Area 51: Origins
America’s once-secret air base had humble beginnings.
- By Peter Merlin
- AirSpaceMag.com, March 26, 2013
Laughlin Heritage Foundation
The U.S. Air Force base in southern Nevada, known unofficially as Area 51, is where some of the world’s most advanced aircraft have been flown and tested. Over the years, the base has engendered dozens of conspiracy theories, in part because of rumors of preserved alien corpses stored on the premises, but also due to reports of exotic aircraft that seem to defy the laws of physics. No wonder the base is also known as “Dreamland.”
But long before Area 51 secured its place in popular culture, it was little more than a camp in the desert, with spartan living accommodations and test facilities. Air & Space contributor Pete Merlin has assembled 230 photographs from those early days in his book Area 51: Images of Aviation.
Pictured: An Air Force crew unloads a disassembled Lockheed U-2 from a C-124 transport. With a maximum takeoff weight of 216,000 pounds, the C-124 usually landed on the lakebed to avoid wear and tear to the base’s paved runway. When the first U-2 was scheduled to be delivered on July 25, 1955, rain had softened the lakebed surface, but base commander Colonel Richard Newton refused to allow the C-124 to land on the asphalt strip. He relented after Kelly Johnson, head of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, expressed his dissatisfaction and called CIA headquarters. Two hours later, using reverse-propeller-pitch for braking, the C-124 landed on partially deflated tires. After the dust cleared, the commander noted that the runway had a quarter-inch indentation running a distance of 50 feet. “It was really gory for a first meeting with Newton,” Johnson later wrote in his personal log.