed “Ckunk Works,” referred to the location as “Paradise Ranch”. Area 51 was simply the map designation.
A separate note by British author Chris Pocock notes that much of the information found in the report was already known, either by other, declassified documents, interviews with personnel, or just good old-fashioned legwork. One tool, the Declassification Engine, was released this May, with the hope that it will eventually become a shared workspace of sorts to peirce the veil of government secrecy.
Of course, since then, the mystery of sites like Area 51 have diminished somewhat, thanks to leaks, as well as to satellite overflights of virtually the entire world, via sites like Google Maps. But at a time when the world is being rocked by other reports of U.S. spying, it’s interesting to see what the government was up to more than fifty years ago.