Five Real ‘Area 51’ Stories That Sound Like Conspiracy Theories

Five Real ‘Area 51’ Stories That Sound Like Conspiracy Theories

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the government acknowledging Area 51. That’s right — though people have been raving and theorizing about the mysterious Nevada Air Force facility for decades, not till 2013 did the government ever officially admit its existence. Even in 2012, when Zero Dark Thirty hit screens and baffled audiences with a scene in which Chris Pratt readies himself at Area 51 to kill Osama bin Laden, the place wasn’t real, as far as official government word went. 

Maybe scientists aren’t cloning alien sex princesses there. But yeah, Area 51 — or Groom Lake, to use its equally-spooky-actually formal name — really is filled with secrecy and shenanigans. Like...

The Government Switched Out Decades-Old Wreckage Stored in Area 51 to Cover Up a Different Plane Crashing in California

The military tests new aircraft at Area 51. For example, in the 1960s, they were working on a silent helicopter that could slip into North Vietnam. Conspiracy theorists would go on to rave madly about “black helicopters,” but the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse is real, and it was tested at Area 51. 

A U.S. Army Hughes YOH-6A Cayuse prototype in flight.

jamesdale10/Wiki Commons

It’s even black. The legends spoke true. 

This helicopter, dubbed “The Quiet One,” flew into North Vietnam undetected, so a couple commandos could tap a phoneline. Despite carefully scheduling the mission based on when the Moon was in its most favorable phase, the mission didn’t go perfectly. For one thing, the men were expecting a wooden telephone pole, so they’d brought climbing gear that drove nails into wood, but they instead faced a pole made of concrete. Still, they pulled off the mission in the end, and the U.S. got intel through that pipeline for six months. 

The public doesn’t learn about such classified aircraft, not till years later, if ever. In the 1980s, rumors circulated about some new stealth fighter the military was working on. The military kept mum about the plane, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, which first took off from Area 51 in 1981. Then came a little hitch. In 1986, one of these F-117s crashed in Sequoia National Forest in California. The crash killed the pilot, Major Ross Mulhare, and the fire burned 150 acres. The military restricted airspace around the crash site and kept armed guards circling the place on foot to keep anyone from investigating. 

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

Aaron Allmon II

That is the secret to stealth. Keeping a low profile. 

They couldn’t maintain that perimeter forever, and when they left, gawkers would come by to explore the wreckage. The government had to remove all traces of the F-117, but that wasn’t enough. They needed to leave the looters something to pick through. So, they transported to the site bits of a different fighter jet, the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. This plane had crashed decades earlier, and the military had stored its remains at Area 51. Why had they stored it? In case of this very contingency, we suppose. 

The Pentagon Faced Off With NASA Over Area 51 Space Surveillance

Today, you can view satellite photos of Area 51 as easily as you can look at your own roof. You’ll see planes and buildings, a water tower and a baseball diamond. Like we said, it’s no longer a secret that a military installation sits at this site. Meanwhile, various other places on Earth — military bases, nuclear plants, Taylor Swift’s island fortress — remain hidden from satellite view because the world continues to hold many secrets. 

Area 51 aerial view


Is that a baseball diamond or a mothership?

In 1974, however, the military really wanted no one knowing about Area 51. That year, NASA was running a mission up at the space station Skylab, and the Pentagon told them to avoid photographing one location: Groom Lake, Nevada. The astronauts went and photographed it anyway. 

You’d better delete that photo before releasing your collection to the public, said the Pentagon, upon reviewing NASA’s vacation snaps. Deleting would be a bad idea, replied NASA, and would lead to even more problems. Releasing the photo would invite public and media scrutiny of this secret site, said the Pentagon. But if we withhold the photo, countered NASA, then *redacted.* We have copies of the top-secret memos covering this debate, because the government later declassified them, but parts remain redacted even now. 

National Security Archive

Public documents don’t record any official resolution to this dispute. In the end, however, NASA went and released their photo, along with all the others they’d taken. The world didn’t end. In fact, at the time, no one even noticed.

The Government Maintained Its Secrecy by Seizing a Family Mine

About 10 miles away from Area 51 is Groom Mine, a source of silver and lead, as well as a little gold. The 400 acres around the mine were owned for many years by one family, the Sheahans. While you might call the family fortunate to have lucked into a claim on this land, the area came with pitfalls. In the 1950s, nuclear tests damaged the property and showered the place in fallout, giving one member of the family cancer, which eventually killed her. The Air Force bombed buildings on the family’s property. The Sheahans sued the government but had to give up when they ran out money. 

Groom Mine is depicted on a chart of the Nevada Test and Training Range made in 2008.

National Imagery and Mapping Agency

“We wanted silver and gold, not plutonium.”

You could see parts of Area 51 from parts of the Sheahans’ property. In the 1980s, the government seized lots of the surrounding land, then around 10 years ago, they figured then needed the Sheahans’, too. They offered $1.5 million. As large a sum as that sounds, these were 400 acres, which included a mine, and the family said no. The government upped their offer to $5 million. The family still said no. Then the government said, screw it, we’ll just take the land through eminent domain. 

