In a backhanded reveal, the CIA has officially acknowledged the existence of Area 51, the remote Nevada government testing ground that has been central to numerous conspiracy theories and UFO sightings over the last half century.
George Washington University’s National Security Archive requested in 2005 and received a few weeks ago a CIA history of the U-2 spy plane program, began under the Eisenhower administration. It turns out the secretive surveillance program essentially established the mysterious testing base, designated on the map as Area 51. Subsequent attempts to rename it “Paradise Ranch” fell flat, and the enticingly generic name stuck.
While they may seem mundane today, U-2 planes were capable of flying at 60,000 feet at a time when that seemed inconceivable to a vast majority of the public. Most commercial aircrafts flew between 10,000 and 20,000 feet; military aircraft cruised below 40,000 feet. So military personnel thought the remote, flat (“As smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it,” as one aviation engineer described it.) and abandoned World War II landing strip would be ideal to test the futuristic planes out of the public eye.
And they were right — in a sense. The public didn’t connect the futuristic flyers with the U.S. government. But they did think they were from outer space and that the government was hiding the aliens.
Soon, the government started hearing about it — in droves. Over one-half of all UFO reports from the mid-1950s through the ’60s were actually U-2 planes on test runs over Nevada, the CIA documents reveal.
The declassified history explains why:
Such reports were most prevalent in the early evening hours from pilots of airliners flying from east to west. When the sun dropped below the horizon of an airliner flying at 20,000 feet, the plane was in darkness. But if a U-2 was airborne in the vicinity of the airliner at the same time, its horizon from an altitude of 60,000 feet was considerably more distant, and, being so high in the sky, its silver wings would catch and reflect the rays of the sun and appear to the airliner pilot, 40,000 feet below, to be fiery objects. Even during daylight hours, the silver bodies of the high-flying U-2s could catch the sun and cause reflections or glints that could be seen at lower altitudes and even on the ground.
It became standard practice for the Air Force’s Operation Blue Book, which collected all reports of UFO sightings, to first cross-reference the sighting with the U-2s flight schedules before investigating further.
But even though the government could easily dismiss thoughts of a pending alien invasion, it was not able to tell citizens reporting the sightings what they had actually witnessed. And so Area 51, Nevada and UFOs entered American lore, with a large “no comment” from the government.