Area 51: Born in 1955 and reborn in 1989

Area 51

May has always been a month of historic milestones for Area 51

Groom Lake, now known as Area 51, seen here in 1968. (Photo: T.D. Barnes)

MYSTERY WIRE  – The month of May looms large in the history of the world’s best known secret base – Area 51.  A small ‘temporary’ facility first opened in May 1955 and later exploded into the public’s consciousness in May 1989.

Hundreds of UFO-curious revelers vowed to storm Area 51 a couple years ago. They ended up just doing a lot of dancing and storytelling.

But their desert adventure might have never happened if not for a shadowy, anonymous  whistleblower  went on live TV in May 1989 to tell some out-of-this-world stories.

Years before “Dennis” told his tales of captured alien technology, the secret base at Groom Lake was a cradle of cutting-edge technology that proved both dangerous and indispensable to national security.

From the U-2 and Blackbird spy planes to the claims of alien technology in the Nevada desert, Area 51 has been at the center of America’s national security apparatus as well as an enduring fascination with UFO lore.

In 2005, the 50th anniversary of now-sprawling base in the Nevada desert,  Mystery Wire looked back at the history of the base, the projects spawned there, and the tourism that sprung up near the gates.

But their desert adventure might have never happened if it wasn’t for a shadowy whistleblower who insisted his identity was concealed and went on live TV in May 1989 to tell some out-of-this-world stories.

Years before “Dennis” told his tales of captured alien technology, the secret base at Groom Lake was a cradle of cutting-edge technology that proved both dangerous and indispensable to national security.

Area 51 Before & After (1959 on left — 2020 on right)

The story below originally aired on May 5, 2005 on KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, NV.

George Knapp
Buses with blacked-out windows, cameras that scan for any movement, sensors buried in the dirt, armed choppers that patrol the skies, ominous signs that warn of deadly force. The secrecy that’s long been the trademark of Area 51 is as pronounced today as it’s ever been. Whatever is going on inside, no one is going to talk about it. For decades, the government would not admit the existence of Area 51. Its code name disappeared from maps. Employees could not tell their own spouses where they worked.

T.D. Barnes, Former CIA Electronics Specialist
“No one knew about it. You never heard of Groom Lake in those days, or Area 51.”

George Knapp

Electrical whiz T.D. Barnes was working for NASA in the 60’s when he first focused on Area 51. He knew from radar signatures that something very fast was flying around out there. Barnes was recruited by the CIA to join the Groom Lake team, although this kind of teamwork was pretty unusual.

T.D. Barnes
“You never talked about each other’s jobs. Some guys I knew, I worked with them, stayed there all week with them, to this day I don’t know what their speciality was. We didn’t ask. To this day you do not ask.”

George Knapp

If Area 51 had DNA, secrecy would be woven into it. Lockheed genius Kelly Johnson needed an out-of-the-way place to test his spindly spy plane, the U-2, and the dry bed of Groom Lake seemed perfect. It was far from prying eyes, but still close to the already-secure Nevada test site. In 1955, when the first U-2 was rolled out at Groom, the base, then known as Watertown, consisted of only a few buildings and hangars. For Francis Gary Powers and the other U-2 pilots and personnel, Area 51 was no garden spot, but the work was vital. The U-2 enabled America to find out what our adversaries were up to. Even before Powers’ U-2 was shot down over Russia, a successor was in the pipeline at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, a family of planes that would be known as Blackbirds.

Bob Gilliland, Lockheed Test Pilot
“The greatest airplanes ever built, and still are, 40-years-ago and still the world’s fastest.”

George Knapp

Test pilot Bob Gilliland was chosen by Lockheed as the first man to fly the SR-71, one version of the Blackbird and the fastest plane to ever fly. When the U-2s moved out of Groom Lake, the Blackbirds moved in. They could travel faster than Mach 3, but at such speeds, the planes and the pilots got mighty warm.

