Sep 08, 2022 I Nick Redfern

What Happened Before Area 51 Was There? You Might Be Surprised

There can be very few people on the planet who have not heard of its infamous name. Many will be familiar with the extraordinary claims of what, allegedly, goes on there. It’s a place that is saturated in secrecy, cloaked in conspiracy theories, and, according to many, it is home to Uncle Sam’s very own, highly classified, prized collection of secret aircraft, dead aliens, crashed UFOs, and extraterrestrial technology. Highly fortified, and guarded by personnel who have the right to use “deadly force” to protect its many and varied secrets, it is, of course, Area 51. For years, there were rumors of a top secret installation deep in the Nevada desert. Incredibly, outside of the world of officialdom and the people who lived in the area, hardly anyone had heard of the place until the latter part of the 1980s. That was when a controversial character named Bob Lazar came out of the shadows and revealed a startling story. According to Lazar, in late 1988 he worked briefly at a facility on Area 51 called S-4. That work reportedly revolved around the study of a number of acquired alien spacecraft. Yes, the U.S. Government has a secret storage area for vehicles from other worlds. Maybe even from other galaxies. At least, if you buy into the stories of Lazar. 

It’s hardly a surprise that when the Lazar story hit the headlines the media quickly latched onto it, as did the UFO research community, many of whom saw Lazar’s revelations as the breakthrough they had waited for, patiently, and for so long. Maybe it was just such an amazing breakthrough, but, on the other hand, perhaps it wasn’t. We’ll come to that thorny issue later. Regardless of whether or not people bought into Lazar’s revelations, the fact is that the genie’s bottle – so to speak – was, thanks to his disclosures, now open and ready to be mined. As a result, Area 51 appeared in various episodes of The X-Files, in a block-buster movie of 1996, Independence Day, and in numerous other sci-fi-driven shows, as well as on almost endless numbers of television documentaries. Although, from the government’s perspective, it’s barely acknowledged to exist, Area 51 is known worldwide. In a very strange fashion, it has become part of our pop-culture. And that is unlikely to ever change, such is the allure of the tales coming out of the base. But how and why did one top secret government facility achieve such notoriety? Let’s see.

(Nick Redfern) The world's most secret facility

For most people any mention of Area 51 conjures up imagery of a vast, impenetrable fortress constructed and closely guarded in the middle of nowhere. That’s actually not the complete story though. For example, Area 51 is situated less than one hundred miles away from Sin City itself, Las Vegas. In other words, you can be within almost literal spitting distance of the base in a little more than an hour. What makes Area 51 so impenetrable, though, is the fact that it is heavily guarded – and not just at the base itself. It’s impossible to get within around ten miles of the facility. Armed guards patrol the desert land on a 24/7 basis. Motion-detector sensors are pretty much everywhere. Cameras constantly scan the vast landscape for any and all potential intruders. And if you try and penetrate the base you may well find yourself filled with lead. And, no, that’s not an exaggeration. Even less well known – as far as the public is concerned – is the fact that Area 51 is not actually a stand-alone facility at all. It’s just one of many areas, facilities and installations contained within the massive Nevada Test and Training Range (NT&TR). Although Area 51 itself did not actually come to fruition until the 1950s, top secret work was undertaken at the NT&TR as far back as the early years of the Second World War. That is to say, to fully understand the nature, history and scope of Area 51, one has to take a trip back to the 1940s – which is exactly what we are going to do right now.

The gigantic portion of Nevada that now houses Area 51 had decidedly humble origins. In the pre-Second World War period portions of the land were designated to the Department of the Interior. The reason was to create a large reservation and sanctuary for animals. Things all changed, however, not long after crazed Adolf Hitler began flexing his muscles in Europe – something which led to the start of the Second World War in September 1939. America would join the war in 1941, after the terrible, deadly attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7. The U.S. Government recognized that it was now all but inevitable that the nation would eventually have to enter the war, chiefly because Hitler’s forces were overrunning significant portions of Europe at an alarming pace. And, it was suggested in some quarters, the United States just might be next on Hitler’s list. Only the U.K. – as an island – managed to avoid being invaded, although it suffered massively from nightly bombing missions by German pilots. Pearl Harbor, though, was the key event which quickly set the wheels in motion for the U.S. to enter the Second World War. But, it’s important to note that the fear of potential war had already led the government to take certain, secret steps to ensure that if the worst scenario really did occur – which, as history has shown, it did – America would be ready to strike back in a decisive fashion. 

