As I write this, the world is only days away from what could potentially be the internet’s crowning moment of idiocy: the “Storm Area 51” raid. What began as a Facebook event created just for laughs was quickly adopted by the media for the sake of traffic, and as a result, given an air of legitimacy — as outlets the world over reported on “millions of people” committing to raid a government facility just because they clicked the word “going” on a Facebook page.
Of course, actually showing up in the tiny communities that surround America’s most secretive test range is a lot different than chuckling as you click your mouse from the comfort of your couch — but it now seems assured that a number of folks will be going just to see if other folks are going, with no real plans to attempt any sort of raid. Of course, if such an attempt were made, it goes without saying that the U.S. Air Force would likely respond with an escalation of non-lethal weapons that would make the already grueling trek across bare desert to the isolated facility just about impossible. Of course, if people arrived in sufficient numbers (or sufficiently motivated) to keep moving past the non-lethal deterrents, the military is authorized to use deadly force when it comes to keeping teenagers hopped up on Mountain Dew Code Red out of the cockpit of whatever aircraft they’re currently testing out of Groom Lake… because, despite the urban myths, movies, and video games, Area 51 actually has a pretty legitimate excuse for existing (that doesn’t involve aliens). It’s an isolated air strip purpose-built to test the latest classified aircraft Uncle Sam has to offer.
The need for a secret air base to conduct such tests was made glaringly apparent (once again) last December, when a Marine Corps mock-up of a Chinese Chengdu J-20 was spotted for just a moment outside a hangar at the Savannah-Hilton Head Airport in Georgia. Almost immediately, pictures surfaced online as internet sleuths and journalists alike tried to determine how China’s premier stealth fighter ended up parked outside a Cinnabon. Within a day or so, the Marine Corps had to fess up and admit that they’d built the mock jet fighter for use in target acquisition training and the cat was forever out of the bag.
The U.S. government has long been aware of Americans tenacity for spotting something cool and sharing the story with our friends — which is precisely why Lockheed and the CIA went looking for a remote location to start testing the still-developing U-2 Spy Plane in 1955. The high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft was being developed at a positively blistering pace, with legendary Skunkworks engineer Kelly Johnson taking point on the program that would literally go from sketch to first flight in 8 months. America needed a means to keep tabs on Russia’s nuclear program and a few years prior, Russia had begun aggressively intercepting any aircraft that approached their airspace. Satellite reconnaissance was still a long way off, so Johnson designed a plane that could hopefully soar above detection at altitudes in excess of 80,000 feet.
Unlike some other programs Kelly Johnson would helm (like the SR-71 Blackbird) the U-2 was built using a lot of off-the-shelf technology that Lockheed pushed to its very limits. The snug cockpit’s hatch had to be opened by hand, the single engine needed special fuel to prevent it from boiling away in the lack of pressure on the cusp of space, and pilots had to wear space suits to fly it. This strange aircraft had an 80-foot wingspan that allowed it to glide for hundreds of miles and, let’s be honest, just looked downright weird compared to most aircraft one might see in the sky in 1955.
So the team settled on a small dry lake bed surrounded by Atomic Energy Commission’s (AECs) nuclear test ranges and active ordnance testing sites. They took to calling the area around the dried-out lake “Watertown,” and they built a number of structures to support their secretive enterprise. Over the years, other secret aircraft would also be tested at Watertown: platforms like the legendary SR-71 Blackbird and the world’s first stealth platform, the F-117 Nighthawk. Of course, by then, most Americans knew Watertown by a different name: Area 51.
Today, the facility near the dry bed of Groom Lake (which falls within the Nellis Test Range) has become synonymous with tales of flying saucers and captured aliens… but the truth is, having a place in the middle of nowhere to test the sort of things you don’t want the world to know you have is reason enough for the clandestine installation… and if you’re inclined to believe the legends about aliens and reverse engineered spacecraft, one would assume the government was smart enough to relocate those enterprises years ago; as the facility is under constant scrutiny from military aviation and UFO buffs alike.
The “raid” on Area 51 started as a joke and hopefully, it’ll end as one — but if any foolhardy internet warriors do intend to make the trip, just remember that real Americans have died testing platforms that now serve as the backbone of our defense apparatus at that facility.
Try to show a little respect.