The centerpiece of Area 51 is a runway, reportedly built sometime in the early 1990s, that is 11,960 feet long and 140 feet wide. The length and width of this runway is far beyond what is required for normal military and civilian aviation; such a runway would be ideal for short-winged aircraft that needed to achieve a high speed before obtaining enough lift to become airborne. Tire skid marks on this runway show it is heavily used. There are also shorter runways, including one used by the “Janet” flights from Las Vegas and elsewhere (see entry in this section) and a terminal where the Janet flights arrive.
There are numerous aircraft hangars at Area 51, with the most interesting being one that has become known as Hangar 18. From the photos, it is estimated that its doors are over 100 feet high. Several hangars are of the “scoot and hide” variety, meaning they can be moved. These are used to conceal certain aircraft and activities during times when spy satellites are due to make a pass overhead. Fuel tanks, radar and satellite dishes, and aircraft maintenance facilities are numerous.
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A large building with a white roof adjacent to the Janet airlines terminal is believed to be an engineering facility for employees who fly in from Las Vegas, Palmdale, or other locations. What is believed to be the base headquarters building is located near the original hangars built for the U-2 project. There are also housing units for personnel that do not commute daily on Janet airlines. Most of Area 51 is laid out in a grid-like pattern; from space, Area 51 looks a bit like a neat housing subdivision adjacent to an airport. There are also several parking areas and a surprising number of cars even though all personnel arrive by either plane or bus; as far as is known, personnel are not allowed to drive their private cars into Area 51.
While personnel who lived inside Area 51 on previous projects (like the F-l 17 Stealth fighter) do not talk about projects they worked on, they do talk about the living and recreational facilities. A baseball diamond and tennis courts are visible in the satellite photos, and an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, and gymnasium are available to on-base personnel. The dining facility (named Sam’s Club, after the last CIA director of Area 51) offers fresh seafood such as shrimp and lobster along with a well-stocked bar. However, duty at Area 51 is generally difficult. Since most tests are conducted at night, many personnel keep a vampire-like schedule. The secrecy of the projects here means that personnel cannot discuss their work with their families or co-workers; they may be ordered inside or told to look away when a secret aircraft or other project is scheduled to come into view. Personnel are restricted to only those sections of Area 51 essential for their work and living and are not permitted to wander the base freely.
Several of the mountains inside Area 51 have radar domes and communications facilities on their summits. The most widely visible of these is atop Bald Mountain, a 9,380-foot-tall peak that dominates much the western skyline along Highway 375 near Rachel.
The boundary of Area 51 is patrolled by a legendary security force that has become known as the “Cammo Dudes” because of the camouflage clothing they often wear (although you may sometimes glimpse them in khakis). At the time this book was written, the Cammo Dudes are employees of EG&G (see entry in the MARYLAND section) but in the past have been employees of Wackenhut (see entry in the FLORIDA section). For years, their vehicle of choice has been a white Jeep Cherokee, although they have also used tan Ford pickups that blend in well with the desert. They are heavily armed, including automatic weapons, and they are authorized (just like the warning signs say) to use deadly force to stop trespassers. While the Cammo Dudes work inside Area 51, they are restricted to its perimeters and probably know nothing more about its inner workings than the average person.
When Area 51 first burst into national attention in the early 1990s, the Cammo Dudes were famous for their aggressive behavior toward visitors, even those on public land miles from the actual boundary. They would leave Area 51 to challenge any approaching visitors, such as those driving the gravel road from Highway 375 to the Main Gate. Such visitors would find their cars closely followed or the road ahead blocked by one of the Jeep Cherokees; the local sheriff was invariably called and a deputy would soon arrive. Even though nothing could be done to such visitors as long as they remained on public land and roads, such tactics discouraged all but the most determined visitors. Those who hiked on foot to then-public areas from which Area 51 could be viewed were routinely followed by Cammo Dudes, and occasionally buzzed by low-flying helicopters. Campers on public land near the boundary could expect a middle-of-the-night visit from Cammo Dudes. Area 51 folklore was full of tales of firearms being brandished by the Cammo Dudes and even tires of cars approaching the boundary being shot out.
