Covert Action Quarterly
Spring 1995
Page 34-40

Groom Lake: The Base That Isn't There
The official secrecy: For some aviation watchers, it proves supersecret aircraft are being tested; for UFO and conspiracy buffs, it confirms something evil or otherworldly; for those concerned with the state of democracy, it symbolizes a clandestine culture not accountable to civilian institutions.

by Glenn Campbell

From the crest of Coyote Summit, not a single tree interrupts the alien vista. Nevada Highway 375 dips to the valley floor, then climbs smoothly, arrow straight, to the rim of mountains 20 miles distant. At the base of this bowl-shaped crater, a few mobile homes lie scattered like buckshot. Don't bother looking for this town in your road atlas; it probably won't be there, but if you pass though be sure to fuel up at the single gas station since the next is at Tonopah, 110 miles to the west. Las Vegas is 150 miles in the other direction with nothing worth mentioning in between. No daily newspapers are delivered here, and radio and TV reception is spotty at best. It is possible, on entering the area, to lose touch with outside reality. Indeed, this has happened to many visitors and perhaps also to the operators of a secret Air Force facility not far away.

Welcome to Rachel, Nevada, currently vying with Roswell, New Mexico, and Gulf Breeze, Florida, as America's "UFO Central." Whether the UFOs actually come here is a matter of debate, but the humans definitely do. In growing numbers, tourists have been making the pilgrimage to the desert outside town to see fantastic lights in the nighttime sky. Satisfaction is almost guaranteed, at least on week nights, because Rachel lies adjacent to a major Air Force war games area, the Connecticut-size (1) Nellis Air Force Range. Exotic-looking flares, dropped by jets to distract hypothetical heat-seeking missiles or launched by ground troops for illumination, are a frequent occurrence that must account for a large proportion of UFO sightings in the area. In the pristine desert skies, distant aircraft lights and even the planets and brighter stars seem to the urban observer to jump around in fantastic ways that "could not possibly" be human or natural and therefore must represent alien spacecraft somehow operated or condoned by the U.S. Government.

Since 1989, tourists have been searching the local skies for alien craft, often seeing what they expect in the ambiguous lights. Some visitors claim to have been abducted by aliens along the highway; a few contend they are aliens themselves, imprisoned on this planet in human form. Ambassador Merlyn Merlin II from the planet Draconis is a frequent visitor, driving a beat-up Monte Carlo and knocking on doors of townspeople to read from the Bible. Interplanetary ambassador Venus-from-Venus, clan in leopard-skin tights, once stopped in Rachel en route to an alien convention, as did the intergalactic Willow from the Pleiades.

In this isolated area with few points of reference, folklore and misperception often get jumbled up with fact until the only thing certain around Rachel is Rachel itself. About 20 miles south of town lies a place that is truly unknown and where most of the questions and fantasies focus: "Area 51," the base that doesn't exist--at least until a few months ago when the Air Force released a brief statement to inquiring journalists: "There are a variety of facilities throughout the Nellis Range Complex. We do have facilities within the complex near the dry lake bed of Groom Lake. The facilities of the Nellis Range Complex are used for testing and training technologies, operations, and systems critical to the effectiveness of U.S. military forces. Specific activities conducted at Nellis cannot be discussed any further than that. (2)

Secrecy Attracts Attention

Naturally, the last sentence grabs the reader's attention. What is going at "Nellis," and why can't we be told? Therein lies the essential irony of this area and perhaps the root of the UFO problem. Like a celebrity famous for being reclusive, Groom Lake has captured the public imagination precisely because the Air Force won't talk about it. The facility has no public name or admitted history. It is buffered by miles of empty desert, while the airspace around it--known on aviation frequencies as "Dreamland"--is off limits even to most military pilots. The base is buffered by miles of empty desert, although it remains visible in the distance from certain hills still on public land. So what is going on there? The answer for the tourists who can still look down from public land and see tantalizing images of the base seems to be, "Anything you want."

