Jan 12, 2023 I Nick Redfern

Area 51: Before Lazar and How Did It All Begin?

There can be very few people 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, is home to Uncle Sam’s very own, highly classified collection of dead aliens, crashed UFOs, and extraterrestrial technology. Highly fortified, and guarded by personnel who have the right to use “deadly force” to protect its secrets, it is Area 51. Although Area 51 – as a classified installation, as a piece of popular culture, and as a magnet for UFO sleuths – has been known of since the late 1980s (when a maverick scientist, about whom much more later, spilled the beans), its origins can be found in the very earliest years of the Cold War. It may surprise many to learn that, contrary to what the worlds of Hollywood and UFO research suggest, Area 51 is not buried deeply in the heart of nowhere and miles away from civilization. In fact, the surprising reality (to many) is that it is situated barely eighty miles outside of the city of Las Vegas. And, while Area 51 is the title that it is most associated with, the official name of the installation is far less infamous and far more bureaucratic: The Nevada Test and Training Range. It’s located on a dry lake bed called Groom Lake, which has been converted into a highly-classified – and decidedly off-limits - facility, one that is supplemented with huge airstrips, runways, hangars, and, so the rumor-mill goes – deep, underground installations that stretch for miles. 

(Nick Redfern) We all know what  51 means and where it means.

Access to the base is near-impossible; unless, that is, of course, one has the relevant, top secret clearance to do so. The airspace above Area 51 is officially designated a no-fly zone, to anyone and everyone except those attached to the base. Trying to drive to the installation is a pointless task, too: motion-sensor equipment and armed guards dominate the desert terrain, ensuring that no-on can get even within miles of the base. Try and do so and you run the very real risk of being detained, arrested, jailed, or, worse still, shot dead. As far as the origins of Area 51 are concerned, they date back to the height of the Second World War. Just one year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, what was then known as the Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field was created at the 4,409-foot-elevation lake. Its remote location provided the perfect cover for the military to undertake practice bombing missions and the testing of new weaponry. Even though the facility was scarcely of the proportions that it is today, the seeds of deep secrecy and conspiracy were already being quietly sown. It may not be exactly jaw-dropping to learn that the definitive origins of Area 51 began with none other than the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA. Although the CIA was established in 1947, it was not until the around the turn of the 1950s that serious consideration was given to constructing a secret, out of the way, well-protected installation from which highly classified research could be undertaken. Given the time-frame, the Cold War era of the 1950s, the U.S. Government knew that it had to take steps to ensure that, at the very least, a balance of power existed between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Richard M. Bissell, Jr., was a CIA officer who, from 1961 to 1962, held down the job of 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, Bissell astutely realized that there was a 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 plan was initiated to develop a fleet of aircraft – reconnaissance planes designed to fly very fast and very high – that could secretly spy on the Soviets, by penetrating their airspace and securing high-resolution photography of what the Reds were up to. The aircraft was the Lockheed U-2 and the operation was codenamed Project Aquatone.

(Nick Redfern) Soviet spies and (some might say...) a few UFOs at Area 51.

Obviously, secrecy was paramount and the definite 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. Richard M. Bissell, Jr., was the man who made it all happen. The first thing that Bissell 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 attempted to engage in a bit of localized espionage. 

One of those that 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. 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, of course, talking about Groom Lake. Area 51 was about to be born.

Given that the location was blisteringly hot, inhospitable in the extreme, and filled with nothing but deserts, dry beds, and mountains, something had to be done to entice people to come out and work there. Johnson had a brainwave: he decided to christen it Paradise Ranch. It paid off. It was during the first week of 1955 that things really got moving: that was when a group of surveyors arrived on-site, primarily to figure out the logistics involved in constructing a huge, 5,000-foot-long runway. It wasn’t just the construction of the primary runway that began in earnest; the building of workplaces, a couple of rudimentary hangars, and even more rudimentary places to house the workers commenced. In other words, back then, Area 51 was little more than a desert equivalent of a North Pole outpost. As the months progressed, however, the workers were blessed with a couple of sports halls and a small cinema.