As a result of the above developments in the war, various new facilities of the military were constructed all across the country. One of those very same new facilities was the Tonopah Bombing Range, based in Nevada. Today, there is a great deal of controversy concerning how much land previously in the public domain has now been handed over to Area 51, all in the name of national security. People have been forced to leave their homes. Land that one could once walk and drive through is now government land – and don’t even think about straying onto it. There is a very good reason for mentioning this: as history has shown, there is absolutely nothing new about any of this. In fact, on October 29, 1940, the U.S. Government quietly grabbed a significant amount of Nevada land to allow for the construction of the aforementioned Tonopah Bombing Range. In the immediate years ahead, there were name changes, new designations, and additional facilities: the Tonopah General Range, the Tonopah Gunnery and Bombing Range, and the Las Vegas General Range. In quick-time fashion, the desert land of Nevada was morphing at a startling rate – and it was morphing into what would ultimately become home to one of the most mysterious, notorious and important installations in the world. You know the one.

As the Second World War progressed, and as it became bleakly clear that defeating Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies was not going to be achieved overnight, further development of military facilities in Nevada were created. They included the Fourth Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range, the Tonopah Army Air Field, and the Indian Springs Auxiliary Army Airfield. When the Nazis were finally, and thankfully, defeated in 1945, matters took a turn out in the desert. While some of the facilities that had played significant roles in the Second World War were shut down, or at least trimmed in terms of their work, a new lease of life and a change in direction was ultimately to begin. In the immediate post-war era, both Tonopah Air Force Base, and what was called the Las Vegas Air Force Base, both took on new roles. It was very much thanks to the work of the Atomic Energy Commission, which pushed for the area to become a central hub for the training of personnel in the fields of bombing, gunnery activity and more. The U.S. Government nodded approvingly at the plans of the AEC and, as a direct result of the AEC’s recommendations and forward thinking, it was on December 18, 1950 that the old Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range was transformed into the Nevada Proving Grounds. Close to 700-square miles of local land was given to the NPG, to allow for work to go ahead at full-speed, and to ensure that the public had no access to the facility. Thus began the careful and slow confiscation of countless square-miles of the American landscape.

Appropriately, things began at the Nevada Proving Grounds in spectacular, groundbreaking fashion. And in ominous fashion, too. As Online Nevada notes: “On January 27, 1951, Nevada became the United States’ cold war continental nuclear proving ground when a one-kiloton nuclear device was detonated over Frenchman Flat. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chose the Nevada Test Site after carefully considering complex factors involving science, national policy, geopolitics, safety, and public relations.” That the site of the detonation of the bomb was only sixty-five miles from Las Vegas led more than a few locals to worry about radiation. Who can blame them? Further nuclear testing continued, as did the worries the people in the area had about potentially deadly fall-out. In terms of important events in the history of the development of Area 51, the next time period of note was 1955: that was when Area 51 really began to come to fruition. But, before we get to that, let’s continue with our study of the work of the overall Nevada Test and Training Range. 

(Central Intelligence Agency), Mapping the Area.

As the CIA is an arm of the U.S. Government, the map is seen as public domain.