Bob Gilliland, Lockheed Test Pilot
“Around 800 degrees Fahrenheit. A self cleaning oven is 425. A soldering iron is 550, so it’s a lot hotter than that.”

Gen. Dennis Sullivan, CIA Pilot
“They asked me, you want to volunteer to do something? What am I gonna do, I asked.  They said, we can’t tell you. Okay, I volunteer.”

George Knapp

Military pilot Dennis Sullivan was recruited by the CIA to work at Groom Lake in the early 60’s and to pilot the A-12, an early Blackbird. For the spy pilots, the Cold War seemed pretty hot.  Various enemies were constantly trying to shoot them down. and just flying the planes was dangerous enough.

Gen. Dennis Sullivan
“A guy in CIA headquarters told me, ‘When we looked at it, we figured we’d lose 20% of you guys,’ which is about what we did.”

George Knapp

There were other dangers. Area 51 was only a few miles from ground zero at the Nevada Test Site. The base was often showered with radioactive fallout from atomic tests. In later years, workers were exposed to toxic chemicals because of regular open pit burning at Groom Lake. Despite the risks, those who worked at Area 51 are proud of their roles. Proud and tight lipped.

T.D. Barnes
“If there’s something going on out there and they don’t want people to know about it, they’re not gonna know about it. It’s not gonna happen.”


The story below originally aired on May 6, 2005 on KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, NV.

George Knapp 
The first time I read about UFOs at Area 51 it was in the pages of the Las Vegas Review Journal back in the mid 1980s. The paper reported it as a mere rumor, I-Team reports a few years later made quite a splash, even internationally. And Area 51 has never been the same. The reason for all the attention, a man who said he worked on flying saucers.

Bob Lazar
“Well, there are several, actually nine flying saucers, flying disks.”

George Knapp 
A live interview with the shadowy “Dennis” in the spring of 1989 was the beginning of the end for Area 51’s anonymity. “Dennis,” a pseudonym, claimed to be working on a top secret project involving flying saucers of extra terrestrial origin. In November 1989, the true identity of “Dennis” was revealed

Bob Lazar
“Physical contact and proof from another, another system, another planet and other intelligence. That’s got to be the biggest event in history, period. And it’s real, and it’s real and it’s there.”

George Knapp
Bob Lazar said he was hired by the Navy to work in a facility called S-4 adjacent to Papoose Dry Lake south of Groom Lake. Several hangars were built into a mountainside he said and inside each hanger was a flying saucer.

Bob Lazar 
“There were nine total that I saw, each one being different. Like they had the assortment pack.”

George Knapp 
The story set off the stampede UFO enthusiasts took bus trips to the outskirts of Area 51, staged saucer watches, told even wilder tales about alien beings running amok at Groom Lake. Media outlets poke fun at the so-called saucer nuts and at Lazar. But in the years that followed, every major news organization in the world visited or wrote about the base TV specials aired in many countries.
10s of 1000s of visitors tracked to the base to see for themselves. In nearby Rachel Nevada, the town closest to Area 51, residents recognized a good thing. The Rachael Bar and Grill became the Little A’Le’Inn, plastered its walls with UFO photos, put a few clever doodads and eye catchers outside and began selling alien merchandise.

Pat West
“I have candles. I have patches. I have pins. I have all different coffee cups. Of course you saw that I do have badges. I have licenses. I have shot glasses…”

George Knapp 
Along with postcards, posters, Cookie jars and alien spoons.

Pat West  
“We have little miniature playing cards. We have guitar straps. We have sunglasses, you name it. We’ve got it.”

George Knapp  
Books too, including this one by Area 51 gadfly Chuck Clark.

Chuck Clark  
“Yeah, it still sells and I keep it up to date. Then, you know, change it as necessary.”

