WASHINGTON – Newly declassified CIA documents confirm the existence of famed Area 51 in Nevada but offer no proof of alien spaceship landings in the desert.
Northwest of Las Vegas, Area 51 has long been fodder for science-fiction films and UFO tales claiming the U.S. government imposed secrecy over the site to cover up evidence of extraterrestrials touching down on Earth.
Instead of encounters with flying saucers, the documents released Thursday recount a less sensational history of Area 51 — as a testing range for the government’s U-2 spy plane during the Cold War.
The CIA in-house history makes no mention of the legendary “Roswell incident,” when a weather balloon crashed in New Mexico in 1947. UFO true believers allege that an alien spacecraft actually had gone down and that Area 51’s hangars held hidden extraterrestrial corpses.
But according to the CIA, the government secrecy surrounding Area 51 was about hiding a new spy plane from the Soviets.
The U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was designed to snoop on the Soviet Union at high altitude, and its development was top-secret.
In April 1955, the CIA chose a remote dry lake bed in the Nevada desert as a testing ground, which was designated on maps as Area 51.
Test flights for the U-2 aircraft were conducted at a much higher altitude than commercial airliners or other military planes. In the 1950s, commercial planes flew at between 10,000 and 20,000 feet and warplanes such as the B-47 reached altitudes of almost 40,000 feet. The U-2 planes flew at above 60,000 feet, and reports of unidentified flying objects in the Nevada desert started to roll in, the report said.
“At this time, no one believed manned flight was possible above 60,000 feet, so no one expected to see an object so high in the sky,” it said.
The 400-page report, “Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974,” was released as a result of a Freedom of Information request dating to 2005 from the National Security Archives at George Washington University.
The study was published in classified form for spy agencies in 1992, and a heavily censored version was published in 1998.
Area 51’s location has been an open secret for years, but government documents released previously had not acknowledged its existence and role in such a detailed way. Officials also had referred to a location “near Groom Lake.”
The in-house history refers to Area 51 in passing, as the report is devoted mainly to recounting how the CIA developed “eyes in the sky” to spy on the Soviets.
Other stealthy planes have been tested at the site, including the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117A fighter and the B-2 bomber.