Newly declassified documents, obtained by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, appear to for the first time acknowledge the existence of Area 51. Hundreds of pages describe the genesis of the Nevada site that was home to the government’s spy plane program for decades. The documents do not, however, mention aliens.
The project started humbly. In the pre-drone era about a decade after the end of World War II, President Eisenhower signed off on a project aimed at building a high-altitude, long-range, manned aircraft that could photograph remote targets. Working together, the Air Force and Lockheed developed a craft that could hold the high-resolution cameras required for the images, a craft that became the U-2. Why “U-2”?
They decided that they could not call the project aircraft a bomber, fighter, or transport plane, and they did not want anyone to know that the new plane was for reconnaissance, so [Air Force officers] Geary and Culbertson decided that it should come under the utility aircraft category. At the time, there were only two utility aircraft on the books, a U-1 and a U-3. told Culbertson that the Lockheed CL-282 was going to be known officially as the U-2.
The next step was to find a place from which the top-secret aircraft could be flown.
On 12 April 1955 [CIA officer] Richard Bissell and Col. Osmund Ritland (the senior Air Force officer on the project staff) flew over Nevada with [Lockheed’s] Kelly Johnson in a small Beechcraft plane piloted by Lockheed’s chief test pilot, Tony LeVier. 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. 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 atrempted 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.
That’s the first acknowledged mention of the Groom Lake site, according to Chris Pocock, a British author who’s written extensively about the program and provided his thoughts to the GWU archive. Nor, it seems, has the low-contrast image that accompanies that section (below) been seen.
The name “Area 51,” so evocative, was an accident of circumstance.
After consulting with [the CIA’s] Dulles, Bissell and Miller asked the Atomic Energy Commission to add the Groom Lake area to its real estate holdings in Nevada. AEC Chairman Adm. Lewis Strauss readily agreed, and President Eisenhower also approved the addition of this strip of wasteland, known by its map designation as Area 51, to the Nevada Test Site. The outlines of Area 51 are shown on current unclassified maps as a small rectangular area adjoining the northeast corner of the much larger Nevada Test Site.
Recognizing that people might not be excited about moving to a place called “Area 51” in the middle of the desert, a new name was offered: “Paradise Ranch, which was soon shortened to the Ranch.” It was less appealing, however, in popular culture.
The National Security Archive outlines other new revelations in the documents (all 407 pages of which can be downloaded from the site). Three new details:
- More than three pages (pp. 153-157, previously deleted in their entirety) on British participation in the U-2 program. The authors note that President Dwight Eisenhower viewed British participation “as a way to confuse the Soviets as to sponsorship of particular overflights” as well to spread the risk of failure.
- An account (pp. 231-233, previously redacted in its entirety) of U-2 operations from India, between 1962 and 1967, triggered by the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
- An account (pp. 222-230 ff., almost entirely deleted in the previous release) of U.S.-sponsored Chinese Nationalist U-2 operations, including tables of the number of overflight and peripheral missions each year.
It also includes a notation regarding the most famous U-2 flight: The May 1, 1960, flight of Francis Gary Powers which ended when Powers’ craft was downed by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. In another bit of overlap with modern surveillance, Powers’ flight left from an airfield in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
We’re still going through the document, so take a look for yourself. If you see anything interesting, leave it in the comments, below.
Hat-tip: Ryan Reilly. Photo: A U-2.(AP)