Area 51 is a nickname for a military base that is located in the southern portion of Nevada in the western United States (83 miles north-northwest of downtown Las Vegas). Situated at its center, on the southern shore of Groom Lake, is a large secretive military airfield. The base's primary purpose is to support development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems.12
The base lies within the United States Air Force's vast Nevada Test and Training Range. Although the facilities at the range are managed by the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, the Groom facility appears to be run as an adjunct of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, around 186 miles (300 km) southwest of Groom, and as such the base is known as Air Force Flight Test Center (Detachment 3).34
Other names used for the facility include Dreamland, Paradise Ranch,56 Home Base, Watertown Strip, Groom Lake,7 and most recently Homey Airport.8 The area is part of the Nellis Military Operations Area, and the restricted airspace around the field is referred to as (R-4808N9), known by the military pilots in the area as "The Box."
The intense secrecy surrounding the base, the very existence of which the U.S. government barely acknowledges, has led it to become the frequent subject of conspiracy theories and a central component to unidentified flying object (UFO) folklore.10
Area 51 shares a border with the Yucca Flat region of the Nevada Test Site (NTS), the location of 739 of the 928 nuclear tests conducted by the United States Department of Energy at NTS.11 The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is approximately 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Groom Lake.
The original 6-by-10 mile rectangular base is now part of the so-called "Groom box", a 23-by-25.3 mile rectangular area of restricted airspace. The area is connected to the internal NTS road network, with paved roads leading south to Mercury and west to Yucca Flat. Leading northeast from the lake, the wide and well-maintained Groom Lake Road runs through a pass in the Jumbled Hills. The road formerly led to mines in the Groom basin, but has been improved since their closure. Its winding course runs past a security checkpoint, but the restricted area around the base extends further east. After leaving the restricted area, Groom Lake Road descends eastward to the floor of the Tikaboo Valley, passing the dirt-road entrances to several small ranches, before converging with State Route 375, the "Extraterrestrial Highway", south of Rachel.
Operations at Groom Lake
Groom Lake is not a conventional airbase, as frontline units are not normally deployed there. It instead appears to be used during the development, testing, and training phases for new aircraft. Once these aircraft have been approved by the United States Air Force or other agencies such as the CIA, operation of that aircraft is generally conducted from a normal air force base. Groom is reported, however, to be the permanent home for a small number of Soviet-designed aircraft14 which are analyzed and used for training purposes.
Soviet spy satellites obtained photographs of the Groom Lake area during the height of the Cold War, and later civilian satellites produced detailed images of the base and its surroundings. These images support only modest conclusions about the base, depicting a nondescript base, long airstrip, hangars and the lake.
Groom Lake was used for bombing and artillery practice during World War II, but was then abandoned until April 1955, when it was selected by Lockheed's Skunk Works team as the ideal location to test the forthcoming U-2 spy plane.1516 The lakebed made an ideal strip from which they could operate the troublesome test aircraft, and the Emigrant Valley's mountain ranges and the NTS perimeter protected the test site from prying eyes and outside interference.
Lockheed constructed a makeshift base at the location, then known as Site II or "The Ranch", consisting of little more than a few shelters, workshops and trailer homes in which to house its small team. In only three months a 5000-foot runway was constructed17 and was servicable by July 1955. The Ranch received its first U-2 delivery on July 24, 1955 from Burbank on a C-124 Globemaster II cargo plane, accompanied by Lockheed technicians on a Douglas DC-3.18 The first U-2 lifted off from at Groom on August 4, 1955. A U-2 fleet under the control of the CIA began overflights of Soviet territory by mid-1956.
During this period, the NTS continued to perform a series of atmospheric nuclear explosions. U-2 operations throughout 1957 were frequently disrupted by the Plumbbob series of atomic tests, which detonated over two-dozen devices at the NTS. The Plumbbob-Hood explosion on July 5 scattered fallout across Groom and forced a temporary evacuation.
Even before U-2 development was complete, Lockheed began work on its successor as part of the CIA's OXCART project, involving the A-12—a Mach-3 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft—a later variant of which became the famed USAF SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird's flight characteristics and maintenance requirements forced a massive expansion of facilities and runways at Groom Lake. By the time the first A-12 prototype flew at Groom in 1962, the main runway had been lengthened to 8,500 ft (2,600 m), and the base boasted a complement of over 1,000 personnel. It had fueling tanks, a control tower, and a baseball diamond. Security was greatly enhanced, the small civilian mine in the Groom basin was closed, and the area surrounding the valley was made an exclusive military preserve. Groom saw the first flight of most major Blackbird variants: A-12, the abortive YF-12 interceptor variant, and the D-21 Blackbird-based drone project. The A-12 would remain at Groom Lake until 1968. (The SR-71 first flew at Palmdale, California.)
Have Blue/F-117 program
The Lockheed Have Blue prototype stealth fighter (a smaller proof-of-concept model of the F-117 Nighthawk) first flew at Groom in December 1977.19 Testing of a series of ultra-secret prototypes continued there until mid-1981, when testing transitioned to the initial production of F-117 stealth fighters. In addition to flight-testing, Groom performed radar profiling, F-117 weapons testing, and was the location for training of the first group of frontline USAF F-117 pilots. Subsequently, the still highly classified active-service F-117 operations moved to the nearby Tonopah Test Range Airport, and finally to Holloman Air Force Base.
Commuter service is provided along Groom Lake Road by a bus, catering to a small number of employees living in several small communities beyond the NTS boundary (although it is not clear whether these workers are employed at Groom or at other facilities in the NTS). The bus travels Groom Lake Road and stops at Crystal Springs, Ash Springs, and Alamo, and parks at the Alamo courthouse overnight.
The base has seven runways including one that now appears to be closed. The closed runway, 14R/32L, is also by far the longest with a total length of approximately 7,100 meters (23,300 ft), not including stopway. The other runways are two asphalt runways, the 14L/32R with a length of 3,650 meters (12,000 ft) and 12/30 with a length of 1,650 meters (5,400 ft), and four runways located on the salt lake. These four runways are 09L/27R and 09R/27L, which are both approximately 3,500 meters (11,450 ft), and 03L/21R and 03R/21L, which are both approximately 3,050 meters (10,000 ft). The base also has a helipad.2021
In December 2007, airline pilots noticed that the base had appeared in their aircraft navigation systems' latest Jeppesen database revision with the ICAO airport identifier code of KXTA and listed as "Homey Airport".22 The probably-inadvertent release of the airport data led to advice by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) that student pilots should be explicitly warned about KXTA, not to consider it as a waypoint or destination for any flight even though it now appears in public navigation databases.23