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Nevada’s mountains provide a wall around one of the world’s most secret places. (Courtesy KPITV; Map: USGS)

The Truth is Out There

A veteran reporter describes his search for the aircraft of Area 51

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IN THE EARLY 1990s, when I was working from a home office in the high desert of southern California, about 45 miles from Edwards, I seemed to be at the center of spook-aircraft reports. The more stories we ran about black aircraft, the more reports we seemed to receive. Soon I was getting phone calls in the middle of the night from avid sky-watchers, urging me to “run outside and look to the north! The ‘pulser’ just flew over Mojave!” I never saw this particular aircraft, but I did hear its loud, pulsing signature a few times. In years in the flight test business, I had heard more than a few jet engines. This was something new.

Sightings were funneled my way, but other AvWeek reporters were also vetting the information. Trying to piece together dozens of observations, sketches, and a few photos, then deciphering what they meant, was like working on a 400-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 250 pieces. No matter how we shuffled the pieces, we could not be sure we had identified the full picture. Many of my sources refused to discuss black matters over the phone; their jobs and security clearances were at stake. And a law enforcement friend had confirmed that my home office phone line had a legal tap on it, from a court order in the 212 area code (New York City). I was never able to find out who had requested the tap or why. Consequently, my sources and I resorted to using codes. I’d call and ask a question such as “Are you helping with the silent auction at the kids’ school next week?” Translation: “I’ll meet you in the Gemco parking lot in 15 minutes.”

Several times my colleagues and I rented night-vision gear and set up makeshift observation sites near Edwards. Long nights of shivering in the desert, watching and listening, ultimately yielded one intriguing videotape: Our team saw and recorded what we called the “dripper,” a long, thin aircraft, cloaked in gold light, that appeared to shed luminescent clumps or pearl-like globs. I wasn’t with the team that night, but when I viewed the tape the next morning, I was just as puzzled and excited as those who had seen the dripper first-hand. I contacted physicists at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who later watched the tape and decided our dripper’s shedding was “classic plasma bifurcation,” or the splitting of gas ions in the atmosphere. Fascinating, but why would an aircraft be shrouded in plasma? Was this a new type of stealth technology? If so, it must be of limited operational value, because at night, the aircraft, visible for miles, failed miserably at visual stealth.

We had data and some intriguing theories but no confirmation. However, much of what we did have seemed to point to one place: Groom Lake. It was time to join the cadre of watchers who prowled the borders of this enigmatic Mecca of advanced aircraft. In the mid-1990s, the federal government extended the borders of the restricted areas around Groom, removing almost 4,000 acres of land from public access. The base’s facilities could be seen clearly from only a few mountains and ridge lines, and the move prevented anybody climbing them. The one remaining viewing site was Tikaboo Peak, about 30 miles from the base. Those who had made the difficult climb told me they couldn’t see much of interest.

Under time and budget constraints, I opted to drive from Las Vegas and simply park just off Highway 375, northeast of Groom. The base was miles away, hidden behind rugged mountains, but that’s about as close as any outsider could get.

I had perused an old Air Force Security Police manual entitled Det 3 SP—Job Knowledge, which included rudimentary drawings and descriptions of field sensors—motion, acoustic, and other types—scattered around Groom. According to the manual, these battery-powered canisters were buried with their “flat end facing the roadway,” enabling them to detect passing vehicles and set off alarms if anybody got close to the base.

I couldn’t monitor activity at the base itself, but maybe I’d spot the sky-ripper departing for a late-night test flight. A near-full moon provided enough light to reveal an aircraft, if one were to take off that night. Hours went by, the moon climbed higher, but I saw nothing. The desert was dead quiet, and downright lonely. Around 2 a.m., fighting to stay awake, I suddenly felt the rental car rocking back and forth. I bolted upright. A short-horn steer was using the car’s left-rear corner as a scratching post. About a dozen open-range cattle were clustered around the car, probably wondering why I had intruded on their pasture.

By 4 a.m., having seen or heard nothing departing Groom, I headed for a motel. Joining me the next night was a Las Vegas TV crew that was equipped with night-vision gear and a portable radio-frequency scanner. We had barely settled in for the evening when the scanner blared: “[Call sign], do you have the four-wheeler down by the mailbox?”

“Yeah. I got him,” came a bored reply.

Across the highway from us stood a local rancher’s black, post-mounted mailbox. The four-wheeler under discussion was ours. We hadn’t been there a half-hour, and the “camo dudes”—what black-aircraft watchers call the camouflage-uniformed Groom guards— were already on to us. Maybe the presence of two reporters and a TV cameraman prompted the base’s commander to cancel that night’s tests. Or maybe Groom test pilots don’t fly on nights when the moon is full and bright. For whatever reason, we saw nothing more exciting that night than lightning flashes from a distant thunderstorm.

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