Area 51: the Most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

(If you want to #StormArea51, that stuff is in a different post.)

A website called naturally receives a lot of questions about Area 51, the world’s most famous secret base. Here are the answers to the most popular and interesting queries we’ve received. This is a work in progress, and we’ll refresh and repost as new intel arrives.

What is Area 51?

It’s a top secret US government research and test facility—in other words, it’s where the US Air Force keeps its biggest secrets. For years, the base did not appear on maps and the government flat-out denied that it even existed. Even today, security around the base is extremely high, and much of the facility is said to actually be underground.

Why is it called Area 51?

Area 51 AEC Map
AEC Map with Area 51
on the Right-Hand Side

The US Atomic Energy Commission, now part of the Department of Energy, used to test atomic bombs in a huge area of desert in Nevada, originally called the Nevada Proving Ground. The test range was divided up into numbered “areas” in no particular order—the numbers seem to have been picked at random. When the CIA took over one area to make a secret base, it chose Area 51, mainly because it’s completely surrounded by mountain ranges—a natural hiding place.

Today, the name Area 51 is no longer used by government and military officials; the site has had a lot of nicknames (“Dreamland”, “The Ranch”, “The Box”), but its official name is now “Detachment 3 of the Air Force Flight Test Center”—so catchy.

Where is Area 51?

It’s as far out in the Nevada desert as you can possibly imagine. The base is intentionally in the middle of nowhere; it is, after all, where the government goes when it wants to be alone.

Area 51 is 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas, far into the high desert. The nearest highway, 375, is about 25 miles from the base’s borders—and the borders are another 20 miles from the base itself.

When was it built?

Area 51 began its life as part of a large swath of land taken in 1951 by the Atomic Energy Commission to test atomic bombs—they needed a safe place for gigantic explosions. The “Nevada Proving Ground” was the place where the very first atomic bomb exploded, and the flash was so bright that it was seen as far away as San Francisco.

In 1954, when the government decided it needed a safe place to work on secret projects, one chunk of land in the Nevada Proving Ground was identified as the perfect place.

What secret projects have been hidden there?

The most famous secret project developed at this super-secret base is the U-2 spy plane, which was used to spy on the Soviet Union from 70,000 feet (far out of range of radar).

SR-71 Blackbird
The SR-71 Blackbird, Developed at Area 51

Another well-known project: the SR-71 Blackbird, a fighter jet that holds the world’s record as the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft.

The missile defense system sometimes called “Star Wars” or “SDI” (Strategic Defense Initiative) was also developed there.

What about all the alien technology? It may well be hidden out there, too, but the government isn’t talking about it. Yet.

Why is Area 51 so famous?

Bob Lazar
Physicist Bob Lazar Says He Was Employed
at Area 51, Where He Worked on UFOs

In 1989, a physicist named Bob Lazar appeared on a Las Vegas news program to tell his story: he’d been an engineer at Area 51, and his job was to figure out how UFO technology worked. Needless to say, that got some attention—it’s an extraordinary claim, especially because Lazar was more than willing to provide extensive details about his work, how he got the job, and what he saw at the base. Although some of his background is difficult to verify, it is now considered to be a fact that Lazar was employed at the base when he said he was, as journalist Annie Jacobsen confirmed in her book Area 51: an Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base.

Lazar’s revelations helped make Area 51 a household name. Everyone loves a mystery, and we love it even more when some of its secrets are revealed.

In the years since the initial publicity, Lazar’s story has been scrutinized and criticized by cynics, skeptics, and critics. Still, he has been consistent about what he said happened in every detail, and in the UFO community, Lazar’s name has become synonymous with Area 51 itself.

Can I get a job at Area 51?

If you have the right background, quite possibly! The employees of Area 51 (ahem, Detachment 3 of the Air Force Flight Test Center) are mostly civilian contractors who work for huge companies like Raytheon and EG&G Technical Services. The employee organization for Area 51 employees is called JT3, and its website has a Careers section with job openings. (“It takes special people to work for JT3,” the page says. We bet!)

Who guards Area 51? (Or: Who are these “Camo Dudes” you speak of?)

Area 51 Antenna
The Land Surrounding Area 51 is Filled
with Sensors and Monitoring Equipment

Surprisingly, the large buffer zone around the Area 51 base is not guarded by military police but by private security personnel who are employees of large government contracting companies. They’re called “Camo Dudes” by Area 51 enthusiasts because they wear camouflage military-style clothing. The Camo Dudes patrol the desolate land while tooling around the desert in Chevy trucks.

The land around Area 51 is also littered with sensors and monitoring equipment to detect intruders and over-zealous adventurers. In the 1990s, an Area 51 researcher discovered that there were also monitors hidden in the public land outside the borders of the base—so even before you get anywhere near the restricted zone, they know you’re coming.

Has anyone ever crossed the border into the restricted area?

Absolutely. And every last one of them was arrested by the Camo Dudes (see “Who Guards Area 51?”) and handed over to the Lincoln County Sheriff. Usually, trespassers spend the night in jail and are issued a healthy fine. Although the signs around the base warn that lethal force is authorized, we are unaware of anyone actually being shot or killed by a Camo Dude, although the dudes have reportedly harassed base viewers on occasion.

Lethal force is truly is within the dudes’ options, though; as former Area 51 guard Fred Dunham said, “If they (trespassers) demonstrate[d] they were going to try to penetrate, they (management) gave me the all-clear to waste them.”

Has anyone ever sneaked into the base itself?

