Area 51: Origins

America’s once-secret air base had humble beginnings

An Air Force crew unloads a disassembled Lockheed U-2 from a C-124 transport. With a maximum takeoff weight of 216,000 pounds, the C-124 usually landed on the lakebed to avoid wear and tear to the base’s paved runway. When the first U-2 was scheduled to be delivered on July 25, 1955, rain had softened the lakebed surface, but base commander Colonel Richard Newton refused to allow the C-124 to land on the asphalt strip. He relented after Kelly Johnson, head of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, expressed his dissatisfaction and called CIA headquarters. Two hours later, using reverse-propeller-pitch for braking, the C-124 landed on partially deflated tires. After the dust cleared, the commander noted that the runway had a quarter-inch indentation running a distance of 50 feet. “It was really gory for a first meeting with Newton,” Johnson later wrote in his personal log.
With the Groom Range mountains in the background, Article 361, the first U-2 built for the Air Force, sits on the lakebed after landing. A 1953 Willys-Overland one-ton, four-by-four truck waits to tow the aircraft back to the airstrip. Article 361 was constructed at Lockheed’s plant in Oildale, California.
On July 29, 1955, Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier made the U-2’s unofficial first flight during a taxi test, when he inadvertently left the ground at a speed of 70 knots and remained airborne for a quarter of a mile before making a rough landing.
In 1956, the base had three hangars, flanked by a control tower and warehouse. By March, nine U-2 aircraft had been delivered to the test site. Colonel Landon McConnell replaced Newton as base commander, and Colonel William Yancey oversaw flight-training activities. Four instructors trained pilots in ground school, which was followed by landing practice in a T-33 and, eventually, solo flights in the U-2.
Most of the base personnel lived in 30-foot-long mobile homes, with each trailer housing three people. In addition, there was an 18-bedroom dormitory adjacent to the headquarters building.
The cabins, or “hooches” (officially known as Babbitt Housing), provided accommodations only marginally better than the trailers. To occupy non-duty hours, Lockheed A-12 pilots converted House 6 into a bar and established a running poker game. Other recreation facilities included a three-hole golf course, movie theater, gymnasium, basketball and squash courts, fishing pond, and softball field.
The dark spot in the upper right was the “Crash Pit,” used for training firefighters.
Lockheed built a 1/8-scale model of the A-12 to test the aircraft’s radar cross-section. The model was mounted atop a 22-foot-long inflatable pylon positioned within line of sight of a radar facility half a mile away. Though the pylon was incapable of supporting the weight of a full-size model, the structure was nearly transparent to radar. Straight seams on the bag, however, generated measurable radar reflections. The A-12 scale model included structures to simulate afterburner exhaust plumes.
In preparation for high-altitude flights, U-2 pilots were required to breathe oxygen for two hours at the base’s life-support facility. To pass the time, pilot Ray Goudey reads a 1955 collection of short stories by noted science-fiction authors of the day. Vertical lines on Goudey’s faceplate are heating elements that defrost the glass.
Article 780, a Lockheed YF-117A stealth test aircraft, first flew on June 18, 1981, with pilot Harold Farley at the controls. The planned 30-minute sortie was cut short after 13 minutes due to a canopy warning light and overheating in the exhaust duct. Article 780 was painted light gray to reduce its daytime visual signature. Ben Rich, Lockheed’s vice president for advanced projects, wanted to deliver the production F-117A aircraft in gray, but General William Creech, chief of Tactical Air Command, wanted the airplanes painted black. “You don’t ask the commander of TAC why he wants to do something,” Rich recalled. “He pays the bills. If the general had wanted pink, we’d have painted them pink.”
By November 1986, the fleet of airliners transporting base workers to and from Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport included six Boeing 737-200 transports. The aircraft are parked on the Area 51 ramp adjacent to the passenger terminal, flight-crew lounge, and security office, where incoming personnel underwent a badge check.

The U.S. Air Force base in southern Nevada, known unofficially as Area 51, is where some of the world’s most advanced aircraft have been flown and tested. Over the years, the base has engendered dozens of conspiracy theories, in part because of rumors of preserved alien corpses stored on the premises, but also due to reports of exotic aircraft that seem to defy the laws of physics. No wonder the base is also known as “Dreamland.”

But long before Area 51 secured its place in popular culture, it was little more than a camp in the desert, with spartan living accommodations and test facilities. Air & Space contributor Pete Merlin has assembled 230 photographs from those early days in his book Area 51: Images of Aviation.

The Editors