The June 1997 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine announces on its cover the alleged demise of the fabled Area 51 at Groom Lake, Nevada as the U.S. government's premier secret aircraft test facility. "The Air Force has abandoned top-secret testing at its once most secret test site. We know why and we know where they moved it to," the magazine cover states.
Inside, PM science and technology editor Jim Wilson tells how he recently tried to get a rise out of the legendary "cammo dudes" who have long guarded the base perimeter with authorization to use "deadly force" on intruders. Wilson says he took a dirt road into the area of the base until he reached a cattle gate, the kind found on many ranches in the area. He notes a sign that reads "No trespassing," and another that warns, in disarmingly bland language, that the Air Force drops bombs beyond that fence. Assuming he's at the back door to Area 51, he leans on his horn and flashes his headlights for 15 minutes. Nothing happens. "Perhaps no one comes out here anymore?" he asks rhetorically.
Or maybe the poor bloke was lost.
Among Wilson's other evidence that the base is shutting down: the fact that Glenn "Mr. Area 51" Campbell, widely regarded as the top civilian watchdog of secret government activities in central Nevada, has moved from Rachel (the tiny community nearest the base) to Las Vegas, some 100 miles away. Wilson takes this as evidence that Campbell's interest has waned. But he didn't ask Campbell. CNI News did.
When we reached Campbell by phone on Wednesday, May 14, he sounded highly amused by the whole story, though he hadn't yet acquired the magazine. Campbell does live now in Las Vegas, but his Area 51 Research Center still maintains an office in Rachel, staffed by three workers on Campbell's payroll.
Campbell himself has another office hard by McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. From that vantage point, he sees that the Area 51 workforce seems to be about the same as it's been over the last several years. Nearly all Area 51 workers commute to and from the top-secret facility every day by air, most flying in and out of a restricted corner of McCarran. From Campbell's office, he can see the parking lot where those workers leave their cars each morning. On the day CNI News called, Campbell said that the lot appeared to be about 90 percent full.
We asked him about the cattle gate where writer Jim Wilson tried to attract the cammo dudes.
"There's no such gate," Campbell said. None of the roads into the base have padlocked gates like the one described in the article. "There are various ranch roads in that area that might have gates like that," Campbell said, implying that the Popular Mechanics writer might have literally driven down the wrong road.
With such questions raised at the very beginning of a long article on the arcana of Air Force secret testing, I confess my confidence in Jim Wilson's journalistic accuracy was shaken. There seems little reason, so far, to believe that Area 51 is now less important to the Air Force, or less active, than it has been over the previous several decades.
That's also the view of professional aviation journalist Steve Douglass, who spoke with CNI News on May 15. Douglass, who has written for Aviation Week, Popular Science and other magazines, and also strings for CBS-TV news, has made the "black world" of super-secret aircraft his beat for years. He thinks the PM article has many inaccuracies.
"Some of the secret aircraft testing projects have moved from Area 51 lately because they've become operational," he told CNI News. "Those projects are now based at Tonopah or at White Sands in New Mexico. But Groom Lake is very active in developing new stealth technologies. The Air Force has way too much invested in that place to shut it down."
However, Area 51 has drawn a great deal of unwelcome attention in the press, thanks in large part to people like Glenn Campbell. The government's continuing refusal to openly acknowledge the existence and function of "the best known secret base in the world" has become a laughingstock and an official embarrassment. Thus, it does make sense to assume that other, more secret locations would be developed for new secret projects.
In this regard, perhaps, the Popular Mechanics article has something significant to offer. Wilson lays out a cogent argument concerning several locations in Utah that may serve as test facilities for a new breed of hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft thought to be a spin-off of NASA's X-33 reusable rocket program.
The X-33 has been described in recent press announcements as a "futuristic wedge-shaped spacecraft slated to replace the Space Shuttle around the turn of the century," now under development at Lockheed Martin. In its scaled-up version, it will be known as the VentureStar, "America's next-generation reusable launch vehicle (RLV) and the first major new U.S. spacecraft in 25 years," according to Lockheed sources.
PM's Jim Wilson says that a deal has already been inked between NASA and the Air Force Space Command to create a weapons/reconnaissance system based on the X-33. Wilson describes a prototype code-named Have Region that will be developed into an aircraft that "could take off vertically, fly faster than Mach 15, soar to 50 mile altitudes and then land on an ordinary runway." Such an aircraft could be directed to reach any point on earth within 40 minutes of take-off, making it a highly desirable reconnaissance asset.
Wilson says he has located the place from which this new aircraft will be launched: a place code-named Area 6413 in eastern Utah. This place, he says, is already administered by New Mexico-based White Sands Proving Grounds and is known as the White Sands Utah Launch Complex. It is perfectly suited for launching rockets such as the X-33, though it does not have the kind of runway that would lend itself to the landing of a Shuttle-like space plane. That honor, Wilson says, goes to nearby Michael Army Airfield, located inside the forbidding Dugway Proving Grounds where the Army has tested chemical weapons. Dugway, southwest of Salt Lake, is sufficiently remote and highly guarded, and has runways suitable for the new space plane, Wilson says.
An intriguing scenario -- but Steve Douglass thinks Wilson is on the wrong track again. It is true, Douglass says, that a new rocket-launched reconnaissance plane is in development. In fact, Douglass believes that the progress Lockheed Skunkworks has already made on that futuristic spyplane is the main reason they got the NASA X-33 contract in the first place. But he does not believe this project will be tested in Utah.
"The Northrop Strip at White Sands New Mexico has been substantially lengthened and improved in the last few years," Douglass told CNI News. "I've been out there and I see 500 cars come out at the end of each day," he said, implying that the activity level is very high. Douglass believes that facility is a top candidate for testing the new generation of rocket-boosted spyplanes. But there's another candidate, he says, that's even better.
"San Nicolas Island has a huge runway and major facilities run by the Navy," Douglass says. The island is located some 50 miles due west of Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California. It is a designated U.S. Naval Reservation, large enough for a major base, remote enough to entirely elude civilian snooping. And, being surrounded by blue water, it's a far better place to launch big rockets than central Utah. Douglass believes San Nicolas Island is already home to the current generation of super-secret reconnaissance planes, whose sonic booms are sometimes heard along the California coast.
All things considered, there seems no reason to believe that Area 51 will out of the secret aircraft business any time soon, but it is likely that some of the latest projects are being based elsewhere. CNI News recommends that our readers take the Popular Mechanics allegations with a grain of salt, but stay tuned for further developments.
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