Nope. And there is really no way to pull it off; security is far too tight, and the government has had more than half a century to perfect it. You would have to get past sensors, cameras, monitors, and Camo Dudes for some 15–20 miles, only to face formidable security at the base itself. In other words, everything you saw in that found-footage movie called Area 51 is just plain fantasy.

How close can I get to the base without getting in trouble?

View from Tikaboo Peak
The View from Tikaboo Peak, with Area 51
Distantly Visible Some 25 Miles Away

The land surrounding the Area 51 restricted zone is actually public land—not only can you walk freely on it, but you can camp there, too, and some people do just that. (With caution! This is the desolate high desert, with few public services, and few people, for that matter. Running out of water or even gasoline can mean death.)

That public land has quite a few unpaved sandy, bumpy roads, and some of them, like Groom Lake Road, lead across the border into base territory. Warning signs on the border are spaced about 50 yards (roughly 50 meters) apart—you do not dare cross. The guards already know you’re there (because the public land’s roads are lined with sensors), and you’ll be arrested if you venture past the border indicated by the signs.

Can you see anything from Groom Lake Road? Not really—maybe a Camo Dude or a sensor.

Your alternative, if you really want to see the base for yourself, is to do a grueling hike to Tikaboo Peak, which is actually the best possible vantage point to Area 51 for those of us who don’t work there.

What is the Black Mailbox and what does it have to do with Area 51?

Area 51 Black Mailbox
The Black Mailbox near Area 51
(photo by Rod Ramsey)

Way back before Area 51 was the most famous secret base in the world, rancher Steve Medlin had a black mailbox on Highway 375 in Nevada. It’s desolate out there; there was nothing around it for miles, so it stood out.

Later, it became a really obvious place to meet if you were a UFO hunter or an adventurer trying to get to the border of Area 51. Meet me at the Black Mailbox, dude! Its location and its ominous-sounding name made it a legend. People started putting mail in it, addressed to the aliens who live at Area 51—when they weren’t shooting it with guns or writing graffiti on it.

Why is it called the Black Mailbox when it’s actually white?

Rancher Steve Medlin got sick of dealing with the vandalism that comes with owning the only mailbox in proximity to Area 51. His mailbox stood on Highway 375, the only notable landmark for miles. So, when the state of Nevada decided to re-christen the road as the “Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway” in a ceremony that also promoted the film Independence Day, he saw opportunity. The original black mailbox was sold at auction for $1000 as part of the festivities, right after the part where Jeff Goldblum and other stars of the movie helped bury a time capsule. (After the auction, everyone retired to the Little A’Le’Inn for an Alien Burger. At least, I did.)

Area 51 White Mailbox
The White Mailbox,
Removed in 2015

Later, a new mailbox appeared, this one painted white and made of bullet-proof materials. Under it was a second mailbox marked “Alien” to keep letters to extraterrestrials from being mixed up with Medlin’s own bills and junk mail. The white mailbox—still popularly called “the Black Mailbox”—stood for years, still a signpost and landmark associated with Area 51.

Eventually, Medlin got fed up completely; people were still vandalizing his new, tougher, bulletproof mailbox. After it was nearly destroyed in January of 2015, Medlin took the whole thing out. We’re not sure how he’s getting his mail now; maybe the Little A’Le’Inn has P.O. boxes?

What is the Little A’Le’Inn and what does it have to do with Area 51?

Tabloid Coverage
The Little A’Le’Inn Has Been
Featured in Movies, Books,
and Yes, in Tabloids

If you stumbled into this small diner with attached motel rooms and didn’t know anything about Area 51 lore, you probably wouldn’t be much impressed. There’s a bar, a gift shop, an old Pac-Man arcade console from the ’80s.

What makes the Little A’Le’Inn (a-lee-in, “alien”, get it?) such a must-see for Area 51 adventurers is a fascinating combination of kitsch and mystery. Located in tiny Rachel, Nevada, it’s the only restaurant that’s anywhere near Area 51, and the owners (Pat Travis and her daughter Connie) are absolutely dedicated to taking advantage of that. Want an Alien Burger? You betcha. Maybe buy some Area 51 merchandise? They’ve got it for sale—actually, some of it is pretty cool; I’ve still got some of the stuff I bought there in 1996.

You don’t go to the Little A’Le’Inn for the food or the gifts, though; it’s the whole experience: you’re in a diner/bar frequented by UFO enthusiasts and Area 51 employees (seriously). It doesn’t seem like some cheesy diner. It seems otherworldly.

(Fun note: the single most surreal moment of my life was watching an Elvis impersonator [or possibly the real Elvis] sing “Viva Las Vegas” while I chomped down an Alien Burger there at the Little A’Le’Inn.)

If I go UFO-watching near Area 51, will I see anything?

You might see something, yes. Area 51 is a test facility, so they often conduct flight tests of experimental aircraft, almost always at night. If you’re into military testing, you might very well be lucky enough to see some aircraft lights.

Of course, you may be more interested in catching a UFO in flight. Most ufologists don’t necessarily think aliens are routinely flying around or landing at Area 51; more likely, the government may be experimenting with aircraft built with UFO technology. Before you cynics start chortling, keep in mind that more than a few sky-watchers viewing from vantage points like the Black Mailbox have seen lights zooming across the sky at impossible speeds—nearly instantaneous jumps across miles of sky.

Author David Darlington, who wrote the excellent Area 51: the Dreamland Chronicles, says that though he saw many lights in the sky while researching his book, most were easily explained, but not all. “By the time I went home,” he writes, “I could explain every sighting … except one: dots that jumped through space a quarter of a mile at a time.” (Emphasis mine.)

Also check out Area 51: the Most Surprising Things You Didn’t Know!

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