Now that Area 51 is a tourist attraction, the Cammo Dudes are likely to leave you alone so long as you remain in plain sight on the main access roads (however, they routinely photograph all cars and visitors near the Area 51’s gates). However, you will still be followed if you hike away from the road toward the base; you might even get treated to a helicopter zooming a few feet over your head. Campers near the boundary can expect to have Cammo Dudes wandering around their campsite during the night (since it’s public land, they have as much right to be there as the campers). If you do encounter them on public land or roads, the encounters will usually be friendly (“Do you need any help?” has replaced “What are you doing?” as their standard greeting) but make no mistake these guys are intent on keeping you from entering Area 51 or getting a good look at what’s going on inside. (The use of “guys” in that last sentence is not sexist language but just a reflection of reality; there are more credible reports from reliable witnesses of UFOs at Area 51 than there are of female Cammo Dudes.)
Notable landmarks outside of Area 51 itself include the Black Mailbox made famous by Bob Lazar and the town of Rachel. The Black Mailbox is located on Highway 375 approximately 19.5 miles south of Rachel and five miles north of the turnoff for the Main Gate of Area 51. It’s the only thing resembling a mailbox for miles and is unmistakable. As mentioned previously, it has been painted white since it was named. It is an actual working mailbox belonging to the Medlin family, which operates a ranch adjacent to Area 51. From this spot, you do have a good view of the airspace over Area 51 and S-4 (although even better viewing spots can be found along Highway 375). The dirt road at the mailbox eventually leads to an intersection with Groom Lake Road, the road leading to the Main Gate of Area 51. However, it is easy to take the wrong turn on this road and end up somewhere else (see “Unusual Fact” below for a well-known and funny example).
You are more likely to have an encounter with local sheriff’s deputies at the Black Mailbox than you are along the boundaries of Area 51. The Medlin family has been ranching here since long before anyone had heard of Area 51 but visitors cruising through their ranch operations have disrupted their lives; even their mail has sometimes been stolen. You may be told to move (or even cited) by local deputies if you are parked here, block access to the mailbox, or disturb the ranching operations. Best advice is to stop for a quick look and photograph, and then move on.
The “town” of Rachel is little more than a collection of trailers in the high desert; total population hovers at slightly over 100. The main attraction in Rachel is the Little A’Le’Inn. The Little A’Le’Inn caters to those who come to Area 51 looking for UFOs; its walls are plastered with UFO photos and posters and it carries an extensive selection of UFO merchandise for sale. It also has a restaurant and operates the “Dreamland Resort,” a Spartan motel cobbled together from trailers that provides the only accommodations for over 50 miles. The Little A’Le’Inn now has a melancholy air compared to its heyday in the 1990s; one of its co-owners died in 2003 and it gets only a fraction of the visitors/customers it once did. Another UFO-related Rachel business, the Area 51 Research Center, closed in 2002 (although attempts have periodically been made to open similar businesses on the same site). While the UFO fanatics seem to be losing interest, Area 51 and Rachel still draw visitors interested in trying to glimpse still-secret aircraft undergoing development and testing.
Secret Stuff: Despite the number of visitors to its boundary, most of Area 51 is still safe from prying eyes and it will likely remain the main test and development facility for secret aircraft and other exotic weaponry well into the future. Other than the UFO stories, most of the speculation about things under development at Area 51 revolves around Stealth aircraft, a rumored hypersonic craft named the “Aurora,” unmanned aerial combat vehicles, and flight tests of fighter aircraft from Russia and China.
It is almost a sure bet that any new generation of Stealth vehicles would be undergoing tests at Area 51. The two known Stealth craft in America’s inventory, the F-117 fighter and B-2 bomber, completed their flight testing over two decades ago and it is almost inconceivable that more advanced Stealth designs are not being tested, especially since Russian and Chinese radars are developing the capability to detect the F-117 and B-2. In addition to improvements on radar-scattering designs of existing Stealth planes, it is widely speculated that tests of daytime stealth technology are going on here. In addition to radar-scattering, daytime stealth would involve electroluminescent surfaces that would change to match the color and brightness of the background sky and low-noise engines. Many reliable witnesses have reported silent lights that abruptly change color, and these may be tests of such advanced Stealth techniques.