Eminent domain (i.e., when the government simply seizes your property, and you can’t say no), always sounds outrageous, but at least the government usually seizes the land in the name of doing something with it. Maybe they’re building a highway, or a missile silo, or something else for which they insist they absolutely need to take private property for public use. In this case, however, they simply seized the land that abutted the land they were using, because they wanted no one to see their secret site. 

Groom Mine camp

Sheahan Family

“Mine!” - Uncle Sam

Then there’s the matter of compensation. The government has to compensate you when they seize your land. Those are the rules. They compensate you according to how much they declare your property to be worth. In this case, they now appraised the land at $330,000, so that’s what they offered the family. Private appraisers disagreed and said the land was worth over $40 million, thanks to the mineral rights. Even if the family didn’t have the resources to profit from the deposits, mining companies did and would gladly buy the land given the chance.  

And so, this matter went to court. In the end, the government got the land, of course; there was no reversing that. A judge did reappraise its value. Following a court case, the total amount that the Sheahans received for their property was $1.2 million. More than the government offered when seizing the land, but it was less than they’d previously offered when trying to buy it and even less than their other offer — the very first one. 

Sometimes, when there’s money on the table, you’re best off grabbing what’s there and leaving. That’s a lesson you learn in Nevada. 

The D.B. Cooper Airplane Went on to Shuttle People to the Area 51 Test Range

A secret airline shuttles people to Area 51, and its name is Janet. Some call it “Janet Airlines,” since that sounds more appropriate, but the name is simply Janet. JANET possibly stands for Just Another Non-Existent Terminal, a winking reference to the secrecy, or maybe it stands for Joint Air Network for Employee Transportation. Its planes have no markings other than a red stripe.

Janet plane

Eddie Maloney

A super minimalist American flag

The planes take off from civilian airports (like Harry Reid International, which was known as McCarran until a couple years ago), which means you might have seen one of these planes before and just never realized it. You can even get a job as a Janet flight attendant. You need a high school diploma, have to be able to serve food and drink and must qualify for top-secret security clearance. You may be disqualified based on your sexual history, criminal past or substance abuse, so it’s safe to say most of our readers and staff don’t stand much of a shot. 

People haven’t always flown to Area 51 using Janet, however. In the 1980s, workers going to the Tonopah Test Range next to Area 51 would get on a plane from Key Airlines, a plane that had earlier been registered as N467US. That doesn’t sound very notable at all, except for the small fact that a decade earlier, when Northwest Orient Airlines had that exact plane, D.B. Cooper hijacked it

D.B. Cooper

U.S. Federal Government

The pic on the right looks just like a gray alien, actually. 

Yes, D.B. Cooper, the mysterious man who took a plane hostage, demanded (and received) a fortune from the FBI, then parachuted away, never to be seen again. We never found him, maybe because he immediately hit the ground and died. What does it mean, that this very plane later shuttled officials to America’s most secret site? Nothing, as far as we can officially declare, but we have an unfinished novel that seeks to answer that very question. 

Bill Clinton Squashed Investigations into Whether Area 51 Chemicals Gave People Fish Skin

In the 1990s, Area 51 workers said chemicals were killing them. Not crazy mind-control chemicals, no, but the sort of chemicals you get when you burn toxic waste. The place destroyed equipment by dumping jet fuel on it and setting it on fire, emitting poisonous smoke, alleged the workers. 

That sounds pretty plausible based on what we’ve learned since, through contexts unrelated to Area 51. We’re not talking about how jet fuel melts steel beams but about military burn pits, which are how the military destroys stuff in the desert when safer disposal techniques aren’t an option. Burn pits made the news last year thanks to a successful campaign to get vets health care coverage for being exposed to them.

Service member disposing of uniforms

Julianne Showalter

Some people DON’T love the smell of napalm in the morning. 

Area 51 workers called the complex’s constant smoke “London fog.” It hurt their skin and lungs. Two workers died — from the chemicals, said their families. As for exactly what the chemicals were, doctors studied the “exotic substances” on one worker’s body but were unable to identify them. The families sued, starting by demanding info on the burned materials. The lawsuit didn’t progress very quickly, as the government didn’t even acknowledge it had a facility at the spot the plaintiffs were talking about. 

The lawyer representing them obtained photos of Area 51. He obtained them from Russia, for a low price (we suppose he didn’t think to examine NASA’s public archine), and he presented them to a judge to prove that something was going on at Groom Lake. It was why workers grew hard membranes on their hands and limbs, membranes they referred to as fish scales. It was why their faces split and bled. The workers were civilian contractors, not enlisted personnel, and if the government committed environmental crimes, it seemed like the workers had standing to sue. Then Bill Clinton issued a Presidential Determination, exempting Area 51 from all environmental laws in the name of state secrecy. 

Official White House photo of President Bill Clinton

White House

He panicked when he heard lawyers were testing bodily fluids. 

The plaintiffs appealed for years, but the order held, and the investigation ended. Today, if you ever think you’re seeing gray aliens running screaming in the Nevada desert, maybe they’re sheet-metal workers riddled with rashes and cancer. 

Or, maybe it’s aliens. Yeah, on second thought, maybe it would be more reassuring to just say it’s aliens. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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