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Area 51: Fighter airplanes, not alien spacecraft
Speech at Embry-Riddle's Prescott campus explores mysteries, sidesteps conspiracies

Peter Merlin an aerospace historian, author, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate talks about the history of the secret projects that took place at Area 51 Wednesday night March 16, 2016 during an installment of the ERAU Prescott Aviation History Program at ERAU. (Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier)
Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier

Peter Merlin an aerospace historian, author, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate talks about the history of the secret projects that took place at Area 51 Wednesday night March 16, 2016 during an installment of the ERAU Prescott Aviation History Program at ERAU. (Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier)

Julius Levinson: “What with that spaceship you found in New Mexico! What was it called ... Roswell, New Mexico! And that other place... uh... Area 51, Area 51! You knew then! And you did nothing!”

President Thomas Whitmore: “Mr. Levinson, contrary to what you may have read in the tabloids, there is no Area 51. There is no spaceship...”

Albert Nimzicki: “Uh ... excuse me, Mr. President? That’s not entirely accurate.”

- “Independence Day” movie (1996)

photo

Matt Hinshaw

Peter Merlin an aerospace historian, author, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate talks about the history of the secret projects that took place at Area 51 Wednesday night March 16, 2016 during an installment of the ERAU Prescott Aviation History Program at ERAU. (Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier)

PRESCOTT – Oh, yes, Virginia, there’s an Area 51. And secret military activities go on there.

No alien spacecraft are stored in its hangars, but the secrecy is more than enough to drive any number of conspiracy theories.

In a speech Wednesday night, March 16, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Davis Learning Center, author, aerospace historian, and ERAU graduate Peter Merlin discussed the realities of the place called “Dreamland.”

Area 51, northwest of Las Vegas, on the edge of a dry lakebed in the Nevada desert, was originally a temporary facility intended to service the then-new U-2 spy plane.

Groom Lake was the reason the site was chosen; it reminded the men searching for a location of the dry lakebed used as a runway at Edwards Air Force base in California.

The small outpost was called “Paradise Ranch,” which Merlin said was intended to make the generally inhospitable place – workers were housed in travel trailers – sound more appealing.

Workers were shuttled between Lockheed’s headquarters and Area 51 by military transport airplanes every weekend, Merlin said.

Just as the base was losing the U-2 program, which was moved to California, and about to become a ghost town, the U.S. Air Force began to use the base for testing of Project Oxcart’s A-12, the predecessor to the Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird surveillance aircraft.

By the mid-1960s, there were more than 1,800 workers at Dreamland, Merlin said.

One of the ideas developed there that did not pan out: an unmanned supersonic drone, the D-21, to be dropped from the Project Oxcart aircraft.

Merlin described the loss of an aircraft carrying the drone when the two collided, and one crewman was killed in the incident. “The tragic loss of an aircraft and a crewmember ended the use of the … launch aircraft, but it did not spell the end of the (drone),” Merlin said.

The D-21 program was moved to the B-52 heavy bomber in 1967, where it had an inauspicious first flight: it fell off the B-52 and slammed into the runway.

“It was on a fully-live booster (rocket), which was set to fire five seconds after it left the pylon, which it did,” Merlin said. It crashed into the desert.

photo

Matt Hinshaw

Peter Merlin an aerospace historian, author, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate talks about the history of the secret projects that took place at Area 51 Wednesday night March 16, 2016 during an installment of the ERAU Prescott Aviation History Program at ERAU. (Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier)

The project was canceled, after disappointing results, in 1971.

Dreamland was also home to projects creatively named HAVE DOUGHNUT, HAVE DRILL, and HAVE FERRY. These were tests of Soviet military aircraft, which not only demonstrated their capabilities, but mock dogfights allowed US pilots to develop tactics to combat them.

When the effort began to develop HAVE BLUE, a stealth fighter airplane that would become the F-117A, it happened at Area 51.

“So secret was its configuration, that every time HAVE BLUE was rolled out of its hangar, uncleared personnel on the base were sequestered to prevent them from seeing the aircraft,” Merlin said.

“Area 51’s secret nature has bred rumors and speculation among those who believe the government is hiding captured extraterrestrial spacecraft or even aliens at the site,” he said, but officials’ unwillingness to talk about the base and its purpose – even a 1974 Skylab photo of the base caused security headaches – only makes Area 51 a more enticing target for conspiracy theorists.

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