What brought the first wave of UFO watchers to Rachel were the publicized claims of a 30-year-old Las Vegan named Bob Lazar. In November 1989, he appeared on a local TV newscast, (3) to announce that he had worked with alien spacecraft at a secret government facility about 15 miles south of Groom Lake deep within the military Restricted Zone and just beyond the ridge from the big air base. In hangars allegedly built into a hillside at the shore of Papoose Dry Lake, Lazar said he saw nine alien flying saucers (but no aliens), and worked extensively with one craft, helping to dissect and "reverse-engineer" its propulsion system.

Lazar claimed that while working in the government program, he secretly brought his friends to the deserts near Rachel on Wednesday nights to watch the saucers being flight tested at Papoose Lake. Following the broadcast, it seemed everyone was coming here on Wednesdays, scrutinizing the skies from their cars parked beside the highway, and then descending like aliens themselves on the Rachel Bar & Grill, the closest watering hole. Within months, the restaurant changed its name to the Little A'Le'Inn; the hamburger plate became the "Alien Burger," and Rachel became the epicenter of something big that no one could quite pin down.

The center of the UFO universe was the mysterious Black Mailbox, a prosaic rancher's mailbox that happened to be the only significant landmark on the empty stretch of Highway 375 about 20 miles southeast of Rachel. Even today a visitor who holds vigil at the mailbox and manages to stay awake won't be disappointed. Every Thursday morning at 4:50 a.m., a shimmering white orb appears above the horizon in the direction of Papoose Lake. Although it has no discernible structure, one would swear it was disk- shaped. It hovers almost motionless above the hills, pulsating and getting steadily brighter for up to five minutes until it slides gently to the right and disappears below the horizon in the direction of Groom Lake. Skeptical observers - inevitably seen by the watchers as government spies - may point out that Boeing 737 airliners regularly transport workers from Las Vegas to Groom Lake. On their regular route, the planes fly directly toward the watchers with bright landing lights on. Some visitors who have staked their reputations on the veracity of this "Old Faithful" UFO counter the insinuation by claiming that they saw a flying saucer turn into a 737 in mid-air, part of a deliberate government deception.

For observers, Area 51 is like a Rorschach test which draws out their own personalities. For the Air Force, its function was more mundane - at least in the beginning.

Born in the Black

The base at Groom Lake was born in the mid-1950s as a remote testing locale for the ultra-secret U-2 spy plane. (4) Lockheed officials selected the site based on its relative remoteness, the presence of a solid lake bed for use as a runway, and the proximity to the Atomic Test Site, which was nominally expanded to take in the area. The popular "Area 51" designation purportedly came from a numbered 60 square mile block on the old Atomic Test Site map. (5) The A-12 and SR-71 spy planes and early versions of the F-117A Stealth fighter were tested here, long before the planes were made public. (6)

Starting with a few simple hangars and Quonset huts, the base grew relatively slowly during its first three decades. Until 1984, although workers were barred by their security oaths from discussing the facility, there seemed to be no official effort to hide its physical presence. The base appeared on U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps, (7) and anyone could even drive to the lake bed itself and look across to the hangars in the distance . Back then, the only civilians interested in the base were hard-core aviation buffs and presumably a few real Soviet spies.

Then, in 1984, during the weapons buildup of the Reagan administration, the base went "deep black." In a controversial action initially without legal sanction, the Air Force seized control of the entire Groom Mountain Range, which overlooks the base, and posted armed guards. (8) After the Groom Mountains were withdrawn by act of Congress, the base - not unlike the secret cities of the Soviet Union - disappeared from official maps. Current USGS maps and even most military air charts show only a blank lake bed with no significant roads or runway. (9)

In reality, the base expanded significantly. Standards of measurement are hard to find, but a 1990 satellite image revealed twice as many buildings as appeared on a 1968 Landsat photo. Ironically, the 1990 imagery comes directly from the Russians, who will sell it to anyone, friend or foe, willing to fork over between $500 and $2000 per frame. (10) They and their former Soviet allies are also permitted to over-fly and photograph the secret Groom Lake base, as well as the rest of U.S. territory, as part of the new Treaty on Open Skies. (11) Today, it seems that only the U.S. taxpayer is denied official information about the base.

So What's Up?