George Knapp
The Las Vegas stars baseball team became a Las Vegas 51s. There’s an Area 51 Rock Band, video game, dance troupe and fireworks company. Oh and alien jerky stands. The base has been featured in numerous TV dramas and a movie or two. Area 51, the base that didn’t officially exist has become a household name all over the world to the chagrin of the so called cammo dudes who have to keep trespassers out. The notoriety inspired the state of Nevada to dedicate the Extra Terrestrial Highway the only one of its kind on this planet anyway. While critics think it’s all nonsense, a lot of people have seen glowing objects over the base.
True some of the photos are probably secret craft made in the USA, but a few look and act like dare we say flying saucers. The vantage points once used to look at the base have been seized. But sky watchers still catch a glimpse now and then of something strange every

Chuck Clark 
“Once in a while there will still be a sighting of some of the weird moving objects out in airspace.”

George Knapp
Several other people have come forward in the year since the Lazar and have told us bits and pieces of the same story. But after Lazar’s reputation was so thoroughly pummeled, none of the other witnesses were willing to appear on camera or let us use their real names these days.


Fifty years after the base began operations, Mystery Wire scored the first interviews with those who risked their lives and kept the secrets, the group known as The Roadrunners.

The story below originally aired in 2005 on KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, NV.

George Knapp
Area 51 is a secret and the Roadrunners International is still keeping it, at least among each other. About 300 roadrunners and their spouses are in Las Vegas this week (2005) to share stories about the secret work they did at the Area 51 military base, stories they’ve kept quiet for 50 years.
From outside the room, it looks like any of a thousand such gatherings, but inside, the stories being told by these former Cold War warriors are unlike anything you might hear in any other banquet room. The members of the Roadrunners all worked at Groom Lake, better known today as Area 51. They worked for the Air Force, for the CIA, and for defense contractors on what were then the most secretive military projects in the world. The U-2, A-12, and SR-71 spy planes. Harry Martin worked on the fuel system of the A-12 and was at Groom Lake for the very first flight.

Harry Martin
“It is still the fastest and highest flying aircraft in the world.”

George Knapp
This year marks the 50th anniversary of both the Groom Lake base and the U-2 spy plane. Some of the Roadrunners were at Groom Lake from day one and were the first to fly the so-called Dragon Lady.

Lt. Col. Hank Meierdierck, U-2 pilot
“We were up in the unknown realm at that particular time. For example, I had the altitude record 3 times, and Ray Goudy had it 3 times. We were exchanging it, going higher and higher when the aircraft could.”

George Knapp
The Lt. Colonel had to use a code name even among other military men. He and the others would be gone for weeks at a time but could not even tell their wives what they were doing, which prompted jokes that maybe the wives thought the men had a second family somewhere.  Some of the family members are hearing the real stories for the first time, and the roadrunners are making a concerted effort to preserve the history of those heady days.

T.D. Barnes, CIA electronics expert
“For many years, we couldn’t talk about anything we did. They’ve taken the lid off it where we can, so while we still can mentally and physically, we’re going to get some of the stories out.”

George Knapp
Many of the best stories occurred in House 6, the Groom Lake barracks that became the bar and poker room at the base, and which is the namesake of the bar at the reunion. Pieces of history are everywhere here. An actual flight manual from the U-2, patches and insignia from different units. You can guess which one caught our eye. And the original news release from 1955 announcing the creation of Area 51. KLAS was on the list, it was only in later years that Area 51 dropped off the map. The Roadrunners hope to make sure their contributions don’t likewise disappear.


In 2009 there was another milestone involving Area 51 and the surrounding secret area. It marked 20 years since Bob Lazar agreed to go on live television if his identity was hidden.

This is when the world was introduced to “Dennis” who claimed to have seen spacecraft in hidden bunkers near Area 51.

The story below originally aired on May 5, 2009 on KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, NV.