It was also in 1955 – specifically in July of that year – that the legendary U-2 spy-plane flew at the NT&TR’s huge runway at Groom Lake, thus cementing the range’s undeniable role in aviation history. Further land was soon grabbed, such as that which surrounded the Tonopah Test Range. As a result, and just before the dawning of the 1960s, plans were made for what became known as the Tonopah Test Range Airport. They were plans for the construction of a runway close to 20,000-feet in length. Just about anything – terrestrial or maybe even extraterrestrial – could fly out of the facility. And, largely, no one would ever know.The land-grabbing didn’t end there. In fact, it had barely begun. In this case, the grabbing was internal: in 1961 a wealth of land previously used by the U.S. Air Force was handed over to the Atomic Energy Commission, something which not all of the higher echelons of the Air Force were particularly happy about. They suddenly found out how the locals felt.

From the 1960s though to the 1970s, the Nevada Test and Training Range performed a major role in the training of pilots destined to go into battle during the Vietnam War. By the late 1970s, the range’s staff were working on some deeply, secret programs. And “deeply” is a very apt term. One of the primary tasks of the personnel was to bury the wrecks of some of the ill-fated “stealth” aircraft tested out on the range. It was imperative that Soviet space-satellites didn’t take pictures of the crashed planes – and, in the process, secure significant data on America’s growing research into the field of stealth-based technology. So, in many cases, the crashed planes were buried – using bulldozers to ensure the aircraft and their remains were hidden deep below the desert floor. Ironically, given that the Russians were trying to figure out what was going on at the range, one of the aircraft which crashed and was buried – in 1984 – was a captured Russian MiG-23 aircraft.

Today, as well as being home to Area 51, and to the S-4 facility that Bob Lazar claimed he worked at briefly in the late 1980s, the Nevada Test and Training Range houses the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat Range, the Eastman Airfield Target, and the Point Bravo Electronic Combat Range. Now, it’s time to take a look at the most mysterious of all the Nevada Test and Training Range’s many and varied components: Area 51; that top secret facility that just about everyone has heard of, but hardly anyone really knows about. Unless, you are on the inside looking out. Right now, most people are on the outside and not even getting even a snippet of what goes on. It’s time to try and rectify that situation; at least to the degree that we can.  

Richard M. Bissell, Jr., was a Central Intelligence Agency officer who, from 1961 to 1962, held down the job of the first co-director of the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which operates much of the United States’ satellite-based surveillance technology. Back in the early 1950s, and before his NRO career began in earnest, Bissell astutely realized that there was a deeply pressing need to keep careful watch on what the Soviets were doing, specifically in terms of constructing new military bases, atomic facilities, and aircraft that might pose distinct, serious threats to the security of the United States. So, a top secret plan was initiated to develop a fleet of aircraft – reconnaissance planes designed to fly very fast and extremely high – that could secretly spy on the Soviets, by penetrating their airspace and securing high-resolution photography of whatever it was that the Reds were up to. The aircraft was the Lockheed U-2 and the operation was codenamed Project Aquatone.

Obviously, secrecy was paramount and the definitive name of the game. Since intelligence data had shown the Soviets had spies in place all across the United States, and even within seemingly secure military facilities and aircraft research centers, a decision was taken to have the project developed not at an existing plant or installation, but at an entirely new one, specifically built for the task in hand. Richard M. Bissell, Jr., was the man who made it all happen. The first thing that Bissell, Jr. did was to make a careful study of a detailed map of the entire United States. He was specifically looking for somewhere out of the way, largely inaccessible, easily protected, and that would offer a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape – in the event that Communist spies ever attempted to engage in a bit of localized espionage.

One of those who Bissell approached was a man Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, a brilliant aircraft engineer and designer, and the brains behind both the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird aircraft. He scouted out various places in the United States, eventually settling on one that he felt most fitted the bill that Bissell and the CIA were looking for. In Johnson’s own words, regarding one, particular, scouting operation, he said of the site in question: “We flew over it and within thirty seconds, you knew that was the place. It was right by a dry lake. Man alive, we looked at that lake, and we all looked at each other. It was another Edwards, so we wheeled around, landed on that lake, taxied up to one end of it. It was a perfect natural landing field ... as smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it.” Johnson was talking about the Nevada Test & Training Range’s huge, dry Groom Lake. Area 51 was about to be born.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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