AREA 51 IS 50 YEARS OLD
By George Knapp, Investigative ReporterContact I-Team Investigative Reporter, Friday, May 6, 2005, 1:28 AM / Lead, developing story,... hot!
As Las Vegas prepares to celebrate its centennial, another Nevada institution is marking a milestone birthday this month. The world's best-known secret military base, Area 51, turns 50 years old this month.
Area 51, located at dry Groom Lake in Lincoln County, has been "the"location of choice for the most classified military programs in the world. For many years, the government would not admit its existence. People who worked there were sworn to secrecy. NOW, THEY'RE TALKING.Area 51 wasn't supposed to be a permanent base. It was built in 1955 for the U-2 spy plane.
But when that work was finished, other so-called black projects were sent there, and today it is a multi-billion dollar facility that essentially cannot be duplicated. The people who've worked there over the years are justifiably proud about their work in protecting our national security. But they've never been able to talk about it, not to their spouses, not even to each other. Now, the people who were there, and the secrets they kept for so long, are breaking their silence.
Busses with blacked-out windows, cameras that scan for any movement, sensors buried in the dirt, armed choppers that patrol the skies are all ominous signs that warn of deadly force. The secrecy that's long been the trademark of Area 51 is as pronounced today as it's ever been. Whatever is going on inside, no one is going to talk about it. For decades, the government would not admit the existence of Area 51. Its code name disappeared from maps. Employees could not tell their own spouses where they worked.
T.D. Barnes, retired CIA electronics specialist, said, "No one knew about it. You never heard of Groom Lake in those days, or Area 51.
Electrical whiz T.D. Barnes was working for NASA in the 1960s when he first focused on Area 51. He knew from radar signatures that something very fast was flying around out there. Barnes was recruited by the CIA to join the Groom Lake team, although this kind of teamwork was pretty unusual.
Barnes said, "You never talked about each other's jobs. Some guys I knew, I worked with them, stayed there all week with them, to this day I don't know what their specialty was. We didn't ask. To this day you do not ask."
If Area 51 had DNA, secrecy would be woven into it. Lockheed genius Kelly Johnson needed an out-of-the-way place to test his spindly spyplane, the U-2, and the dry bed of Groom Lake seemed perfect. It was far from prying eyes, but still close to the already-secure Nevada Test Site.
In 1955, when the first U-2 was rolled out at Groom, the base, then known as Watertown, consisted of only a few buildings and hangars. ForFrancis Gary Powers and the other U-2 pilots and personnel, Area 51 was no garden spot, but the work was vital. The U-2 enabled America to find out what our adversaries were up to. Even before Powers U-2 was shotdown over Russia, a successor to the U-2 was in the pipeline at Lockheed's Skunkworks, a family of planes that would be known as Blackbirds.
Bob Gilliland, Lockheed test pilot, "The greatest airplanes ever built, and still are, 40 years ago and still the world's fastest." Test pilot Bob Gilliland was chosen by Lockheed as the first man to fly the SR-71, one version of the Blackbird and the fastest plane to ever fly. When the U-2's moved out of Groom Lake, the Blackbirds moved in.They could travel faster than Mach 3, but at such speeds, the planes and the pilots got mighty warm.
Bob Gilliland, "Around 800 degrees Fahrenheit. A self-cleaning oven is 425. A soldering iron is 550, so it's a lot hotter than that. "
General Dennis Sullivan, CIA pilot, said, "They asked me, you want to volunteer to do something? What am I gonna do, I asked. They said, we can't tell you. Okay, I volunteer."
Military pilot Dennis Sullivan was recruited by the CIA to work at Groom Lake in the early 1960s and to pilot the A-12, an early Blackbird. It was the middle of the Cold War, but for spy pilots, the cold war was pretty hot. Various enemies were trying to shoot down the Blackbirds. And just flying the planes was dangerous enough. Gen. Dennis Sullivan said, "A guy in CIA headquarters told me when we looked at it, we figured we'd lose 20-percent of you guys, which is about what we did."
There were other dangers. Area 51 was only a few miles from Ground Zero at the Nevada Test Site. The base was often showered with radioactive fallout from atomic tests. In later years, workers were exposed to toxic chemicals because of regular open pit burning at Groom Lake. Despite the risks, those who worked at Area 51 are proud of their roles -- proud andtight-lipped.
T.D. Barnes said, "If there's something going on out there and they don't want people to know about it, they're not gonna know about it. It's not gonna happen."
There are some festivities planned for the end of this month in Rachel, Nevada to mark the 50th anniversary of Area 51. Although, the I-Team is told the base has already held its own little shindig.
The men we interviewed are part of an organization called the Roadrunners, made up of former Area 51 workers and headed by RogerAnderson. The Roadrunners have helped get a lot of information about their projects declassified, which is why they were able to talk at all.