Area 51 is a military base, and a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base. It is located in the southern portion of Nevada in the western United States, 83 miles (133 km) north-northwest of downtown Las Vegas. Situated at its center, on the southern shore of Groom Lake, is a large military airfield. The base’s primary purpose is to support development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems.
The base lies within the United States Air Force‘s vast Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), formerly called the Nellis Air Force Range (NAFR). Although the facilities at the range are managed by the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, the Groom facility appears to be run as an adjunct of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, around 186 miles (300 km) southwest of Groom, and as such the base is known as Air Force Flight Test Center (Detachment 3).
Though the name Area 51 is used in official CIA documentation, other names used for the facility include Dreamland, Paradise Ranch, Home Base, Watertown Strip, Groom Lake, and most recently Homey Airport. The area is part of the Nellis Military Operations Area, and the restricted airspace around the field is referred to as (R-4808N), known by the military pilots in the area as “The Box” or “the Container”.
The intense secrecy surrounding the base, the very existence of which the U.S. government did not even acknowledge until July 14, 2003, has made it the frequent subject of conspiracy theories and a central component to unidentified flying object (UFO) folklore.
U.S. government’s positions on Area 51
The federal government explicitly concedes (in various court filings and government directives) that the USAF has an “operating location” near Groom Lake, but does not provide any further information.
Unlike much of the Nellis range, the area surrounding the lake is permanently off-limits both to civilian and normal military air traffic. Radar stations protect the area, and unauthorized personnel are quickly expelled. Even military pilots training in the NAFR risk disciplinary action if they stray into the exclusionary “box” surrounding Groom’s airspace.
Perimeter security is provided by uniformed private security guards working for EG&G‘s security subcontractor Wackenhut, who patrol in Humvees, SUVs, and pickup trucks. The guards are armed with M16s, but no violent encounters with Area 51 observers have been reported; instead, the guards generally follow visitors near the perimeter and radio for the Lincoln County Sheriff. Deadly force is authorized if violators who attempt to breach the secured area fail to heed warnings to halt. Fines of around $600 seem to be the normal course of action, although some visitors and journalists report receiving follow-up visits from FBI agents. Some observers have been detained on public land for pointing camera equipment at the base. Surveillance is supplemented using buried motion sensors.
The base does not appear on public U.S. government maps; the USGS topographic map for the area only shows the long-disused Groom Mine. A civil aviation chart published by the Nevada Department of Transportation shows a large restricted area, but defines it as part of the Nellis restricted airspace. The official aeronautical navigation charts for the area show Groom Lake but omit the airport facilities. Similarly the National Atlas page showing federal lands in Nevada does not distinguish between the Groom block and other parts of the Nellis range. Although officially declassified, the original film taken by U.S. Corona spy satellite in the 1960s has been altered prior to declassification; in answer to freedom of information queries, the government responds that these exposures (which map to Groom and the entire NAFR) appear to have been destroyed Terra satellite images (which were publicly available) were removed from web servers (including Microsoft‘s “Terraserver”) in 2004, and from the monochrome 1 m resolution USGS data dump made publicly available. NASA Landsat 7 images are still available (these are used in the NASA World Wind). Higher resolution (and more recent) images from other satellite imagery providers (including Russian providers and the IKONOS) are commercially available. These show, in considerable detail, the runway marking, base facilities, aircraft, and vehicles.
Although federal property within the base is exempt from state and local taxes, facilities owned by private contractors are not. Area 51 researcher Glenn Campbell claimed in 1994 that the base only declares a taxable value of $2 million to the Lincoln County tax assessor, who is unable to enter the area to perform an assessment.
When documents that mention the NTS and operations at Groom are declassified, mentions of Area 51 and Groom Lake are routinely redacted. One notable exception is a 1967 memo from CIA director Richard Helms regarding the deployment of three OXCART aircraft from Groom to Kadena Air Base to perform reconnaissance over North Vietnam. Although most mentions of OXCART’s home base are redacted in this document, as is a map showing the aircraft’s route from there to Okinawa, the redactor appears to have missed one mention: p15 section #2 ends “Three OXCART aircraft and the necessary task force personnel will be deployed from Area 51 to Kadena.