No other aircraft rumored to be operational at Area 51 has attracted as much attention, and rumors, as the now-legendary Aurora. The Aurora was supposedly a Mach 6 (over 4000 miles per hour) spy plane to replace the Mach 3 SR-71 spy plane, which was retired in 1990. On January 10, 1988, the New York Times reported that the Air Force was developing a new reconnaissance aircraft capable of travel at Mach 6. The name “Aurora” came about as a result of a 1987 Pentagon budget request that included a request for a project with that name in the amount of $2.3 billion dollars; the “Aurora” project was in the same category as budget requests for the U-2 and SR-71. In the 1998 budget request, however, there was no mention of Aurora. It was widely assumed that Aurora was the name of the Mach 6 plane in the Times story, that it was mentioned by accident in the 1997 budget document, and that it had gone into operation when the SR-71 was retired.
In 1988 and 1989, a sound variously described as “the sky being ripped open,” “a deep, throbbing roar,” and “a pulsing like the lowest notes on a pipe organ” was reportedly heard around Edwards Air Force Base in California. This “Aurora roar” was reported in the hours between midnight and 5 a.m. Speculation was that this was a new type of jet engine, known as a pulse-detonation wave engine, which literally exploded liquid methane for propulsion. In 1991 and 1992, a series of “skyquakes” were heard in southern California. These skyquakes were not earthquakes, but were detected on seismographs as if they were. An analysis conducted by the seismological laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena found these skyquakes similar to the ones made by the Space Shuttle when it landed at Edwards Air Force Base, but were made by objects traveling at Mach 2 to 4 and traveling toward the Nellis Range Complex in Nevada (which includes Area 51). During this same period, the “Aurora roar” was also being heard in Rachel, including daytime instances when the sky was overcast.
However, there was never a reliable eyewitness sighting of the Aurora nor were any photographs taken of an airplane matching any of the reported descriptions of the Aurora or similar hypersonic craft. And the skyquakes and Aurora roar stopped being reported in late 1993. Some stories claimed the Aurora project had been moved outside the United States, but the most likely explanation is that some sort of hypersonic vehicle was being tested in the early 1990s but is no longer flying for some reason (for example, it didn’t work as expected). Both NASA and the Air Force have conducted research into hypersonic vehicles since 1993 and have plans for their eventual development, so the existence of Aurora, and the results obtained from the project, could remain classified until hypersonic aircraft military are operational and publicly known. (There is a precedent for this; it wasn’t until the F-117 Stealth fighter was publicly acknowledged that details of earlier Stealth aircraft prototypes, such as “Tacit Blue,” became known. Such prototypes were built and tested, but never became operational.)
In early 2006, Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported that a secret manned spaceflight program was operating out of Area 51 and may have been responsible for the Aurora reports. According to the magazine, a rocket-powered “space plane” carrying a single pilot similar to the old X-15 rocket plane was taken aloft by a “mother ship” airplane similar to the prototype B-70 bombers of the 1960s. The space plane and pilot were launched from the “mother ship” on a sub-orbital flight to elevations of about 100 miles. While Aviation Week & Space Technology is normally considered a reliable source, this report was widely ridiculed by aviation experts and journalists. The consensus is that such a “rocket plane” system may be undergoing tests at Area 51, but is likely unmanned and not fully operational.
Perhaps the hottest area of testing these days at Area 51 involves unmanned aerial vehicles, like the Predator. The new generation of UAVs rumored to be undergoing testing at Area 51 are supposedly faster than the Predator (some are reported to be jet-powered), fly at a higher altitude, and incorporate a form of neural network computing to give it the ability to monitor its operating environment and make adjustments without human intervention. This new generation of UAVs could replace manned bombers for many combat missions in the future.