What It Was Like to Work at Area 51 [Video]
Does the name Area 51 bring to mind visions of mysterious experiments on alien bodies and spacecraft? Do you believe that the government was hiding something originating from another world, out there in the Nevada desert? If so, they had you just where they wanted you back in '50s and '60s.
The truth is that, yes, the government was covering something up, but it's much more down to earth, and maybe a whole lot juicier.
Over the past couple of years, the government gradually has been declassifying information about what really went on out there in that isolated part of the American West. The National Geographic Channel has collaborated with a number of the men who worked there in the '50s and '60s to tell a story that is much more interesting, relevant and ultimately, believable. The TV special, "Area 51 Declassified," premiered on Sunday, May 22. In it, a handful of men who actually worked on the super-secret base answer many questions -- and raise a few more.
T.D. Barnes is one of the men who worked on Area 51 and divulged details to Nat Geo and Annie Jacobsen, an investigative reporter who recently published the book, "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base." [See her interview with Jon Stewart below.] Barnes was involved with Area 51 from 1962 to 1968, and played an important role in some of the base's most compelling projects.
A Remote Location for Top Secret Work
The name is taken from a grid number on a map. It was known as Groom Lake to the people who worked there, after a former body of water that made the location a perfect landing, testing and research area. Facilities were not at all glamorous, but it was so remote that the men (who say that only one woman was ever seen at the facility) would stay there during the week and fly home to their families in the Las Vegas area on weekends.
Even their wives and children were kept in the dark about activities there. Most knew that highly confidential work was being done; their entire families had been interviewed before the men were assigned to Area 51, to make sure that they could keep a secret. But as with the Mafia or the CIA, the less the families knew, the better off they'd be.
It was indeed the CIA that was running the top secret operation at first. It involved spy planes, though, not alien craft.
The Cold War and the development of nuclear weapons put the world on high alert, and the U.S. was intent on developing planes that could fly 2,200 mph at 90,000 feet and take pictures clear enough to show an individual on the ground. That's the reason for the secrecy.
It also was close enough to a nuclear testing area that the men stationed there could see and feel those that were being conducted at the time.
When locals spotted the futuristic aircraft in the sky, or perhaps caught a glimpse of the pilots in their pressure suits, they cried, "Alien!" And it behooved the government to let them think that. It was a good way to keep locals from blabbing about what they saw to Soviet secret agents who swarmed the area.
"They told us there were five spies for every one of us," says Barnes. "Even our families were instructed not to talk to anyone that they didn't know."
Because of that, the Area 51 families developed a tight bond that exists even today, and is greatly facilitated by email.
"Everyone either had a boat on Lake Mead or a cabin in the mountains," Barnes explains. "And on weekends we'd come home and all stick together on the lake or in the mountains. We felt protective of each other -- it was like one big family."
Details and photos of two of Area 51's major spy-plane projects were released recently, revealing much about the U2 and the Ox Cart (the latter a deceptive code name for a jet that was very sleek and sophisticated for its time).
"I had served in the Army, where I was trained to shoot planes down," says Barnes. "So they needed my knowledge to keep others from shooting our planes down." They also needed his knowledge to reverse-engineer a Russian MiG that the U.S. had gotten its hands on.
Barnes was known as a "Hypersonic Flight Support Specialist," was an employee of the CIA, and had such a high security clearance that most CIA employees didn't even know that the level existed.
The Air Force eventually took over operations at the Groom Lake facility, where it runs them today. And each weekday a transport plane flies Air Force staff out to the desert.
No one outside the project knows exactly what they're working on, but Barnes suspects it's still super-secret aircraft. And he's fairly certain that no alien experiments were ever conducted out there, no matter what Hollywood and conspiracy theorists claim.
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