Confirmable evidence about what might be going on at Groom since 1984 has been thin. Only a few peripheral facts are known about current operations. The 10 to 12 round-trip 737 flights each weekday to ferry workers suggests a work force between 500 to 1500 people--depending on the number of empty seats and how many stay overnight. Russian satellite imagery showing recent runway construction suggests that aircraft testing is still a major mission of the base.

Conventional wisdom says that the base has been used primarily for the testing of Stealth aircraft and miscellaneous "Star Wars" systems, both intended to keep pace with a technologically sophisticated enemy which the U.S. no longer has. If projects relevant to the current world are indeed going on there, the Air Force isn't talking and neither are the employees. Mentioning Groom Lake to a current worker usually produces visible emotional distress and immediate silence, a reaction which seems to diminish only decades after employment. Since publicly verifiable sources are almost as nonexistent as the base, any review of projects taking place now is, for the most part, conjecture or hearsay.

Speculation over the past few years cites Groom as the testing ground for a high-speed, high-altitude spy plane which the popular press has dubbed "Aurora," based on an unexplained budget line item with that name. (12) Aurora seems as hard to pin down as UFOs. Some black budget aviation watchers, like writer Bill Sweetman who has written a popular book on the subject, (13) believe it must exist. They look for confirmation to the unexpected retirement of the SR-71 in 1990, mysterious "sky quakes" felt in southern California, and a sighting of a triangular aircraft by a reliable witness over the North Sea. (14)

The official response is unequivocal: "The Air Force has no such program, either known as 'Aurora' or by any other name," asserted Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice. (15) Ben Rich, former chair of the Lockheed Skunk Works, most frequently cited as the alleged manufacturer, echoes the denial explaining that "Aurora" was a code name for funding related to the B-2 bomber. (16)

John Pike, space policy expert for the Federation of American Scientists speculates that at least some of the talk about the elusive Aurora "has to have been actively inspired" as a distraction. "The main thing going on at Groom Lake," Pike contends, "is testing spy planes and dissecting Russian aircraft. In the last few years the U.S. has spent a significant portion of a billion dollars from the Foreign Materials Acquisition Program hauling off everything in the former Soviet Union that wasn't tied down.... The Russians are having a fire sale, no reasonable offer refused," and much of the booty ends up at Groom Lake. (17) Indeed, former workers say that three of the largest hangars at Groom were built to house our country's "Red Hat" squadron of purloined Soviet aircraft. (18)

Other plausible projects include another stealth aircraft intended to replace or supplement the aging F-117A, (19) and a plethora of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). A UAV can be a big, slow, and very light "flying wing" that, if stealthy enough, could probably perform or even outperform most of the reconnaisance tasks of the Aurora. It could loiter over a target for hours instead of mere minutes allowed a hypersonic craft. To the airplane watchers targeting Groom, UAVs aren't as sexy as something faster, higher or more maneuverable than planes of the past, so the UAV theory is rarely discussed.

But why should this secrecy be necessary after the fall of the USSR? Perhaps if the stolen planes were exposed, the corrupt Russians who traffic in the technology might still be at political risk and the program endangered. Alternatively, maybe Groom Lake retains its current secrecy - not because there is anything particularly secret going on there now, but because the government wants to protect the ability to run highly classified projects there in the future. Once a secret base is lost, the military might reason, it cannot easily be regained. And once granted, "leftover" secrecy tends to hang around after the initial justifications fade in order to prevent "meddling" by outsiders, including taxpayers and their elected representatives. And once granted, "leftover" secrecy tends to hang around after the initial justifications fade away.

The Kind of Attention the Military Hates

While the Lazar story and the UFO wave that followed ended decades of successful obscurity for Area 51, it has taken two legal actions to attract the attention of the mainstream media.

When the military seized the Groom Mountain Range in 1984, it forgot two obscure hills, the most popular now known as "Freedom Ridge." Anonymous camouflage-clad security guards without name tags or insignia patrol this public land in white Jeep Cherokees. Said to be employed by the government contractor EG&G, (20) the well armed, tight-lipped "cammo-dudes" are now as much a tourist attraction as the base itself. Visitors to Freedom Ridge who make the 45 minute trek by foot or four-wheel-drive from a maintained dirt road are rewarded with a static view of hangars and support buildings fronting a long runway about 13 miles distant. With a telescope, they can pick out aircraft, vehicles, and even people engaged in routine activities they cannot even report to their families. Scanner radio buffs can tune in the unacknowledged control tower frequencies. (21) When the controller says, "Watchdog is in effect," it is a warning to pilots that there are civilian observers on the ridge and, presumably, that they should not engage in any action that would expose a secret project. Some aircraft, according to the broadcasts, are even turned away by the control tower until the watchers leave.

