How Area 51 Works

A Brief History of Area 51

During World War II, the Army Air Corps (precursor to our modern Air Force) built several runways in Nevada, including a pair of small runways at Groom Lake. They named the spot the Army Air Corps Gunnery School. After the 1940s, the runways were abandoned [source: Mahood].

In the early 1950s, the CIA entered a partnership with Lockheed to develop high altitude aircraft to use in surveillance missions. Clarence "Kelly" Johnson of Lockheed helmed the project. He formed a department of engineers and test pilots that eventually took on the name Skunk Works. The Skunk Works department was famous for being very secretive and nearly fanatical in the pursuit of their goals.

The CIA and Johnson both knew that secrecy was critical to their success, and so Johnson needed to find a location to develop and test secret aircraft. He wanted a location that was remote enough to avoid notice, yet still close enough to a major city so that supplying the facility would not be a monumental task. The site would need to be easily accessible by aircraft and out of the way of commercial and military flight paths. It would also need space to house a sizable force of military and civilian employees.

In 1955, he traveled to Nevada with test pilot Tony LeVier, special assistant to the CIA director, Richard Bissell and Air Force liaison, Col. Osmond Ritland, to find a good place to use as a base of operations for test flights. Ritland trained at the Gunnery School and told Johnson about it. Johnson decided the location was ideal for their operations [source: Merlin].

Johnson named the area "Paradise Ranch" as a way to encourage workers to move there. Eventually it was just called "The Ranch."

Four months later, crews completed the initial construction. U-2 test flights began and President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order restricting the airspace over Groom Lake. The CIA, the Atomic Energy Commission and Lockheed oversaw base operations. Eventually, control of the base would pass to the Department of Energy and the Air Force.