George Knapp 
As we all know, the reason that Area 51 became a household name, it’s because of the allegations of flying saucers out there. Things that were made somewhere else in aviation circles. A lot of people figured that story was pure disinformation concocted by the military to perhaps draw attention away from something else that was going on out there. And if that’s the case, then the tactic surely backfired on the Air Force because as a result of the saucer story Area 51 became known all over the world and is still the focus of attention. Is it too much attention to get their work done? Civilian pilots and other eyewitnesses have been seeing strange things in the skies in and around this restricted airspace that straddles the Nevada-Utah border. If there’s a base hidden out here in this desert, it certainly isn’t easy to spot, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Contrary to persistent media reports, the world’s most famous secret base, the original Area 51 is doing just fine. A 1997 article in Popular Mechanics magazine claimed the whole place had shut down and moved to eastern Utah so the military could work on a secret space plane. Not true. Nearly every day the unmarked planes ferry employees from a terminal and McCarran up to Groom Lake. Buses with blacked out windows still rumble up and down the long gravel road. Satellite photos show the facility that’s the only term the government will use. The facility operating at groom lake is bigger than ever with new hangars and other buildings. And that means the cottage industry that’s grown up around the base continues to thrive as well. In Rachel the Little A’Le’Inn still sells Beam me up Scotty high balls and ET merchandise. At the other end of the Extra Terrestrial Highway, the rival Area 51 Research Center sells its own merchandise under the shadow of a 30 foot tall alien robot. Curious types armed with cameras and high powered lenses still trek through the desert or climb the mountains to get a glimpse of the base.

Bob Lazar 
“Well, there are several actually nine flying saucers.”

George Knapp 
Things took a radical turn for Area 51 in 1989 when a man named Bob made the outrageous claim that he had worked on flying saucers at a facility called S-4 in the Area 51 complex. Ever since Lazar told his story, the world has beaten a path to Area 51’s door, which is why it might make sense for them to move their most sensitive projects to a place with a lower profile one that attracts less attention.

John Lear  
“Everybody knows about Area 51 and Groom Lake, what the interesting thing is, is I don’t think there’s anything there anymore.”

George Knapp 
John Lear has done as much as anyone to put Area 51 on the map. He knows there are still programs underway out there, but suspects the most sensitive projects, ones involving the most exotic technology, perhaps something resembling flying saucers have been moved. Lear thinks some of the most advanced work is now being done at a sister facility Area 52 within the Tonopah Test Range. But he’s even more intrigued by a vast and remote section of desert south of Wendover Nevada, on the Utah-Nevada line, Lear, an accomplished pilot whose father invented the Learjet still has numerous friends in the aviation world. And they tell him stories about seeing camouflaged runways that open up in the middle of nowhere.

John Lear 
“When the pilots land, they tell me that as they’re coming in, being radar vectored at 500 feet, they’ll look down and it’ll be just like forest or, you know, desert or just normal landscape and all of a sudden it’ll unzip like this and they’ll see a runway.”

George Knapp  
Our own search of the area south of Wendover found no evidence of runways or military facilities, though others are looking as well. Utah UFO hunters, perhaps yearning for an Area 51 of their very own, have proposed that a planned massive expansion of Dugway Proving Grounds is part of a program to create a new Area 51. They also note that Michael airbase which controls the airspace south of Wendover has, like Dugway, been the site of some very strange things seen in the skies, including saucer type craft and shafts of light that seemed to emanate from the ground. One thing we’ve learned from chasing after the original Area 51 is we’re unlikely to find out much unless they want us to know.

TD Barnes 
“If something’s going on out there. They don’t want to want to know about it. They’re not going to know about it. If it’s not gonna happen.”

George Knapp 
The man who started from there talking about secrecy is TD Barnes. He worked as a CIA radar specialist out of area 51 for many years and is president of an organization called the Roadrunners former Groom Lake employees who today are much freer to talk about what went on out there because some material has been declassified on our website, our links to the Road Runners and other sites where you can learn a lot more about area 51. And the other places that were mentioned in tonight’s story tomorrow at 11, we’ll look at how deeply Area 51 has been ingrained in our cultural fiber. And we’ll update you on Bob Lazar and things he said 20 years ago, which turned out to be right on the money.


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