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Area 51, also known as Groom Lake, is a secret military facility about 90 miles north of Las Vegas. The number refers to a 6-by-10-mile block of land, at the center of which is a large air base the government will not discuss. The site was selected in the mid-1950s for testing of the U-2 spyplane, due to its remoteness, proximity to existing facilities and presence of a dry lake bed for landings.
Several high-tech super-secret planes were developed and tested here, including the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Stealth Fighter . More recent projects include the rumored high speed high altitude "Aurora", various unmanned planes (UAVs) and a new stealth plane to replace the F-117.
Groom Lake is America's traditional testing ground for "black budget" aircraft before they are publicly acknowledged. The facility and surrounding areas are also associated -- with varying levels of credibility with UFO and conspiracy stories. In 1989, Bob Lazar claimed on a Las Vegas television station that he had worked with alien spacecraft at Papoose Lake, south of Area 51. Since then, "Area 51" has become a popular symbol for the alleged U.S. Government UFO cover-up.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Lockheed's U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane
Area 51 owes its very existence to secret aircraft projects. The original purpose for Area 51 was a testing facility for Lockheed's U-2 spy plane. Lockheed put Kelly Johnson in charge of establishing a base of operations for testing and training facilities. Here are some of the known and suspected projects at Area 51.
The U-2 Spy Plane is a confirmed Area 51 project. Lockheed worked with the CIA to develop a plane that could fly at a high altitude and spy on other nations. The U-2 could fly at altitudes of 70,000 feet and was effective in reconnaissance missions for several years. During the development of the U-2, the CIA and Lockheed realized they would soon need more advanced aircraft because the Soviet Union's missile technology was rapidly catching up. In 1960, the USSR shot down a U-2, confirming this concern.
Engineers designed a plane--called the Suntan--to be a successor to the U-2. It could fly at speeds up to mach 2.5 (almost 2,000 miles per hour). The Suntan used liquid hydrogen for fuel, which was its ultimate downfall. Engineers decided that it would be too expensive to create a fuel infrastructure to support the Suntan's flights, and the government canceled the project.
The A-12 , which was later known as the SR-71 "Blackbird," became the actual successor to the U-2. The A-12 was a prototype model that gradually evolved into the SR-71. These planes could fly up to mach 3 (2,300 miles per hour) and could fly at altitudes of 90,000 feet.
Tacit Blue and Have Blue were the first successful attempts at creating stealth aircraft. Tacit Blue had an odd, whale-like shape, inspiring onlookers to call it "Shamu." It was designed to fly low over battle operations as a reconnaissance vehicle. Have Blue was a prototype for the F117-A Stealth Fighter. Have Blue first arrived at Area 51 in 1977. The Stealth Fighter remained a secret until the Air Force officially unveiled it to the public in 1990.
The Bird of Prey takes its name from a class of ships in Star Trek. The plane is a bomber with stealth technology. The design looks very strange, and some say that it is very unstable at low speeds due to the odd wing design.
One rumored project at Area 51, the TR3A Black Manta, could be a potential successor to the Stealth Fighter, or it may be one of many kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Currently, there is a lot of interest in UAVs because they provide the military with methods of gathering information without endangering the lives of pilots or soldiers.
The Aurora is another project that has been associated with Area 51. Now believed to be a canceled project, the Aurora was supposedly a replacement for the SR-71. It was supposed to be a hypersonic reconnaissance jet capable of attaining speeds up to mach 6 (4,600 miles per hour). The project may have failed completely, or it may turn out that the Aurora is another kind of UAV and not a jet at all.
The Brilliant Buzzard or Mothership is another rumored project at Area 51. This large jet would carry a smaller vehicle, perhaps a UAV. The smaller vehicle is designed to launch from the larger jet while in midair.
Sovietaircraft also played a large role at Area 51. These planes came from the Soviet Union and were either captured or otherwise acquired. The Air Force and CIA used these aircraft in training exercises and war games. The use of Soviet aircraft in Area 51's airspace inspired its nickname of the Red Square.
What new projects could be underway at Area 51 today? Apart from the continued focus on UAV technology, secret project theorists suggest a few possibilities. One is a transport aircraft with stealth technology designed to move troops in and out of conflict areas without being detected. Many see a need for a vehicle with effective and stealthy vertical take off and lift (VTOL) capabilities. (The V-22 Osprey has this capability, but critics say the vehicle is not effective at meeting military objectives.) Another likely research project is a stealth helicopter. Though some people say stealth helicopters already exist and are in use, they haven't been revealed to the public. Some theorists see a need for a stealth plane that is designed specifically to neutralize ground targets. To date, most stealth aircraft are either surveillance vehicles or designed for air-to-air combat. There is also a need for aircraft that can rapidly deploy to any location worldwide in as short a time as possible. Projects like the rumored Aurora plane and other hypersonic vehicles fall into this category. Other rumored research projects range from cloaking technology to proton beams to anti-gravity devices.
Of course, these projects are only the tip of the rumored iceberg. Area 51 is arguably better known for its connection with aliens and UFOs than with any of these aircraft. In the next section, we'll take a look at the rumors and theories linking Area 51 with visitors from outer space.
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