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[Satelite photo of Groom Lake base ()]

Area 51
(Det. 3, AFFTC)

"We acknowledge having an operating site there, and the work is classified." Air Force spokeswoman Gloria Cales.

At 6:05 AM on June 18, 1981 Lockheed Skunk Works test pilot Hal Farley lifted the nose of YF-117A #79-780 off the runway of the test site in the Nevada desert. The F-117A became the latest in a series of aircraft to make their first flights at this remote location located XXX miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. Although officially designated Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center, this remote facility is known in the popular press as Area 51.

In the begining...

In April 1955, the first U-2 was being built under tight wraps inside Building 82 at the Skunk Works in Burbank Calif. After chief engineering test pilot Tony LeVier agreed to test fly the secret cold war spyplane, Kelly Johnson gave him the following task:

"Now, listen. I want you to take the company Bonanza and find us a place out on the desert somewhere where we can test this thing in secret. And don't tell anyone what you're up to."

From Ben Rich's SKUNK WORKS:

"Levier knew the vast sprawl of desert terrain shared by California and Nevada as well as any mule-packing Forty-Niner; as a test pilot he had mapped in his mind nearly every dry lake bed between Burbank and Las Vegas as a possible emergency landing strip. So he took off on his scouting expedition, after telling follow pilots he was off to count whales for the Navy -- a project Lockheed had actually done from time to time -- and headed north toward Death Valley. Two days later, he found the perfect spot.
"I gave it a ten plus," he told me years later. "Just dandy. A dry lake bed about three and a half miles around. I had some sixteen-pound cast-iron shotput balls with me and dropped one out to see if the surface was deep sand. Damned if it wasn't hard as a tabletop. I landed and took pictures."
[1968 photo of THE RANCH()]A few days later Tony flew Kelly (Johnson) and a tall civilian introduced to him only as "Mr. B." to the site to take a look. His wife had packed a picnic lunch, but a stiff wind began howling, blowing large stones across the surface of the dry lake. "This will do nicely," Mr B. remarked. The area was not only remote but off-limits to all unauthorized air traffic because of its proximity to nuclear testing. As Kelly noted in his private log that day: "Flew out and located runway at south end of lake...Mr Bissel pleased. He enjoyed my proposed name for the site as 'Paradise Ranch'."
Fronting for the CIA under the phoney C & J Engineering logo (from Clarence Johnson), Kelly hired a construction company to put in wells, two hangers, an airstrip, and a mess hall in the middle of a desert in blistering 130-degree summer heat. At one point, the guy Kelly used as his contractor put out a subcontracting bid. One subcontractor warned him: "Look out for this C & J outfit. We looked them up in Dun & Bradstreet, and they don't even have a credit rating." This base was built for only $800,000. "I'll bet this is one of the best deals the government will ever get," Kelly remarked to several of us. And he was right."

What's in a name?

[Annotated Det. 3 satelite image. (AWST)] Over the decades the test site located at Groom Dry Lake has been known by many names since its construction. Kelly Johnson named the place "Paradise Ranch" hoping to fool employees into working at a place with such a pleasent name. When his flight test team arrived in July 1955, they simply called it "The Ranch" (A term still used by most Skunkers today). The secret base was formally named Watertown Strip, after the town in upstate New York where CIA director Allen Dulles was born. In June 1958, it was officially designated Area 51 by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The adjacent AEC proving grounds became known as the Nevada Test Site and divided into numbered areas.

[Annotated Det. 3 satalite image. (AWST)] By 1970, the USAF Systems Command took over the operation of Groom Lake. It's designation was officially changed to Detachment 3 (or Det 3), AFFTC (based at Edwards AFB). Despite this fact, the older name "Area 51" has been popularized by the mass media and Hollywood and is a part of pop culture.

In 1975, the Red Flag series of realistic air warfare exercises started at Nellis AFB, using large portions of the ranges surrounding Groom Lake. The box of airspace surrounding Groom Lake was strictly off-limits to Red Flag aircrews. It became known informally as "Red Square" at this time (remember that aquired Soviet aircraft were being test flown there at the time as the Red Hats/Red Eagles).

Later the base acquired the semi-official title of "Dreamland" as a series of new exotic aerospace projects evolved in the late 1970s. These included the Have Blue/XST and Tacit Blue stealth technology demonstrators. The testing of these aircraft brought the extreme security measures at Groom Lake that we see today.

Have Blue Program

All 52 Have Blue test flights occured at Groom Lake. Both Have Blue crashes occured on the surrounding ranges, and the wreckages of both aircraft are buried in the Groom Lake vacinity.

F-117A Operations

[Southern hangers at Groom from satalite. ()] The F-117A Joint (later Combined) Test Force (JTF, later CTF) operated from the Southern hangers at Groom Lake from 1980 until February 1992 when the unit moved from Groom Lake to Air Force Plant 42, Palmdale, California. In addition to developing the aircraft's weapons delivery and aerial refueling capabilities, the unit was responsible for flying and certifying each and every of the 5 prototype and 59 production aircraft before they were turned over to Tactical Air Command (TAC). There were usually four to six test flights (about half contractor and half USAF) for acceptance. They included systems checks, handling qualities evaluations, and low observable verifications.

It was also at Groom Lake that the first production aircraft #80-785 crashed on takeoff ending the carear of Lockheed test pilot LTC Bob Ridenhauer.

Other programs

Throughout the decades the Groom Lake test site has been home to many test programs. These include (in addition to ones that we are not yet aware of):

Current Operations

[Janet flight on approach. ()] Contrary to the older Popular Mechanics article, Area 51 is NOT closed. (The reporter took a wrong turn in the desert.) "Janet" flights from the northwest side of McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada flown by E.G. & G. depart for Groom Lake every weekday in the wee hours of the morning carrying an estimated 500 workers to .

[Visually invisible aircraft?. (Popular Science)] There is much speculation to current operations, including UFO related by some. One likely project is one that was originally intended to be incorporated into the Have Blue aircraft. Have Blue was supposed to be equiped with light sensors to detect background illummination levels and change skin colors to blend visually into the sky if seen from below. At the time, this technology just was not ready. However, with the recent developement of Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) it is concievingly possible.

However, eveything is just speculation.

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