’Area 51’ myth versus reality

Linda Saholt

News Review Correspondent

’Area 51’ myth versus realityThe very name “Area 51” evokes a sense of mystery and otherworldly goings-on. For Peter W. Merlin, Area 51 has been a source of fascination since 1984, when he began researching its history.

“Area 51 is at once the most secret and most well-known airfield in the world,” Merlin, told an audience of about 60 at the China Lake Museum Foundation’s meeting Jan. 17 at the Historic USO Building.

A slide show accompanying Merlin’s speech showed various prototype aircraft tested at the famous Nevada base, also known as Groom Lake, Dreamland, Watertown, Paradise Ranch and Detachment 3 of the Air Force Flight Test Center.

According to his research, the base started in 1955 as a temporary camp to use the three-square-mile Groom Lake dry lakebed to test aircraft being developed. The Cold War was on, and the remote location was considered ideal to test unacknowledged or highly classified projects, starting with the U-2 and later including aircraft capable of cruising at Mach 3 and stealth airplanes that are virtually invisible to radar.

What Merlin did not find, however, were any traces of UFOs, aliens or flying saucers.

The biggest surprise he found was that, from the beginning, the existence of the mystery base has always been public knowledge. One of his slides showed a letter announcing the opening of the base and inviting all media to attend.

Area 51 has also appeared on numerous unclassified maps produced by government agencies and contractors. What they were doing out there, however, was classified and carefully guarded.

A base of any size requires a lot of personnel to run it, and those personnel have to be housed, fed, supplied and transported.

In 1955 the area around Groom Lake was renamed “Paradise Ranch” to lure workers to the program. One of Merlin’s slides showed long rows of identical trailer homes parked on the flat, barren land.

“President Johnson announced the existence of this base in 1963,” said Merlin. “By the mid-1960s there were 1,800 people at Area 51. There were commuter flights in and out.”

Then came the various models of stealth aircraft. In 1979 the Air Force began actively discouraging, and at times preventing, any public or private entry to the Groom Lake area. So 89,600 acres of public land were withdrawn from public ac-cess, and the facilities at the base were expanded greatly.

In 1995 the government began denying that the Groom Lake base existed. The rumors and speculation began.

Starting in 1989, UFO be-lievers started camping out to catch sight of “flying saucers.”

Camera crews and tourists started to line the hills, and flight test activities had to be cancelled. So another 5,000 acres of public land were withdrawn to prevent civilians from viewing activities on the base.

Merlin hiked up a mountain 26 miles away from the boundary of the base and was visited by a helicopter and an F-16 flyover.

“Security personnel were checking out what we were doing,” he said. “The F-16 was a big surprise. They’re very expensive to fly. I’d like to know who authorized that.”

For more details of the story, see http://roadrunnersinternation-ale.com/no_secret.html, Merlin’s book is available at Amazon.com, and information about him can be found at www.dreamlandresort. com/team/peter.html.

Story First Published: 2013-01-23