In October 1993, the Air Force applied to the secretary of the interior to withdraw the two viewpoints from public use. (22) Apart from patriotic rhetoric about the need for a strong national defense and the importance of the Nellis Range for training pilots, the only explanation the Air Force provided was a single sentence:

"The purpose of the withdrawal is to assure the public safety and the safe and secure operation of activities in the Nellis Range Complex." (23)

The withdrawal application and the ambiguous explanation triggered immediate and widespread publicity and gave the media the kind of story the public seems to find irresistible: a government cover-up. From Popular Science (24) to the New York Times Magazine, (25) news outlets asked the same basic question: "What is going on at Groom Lake and why can't we be told?" When local sherrif's deputies seized videotape shot by ABC News (26) and KNBC-TV of Los Angeles, (27) the events become part of their stories and only heightened public interest. The Lincoln County Sherriff's Department was accused of deputizing the anonymous security guards and acting as Air Force rent-a-cops, seizing film and arresting naive tourists who wandered across the unfenced border. (28) The crest of the media wave was a two-hour Larry King television special on UFOs broadcast "Live from Area 51," or more precisely, live from the desert across the highway from the Little A'Le'Inn. (29)

For now, Freedom Ridge remains open, and Watchdog seems to be in effect almost every day. The number of groups hiking in to catch a glimpse of "the base that doesn't exist" has soared from one a week to four or five a day. Whatever importance the withdrawal may have for national security, it cannot be called a triumph for Air Force public relations.

A potentially worse disaster, not only for public relations, but for public health is a recently-filed hazardous waste lawsuit. [See p. 40.] Unless the suit is settled out of court, it could linger for years, keeping Groom in the news and perhaps forcing some real changes in military policy. The fundamental problem is, how to sue a base that doesn't exist. Former workers are under oath not to talk about their employment, so how can they testify? In similar legal and political battles in the past, like the initial 1980's Groom range landgrab, the military has often triumphed simply by outlasting the enemy, but now the attacks are more broad-based and the public support for such secret operations is dwindling. In the post-Cold War era, blind public patriotism and employee trust are not what they were, making denial of the obvious increasingly difficult to maintain.

The End of an Era?

About 90 miles west of Groom is yet another secret base, the Tonopah Test Range (TTR), first operational base for the F-117A Stealth fighter. (30) It has a very long runway and an expanse of hangars and support buildings roughly equivalent to Groom's. Because it so closely resembles Groom, it should be a UFO hotbed and a popular tourist attraction, but it is not, either because the UFOs simply aren't there or because TTR doesn't have Groom's mystique. TTR "exists" while Groom does not. Guards at Tonopah have name tags, the facility has a sign on the highway, and the base itself is plainly visible from a remote but public road. Because it is not hidden, TTR is perceived by the public as too obvious to possibly hold any mysteries and thus has largely escaped public scrutiny.

Paradoxically, the very fact that Groom was once America's most secret air base may assure that it will soon be the least secret. Perhaps the management felt that by acknowledging anything at all about the place, even its existence, it would be starting down the slippery slope toward releasing everything. That fear may be self-fulfilling. Now that the "nonexistence" of Area 51 has attracted so much attention, it seems doubtful that the Air Force can dilute interest with dribbles of information. The power of tourism and compulsive data collecting by civilian hobbyists may do more to expose the base than all the efforts of Soviet spies.

Until a few months ago, inquiries about Groom Lake to the staff at the Nellis A.F.B. Public Affairs Directorate yielded only facetious responses like, "Groom Lake, where's that?" or "Area 51? Never heard of it." Today, the caller is patched through immediately to the public affairs director who provides the statement quoted at the beginning of this article: "We do have facilities within the complex near the dry lake bed of Groom Lake." For those who have long pursued "the base that doesn't exist," it is a remarkable admission. It is the first crack in the wall and probably won't be the last.


