Reporter Richard Urey takes a look at the history of spy planes developed at the secret test site north of Las Vegas. Also, the series examines the effect the secret aircraft had on the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The series is notable for some of the video segments, recorded in places that later were deemed off limits. Originally aired in 1984 on KLAS TV in Las Vegas as “Area 51, The 30 Year Secret.” Part 1 of a 4-part series.
It was apparent to U.S. military planners by 1954 that the Soviet Union had the capability to catch and perhaps surpass the United States in an arms race that had begun in 1949 when Russia detonated its first atomic bomb. By the early 50s, they perfected the even more fearsome hydrogen bomb.
In order to keep tabs on Soviet military capability, the CIA needed a bird’s eye view of that country. The answer was a high-altitude spy plane. It was designated the U-2 and proven by test pilots based at Area 51, 150 miles north of Las Vegas. The plane became the backbone of U.S. global surveillance in the late 1950s. Thought to fly too high for Soviet anti-aircraft fire nonetheless, a U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, an incident that brought the reality of peacetime espionage out of the shadows and into the public light.
But the spy plane program did not suffer. Americans seem to live comfortably with the idea that what serves the national security in a nuclear age is justifiable, and a new round of spy plane development took off at Area 51. In the 1960s, the SR-71 Blackbird became the state-of-the-art tool for watching the country’s enemies from on high.
It was amazingly detailed high-altitude photographs using optical equipment field tested at Area 51 that alerted the Kennedy administration in 1962 to the deployment of Russian missiles in Cuba. The photographs gave President Kennedy incontrovertible evidence of a Soviet attempt to gain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere, and left no doubt in the minds of world leaders that it was the Soviets who were the aggressors.
If the U.S. had faced embarrassment when the U-2 was shot down in 1960, the role of spy planes and America’s peacetime arsenal was vindicated when the Soviets withdrew their missiles, ending the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Numerous other variations of spy planes, photographic equipment and atmospheric analyzers able to detect nuclear particles were developed in the 1960s and 1970s at Area 51, as verifiability became the focus of treaties that have limited, or aim to limit nuclear weapons testing.
What is going on today at Area 51 is classified. The Pentagon will not discuss current projects even in the most general terms. There is no question though that Area 51 continues to be a prime research and development site for the most sophisticated systems. Residents in the small communities of Lincoln County say there are more workers in and out of Area 51 every day, and the Air Force has been ever so quietly trying for congressional approval of additional land next to Area 51.
Access to the formerly public land is now restricted.