Extraterrestrial Highway near Rachel, Nev. In newly declassified documents,… (Laura Rauch / Associated…)
LAS VEGAS — For decades, it was the U.S. government's Cold War-era secret that hid in plain sight, the 1000-pound elephant in the Nevada desert that Washington continually denied — "What test site?" — and the rest of the country turned into a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Well, now it's official: Area 51 really does exist.
In newly declassified documents, the Central Intelligence Agency is acknowledging the existence of the mysterious war-test site in central Nevada that has captivated listeners on the far ends of the radio dial, spawning endless speculation about UFO landings and top-secret aliens. The site started as a testing ground for the infamous U-2 surveillance plane and went on to house other spy-versus-spy hardware.
On Thursday, George Washington University's National Security Archive released a copy of the CIA history of the U-2 spy plane program it had acquired through a public records request. The report officially places the site on a map of a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base on the Nevada Test and Training Range, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas.
For all its intrigue, the 400-page report carries a rather pedestrian name: "Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974."
The lengthy report contains no reference to little green men from outer space.
"There is a section on the relationship between the U-2 program being responsible for UFO sightings," said National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson. "But if people are looking for sections on dead aliens and interspecies contact, they'll be disappointed. It's just not there."
The U-2 planes fly at an altitude of 60,000 feet, which during the 1950s, when Area 51 first gained its notoriety, was higher than any other plane operating, according to the new CIA documents. When people saw the unfamiliar aircraft, many became suspicious and believed the crafts were piloted by aliens, the documents said.
Richelson's quest for answers goes back years. He first reviewed the CIA's history of the site in 2002 but found all mention of Area 51 apparently redacted. Three years later, he requested another version of the original 1992 report.
Last month he got his reply: a new copy of the report with all mentions of Area 51 restored.
Parts of the report read like a John le Carré thriller, detailing the first time CIA project director Richard Bissell and Air Force Col. Osmund Ritlandt spotted a possible site for their secret program, then an old airstrip next to a salt flat named Groom Lake.
They viewed it from a small Beechcraft plane piloted by Tony LeVier, Lockheed's chief test pilot. And they liked what they saw.
"After debating about landing on the old airstrip, LeVier set the plane down on the lake bed, and all four walked over to examine the strip," the report recounts. "The facility had been used during World War II as an aerial gunnery range for Army Air Corps pilots. From the air, the strip appeared to be paved, but on closer inspection it turned out to have originally been fashioned from compacted earth that had turned into ankle-deep dust after more than a decade of disuse.
"If LeVier had attempted to land on the airstrip, the plane would probably have nosed over when the wheels sank into the loose soil, killing or injuring all of the key figures in the U-2 project," the documents said.
The CIA report says the group agreed that the location "would make an ideal site for testing the U-2 and training its pilots." The lightweight spy plane was being built by Lockheed at its top-secret "Skunk Works" plant in Burbank.
Lockheed also began work on the U-2 successor as part of the CIA's Oxcart Project, leading to the development of the A-12, a Mach-3 high-altitude spy aircraft.
President Eisenhower later approved the addition of the strip of wasteland, known by its map designation as Area 51, to the Nevada Test site, according to the document.
"To make the facility in the middle of nowhere sound more attractive to his workers, [Skunk Works founder] Kelly Johnson called it the Paradise Ranch, which was soon shortened to the Ranch," the document said.
In 2010, James Noce, who said he did contract security work at the site in the 1960s and '70s, told the Seattle Times that he used to get paid in cash, signing a phony name to the receipt.
Noce, then 72, told the newspaper that he had attended the first-ever public reunion of former Area 51 workers in 2009. "I was doing something for the country," Noce said of those three years in the 1960s. "They told me, 'If anything should ever come up, anyone asks, "Did you work for the CIA?" say, "Never heard of them."' But [my buddies] know."
Richelson says the new information shows the CIA is becoming less secretive about Area 51's existence, and that bodes well for future information requests about the Cold War weapons race.
"Now you can read in some detail about U-2 missions of the past," he said. "We always knew there were 24 U-2 missions over the Soviet Union, but it's nice to have maps and a table with each pilot's name and each payload.
"Hopefully, further information about those classified missions will come out in time."