1. The base occupies a 4,742 square mile land area, with 7,700 square miles of additional airspace. Source: Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) Public Affairs Directorate.

2. "Groom Lake Exists: USAF," Aviation Week and Space Technology, October 3, 1994, p. 31.

3. DATE, PLEASE, CITY, CBS affiliate, KLAS-TV. The series of reports, "UFOs: The Best Evidence," was produced by local reporter George Knapp. It has never been broadcast outside of Las Vegas or offered for legitimate sale, but pirated copies have long been making the rounds in the UFO subculture.

4. Chris Pocock, Dragon Lady: History of the U-2 Spy Plane (Osacola, Wisc.: Motorbooks International, 1989), p. 14.

5. Available for inspection at the Dept. of Energy reading room in Las Vegas. The area figure refers to the 10 mile by 6 mile block of land surrounding the Groom Lake base, shown on the DoE's own current maps of the Test Site.

6. Paul F. Crickmore, "Lockheed SR-71: The Secret Missions Exposed." Osprey Aerospace, 1993, p. 11; and James Goodall, America's Stealth Fighters and Bombers. (Osacola, Wisc.: Motorbooks International, 1992), p. 19.

7. Roads and the main airstrip are shown on the 1978 USGS map "Pahranagat Range Surface Management 1:100,000," which is still available from the USGS Branch of Distribution.

8. Ed Vogel,"Nevadans Question Air Force Seizure of Land," Las Vegas Review-Journal, May 20, 1984; and Chris Chrystal, "AF Admits to Illegality of NTS land grab," Las Vegas Sun, August 7, 1984.

9. In early 1994, a canister of previously unclassified film of the Groom to Papoose Lakes area, on file at the USGS, was removed by Air Force personnel and classified. (Interview, October 25, 1994.)

10. Available through Central Trading, Houston, Texas.

11. For an information sheet, contact On-Site Inspection Agency, Dulles International Airport, (703) 742-4326.

12. Department of Defense, Procurement Programs (P-1), February 4, 1985, p. F-6, line 28.

13. Bill Sweetman, Aurora: The Pentagon's Hypersonic Spyplane (Osacola, Wisc.: Motorbooks, International, 1993).

14. Ibid, p. 13.

15. Washington Post, letter to the editor, December 27, 1992.

16. Ben R. Rich, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), p. 310.

17. Interview, November 1, 1994.

18. Keith Rogers, "Groom Lake Toxic Burning Alleged," Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 20, 1994. Includes map showing location of the Red Hat hangars, based on information provided by an anonymous worker.

19. Steve Douglas, "The Flying Artichoke," Popular Mechanics, Dec. 1994, p. 16.

20. Author's confidential sources.

21. Broadcasting locally on 120.35, 127.65, 118.45, 261.1 Mhz.

22. 43 U.S.C. 155-158 (The Engle Act). See also 43 C.F.R. 2300 for withdrawal procedures. Since the land sought is less then 5,000 acres, the secretary could approve the action without congressional approval. It is presently being processed by the Bureau of Land Management and probably won't get to the secretary of the interior before 1995.

23. "Notice of Proposed Withdrawal and Opportunity for Public Meeting." Federal Register, October 18, 1993, p. 53745.

24. "Secret Air Base," Popular Science, March 1994.

25. Donovan Webster, "Area 51: The Cold War Still Rages in the Nevada Desert...," June 26, 1994.

26. Keith Rogers, "Equipment Seized Near Secret Base," Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 14, 1994.

27. Susan Greene, "Officer Arrests Man, Seizes News Videos," Las Vegas Review-Journal, July 21, 1994.

28. October 1, 1994, on the TNT cable network.

29. Glenn Campbell, Area 51 Viewer's Guide, version 2.04, p. 29. Available from author.

30. Bill Sweetman and James Goodall, Lockheed F-117A:Operation and Development of the Stealth Fighter (Osacola, Wisc.: Motorbooks, International, 1990), p. 65.

HTML by Area 51 Research Center, 3/21/96.