To ensure that the Russians didn’t get word of what was afoot at the base, careful steps were taken to ensure that, at any and every given moment, the numbers of people on-site were kept to the bare minimum. That meant, essentially, hardly anyone would stay for lengthy periods of time (all of the workers would be flown in from, and back to, the Lockheed plant), and discussion of what was going on less than 100 miles from Las Vegas was strictly off-limits. The secrecy level was amped up even further when, in July 1955, two things happened: (a) a small, permanent CIA presence was established; and (b) the very first U-2 made its arrival at the base, having been secretly flown in aboard a large, cargo aircraft that was leased out to the CIA. Only days afterwards, the first of a near-unending series of flights began between Lockheed’s Burbank facility and Area 51.In the years that followed, such groundbreaking aircraft as the U-2, the Blackbird, and the A-12 were tested, refined, and flown at Area 51 – all, largely, to try and find ways to keep the Soviet threat to a minimum.

As the demand for yet further advanced aircraft to be produced, taken to the skies, and modified, so did the need for Area 51 to be expanded in both scope and size. As a new decade dawned, a company called the Reynolds Electrical and Engineering Company - which, in the 1980s, did contract work for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program – got involved. A huge new runway – in excess of 10,000-feet - was designed and built by REEC. Numerous hangars, in which the many and varied prototype aircraft could be hidden from any and all aircraft that might intrude too close to the base, were soon constructed. The Department of the Navy provided more than 120 prefabricated, small homes for those that had long-term contracts.To cope with the concerns that the Soviets might try and figure out what was going on, by making high-level flights over Area 51, just two weeks into 1962, highly classified legislation was prepared by the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that even more airspace was denied to anyone and everyone without official clearance. There was a good reason for this: February 1962 marked the date on which the first A-12 was flown into Area 51 for testing.

As the 1960s progressed, so did the work of staff at Area 51. One part of that work – a very significant part - revolved around the capture and exploitation of foreign technology. Over the years, the U.S. military acquired a number of Soviet military aircraft, specifically MIGs. Some were the result of defections by Soviet pilots; others were secured after aerial accidents. Numerous, studious examinations of the Soviet technology was undertaken at Area 51, under such projects as Have Ferry, and Have Drill. By the time the 1970s were up and running, Area 51’s finest were focusing a great deal on what has since become termed as Stealth technology – in essence, the ability to render an aircraft invisible to radar. Much of the highly-classified research that led to the construction and deployment of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk (more popularly referred to as the Stealth Fighter) and the Northrop B-2 Spirit (better known as the Stealth Bomber) was undertaken out at Area 51 – by which time the word “vast” barely begins to describe the base. A countless number of aircraft-hangars, underground labs, facilities built into the sides of the surrounding mountains, and new runways were part and parcel of Area 51.

(Nick Redfern) Extraterrestrials at Area 51?

For the most part, no-one – aside from those elite figures in the military, the intelligence community, and the government – knew anything of Area 51 from its creation in the 1950s and right up until the latter part of the 1980s. The late eighties, however, was when everything changed and Area 51 became not just a big name, but somewhere that was forever thereafter inextricably tied to the UFO phenomenon. On a now near-legendary night in March 1989 a man named Robert Scott Lazar made distinct waves amongst the Las Vegas media – and, ultimately, amongst the staff and highest echelons of Area 51, too. According to Lazar – who would only speak under the pseudonym of “Dennis” - for a few months in the latter part of 1988, he worked at what one might term a subsidiary of Area 51. Its name: S-4. As, George Knapp, the host of KLAS-TV, listened intently as Lazar told his story. It was one of fantastic and out of this world proportions – quite possibly, literally. Lazar claimed that at least nine alien spacecraft were stored at Area 51, all of which were being studied by a small group of scientific personnel who were having varying degrees of success in understanding and duplicating the technology. As an alleged, full-blown whistleblower, Lazar was a man both scared and sporting a target on his back. And, now, we all know of the rumors and tales. How many of them are the real deal? That's the question that has circulated since the late 1980s.

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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