There’s no mention of aliens, spaceships, alien bodies or other evidence of extraterrestrial visitations, but there is a real Area 51.
The top-secret location that for years was the home base for secret U.S. missions such as the U-2 spy plane that flew over China and the Soviet Union has been memorialized in movies and science fiction, at least partly because of the secrecy that surrounded it.
According to documents posted online by The National Security Archive at George Washington University, the site surrounds Groom Lake in Nevada.
The archive, which tracks and documents top secret information as it is officially released, said a key moment for the site was in February 1955 when a senior CIA official wrote a check for $1.25 million and mailed it to the home of Kelly Johnson, chief engineer for Lockheed Co.’s operations in Burbank, Calif.
“According to a newly declassified CIA history of the U-2 program obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey T. Richelson, the agency was about to sign a contract with Lockheed for $22.5 million to build 20 U-2 aircraft, but the company needed a cash infusion right away to keep the work going.”
Richelson reported: “As it turned out, Lockheed produced the 20 aircraft at a total of $18,977,596, (including $1.9 million in profit), or less than $1 million per plane. It was all ‘under budget,’ a miracle to today’s defense contracting world.”
The information was obtained, according to the archives, through a 2005 Freedom of Information Act request. Written by agency historians Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach, it was published in classified channels in 1992. Some information was released earlier in redacted form.
“The latest released is notable for the significant amount of newly declassified material with respect to the U-2 – with regard to names of pilots, codenames and cryptonyms, locations, funding and cover arrangements, electronic countermeasures equipment, organization, cooperation with foreign governments, and operations, particularly in Asia. In addition, the release also contains newly declassified on one manned and two unmanned aerial reconnaissance efforts,” the organization reported.
Among the confirmations were maps of Area 51, key information on flights over the Soviet Union, details on British participation in the program (the authors note President Dwight Eisenhower saw that “as a way to confuse the Soviets as to sponsorship of particular overflights”) and information about flights over India, the report said.
The report explained: “The many books and articles written on the aerial reconnaissance programs, particularly the U-2 and the OXCART (and its Air Force variant, the SR-71), include much information about these topics, often with significant accuracy. However, the newly released material provides a combination of significant new material, official confirmation of – or corrections to – what has been written, and official acknowledgment that permits researchers to follow up the disclosures with FOIA or Mandatory Declassification Review requests that may produce even more information.”
There was confirmation of some names previously available, such as Wilbur Rose and Frank Grace as the first two fatalities in the program. And Harvey Stockman and Carmine Vito flew the first two Soviet overflights.
Later, Francis Gary Powers piloted a CIA U-2 capable of flying higher than 70,000 feet that was shot down while flying reconnaissance over the Soviet Union.
His aircraft, previously untouchable by Soviet missiles, was hit by an S-75 shortly after his departure from Pakistan. A MiG-19 had been unable to fly high enough, and a separate Su-9, which had been directed to ram the U-2, missed.
Powers parachuted safely, was captured and sentenced in the Soviet Union for espionage, only to be exchanged later for Soviet KGB Col. Vilyam Fisher.
According to the Atlantic Wire, the airplanes were developed to spy on other world powers, and Area 51 was developed to serve as their base.
According to the released documents, the CIA’s Richard Bissell and Air Force Col. Osmund Ritland “flew over Nevada with (Lockheed’s) Kelly Johnson in a small Beechcraft plane piloted by Lockheed’s chief test pilot, Tony LeVier.”
“They spotted what appeared to be an airstrip by a salt flat known as Groom Lake, near the northeast corner of the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Nevada Proving Ground. After debating about landing on the old airstrip, LeVier set the plane down on the lake bed, and all four walked over to examine the strip. The facility had been used during World War II as an aerial gunnery range for Army Air Corps pilots. From the air the strip appeared to be paved, but on closer inspection it turned out to have originally been fashioned from compacted earth that had turned into ankle-deep dust after more than a decade of disuse. If LeVier had attempted to land on the airstrip, the plane would probably have nosed over when the wheels sank into the loose soil, killing or injuring all of the key figures in the U-2 project.”