For decades, Area 51 has been associated with UFO sightings and government cover-ups. Such rumors have only been fuelled by the relative silence of U.S. officials. However, in recent years former intelligence agent Thornton “T.D.” Barnes has finally come clean on what really went on behind the secret facility’s gates.
If you’re a fan of the offbeat, you’re probably already well aware of Area 51’s mysterious reputation. The top-secret nature of the military installation in Nevada has made it the subject of many conspiracy theories. And perhaps the most enduring of these is the rumored connection between the base and alien life-forms.
While the buildings that make up the Area 51 complex can be made out in satellite images, they’re strangely absent from all publicly available government maps in the United States. And many conspiracy theorists have attributed this to the speculation that the authorities have held aliens and their spaceships on the site.
Over the years, Area 51 has been the location of a number of reports of UFO activity. The site has also been connected with the 1947 Roswell Incident, in which the U.S. government is alleged to have covered up an alien spaceship crash in New Mexico. Another rumor suggests that the 1969 moon landings were in fact filmed on the mysterious military base.
Of course, the conspiracy theories regarding Area 51 remain just that. The alien sightings and government cover-ups linked to the site have never been confirmed, and are likely just stories. But Area 51 was set up with a very specific mission in mind. And in this case, the truth is perhaps just as strange as fiction.
An individual with the inside scoop on Area 51 is the aforementioned Thornton “T.D.” Barnes. The Korean War veteran spent more than a decade in the military, including a stint at the infamous complex during the 1960s. And knowing the real significance of the base, Barnes wasn’t impressed when he learned of a plan to infiltrate the site in 2019.
It was then that in excess of a million Facebook users reacted to a mass gathering set-up on the social media site, suggesting they would storm Area 51 at 3:00 a.m. on September 20, 2019. According to the event page, the idea behind the mass meet up was to “see them aliens,” which clearly irked Barnes.
The organizers of the Facebook event rallied prospective attendees by assuring them that Area 51 officials “can’t stop all of us.” However, writing an opinion piece for Fox News in 2019, Barnes slammed the planned gathering as a “terrible idea.” He added that “the news of this mad event [left me] baffled.”
With that in mind, Barnes issued a scathing response to the planned Area 51 trespass. He stated that it “speaks of incredibly irresponsible and naive thinking by a horde of ‘iPad Warriors’ who don’t have a clue about the many consequences should they attempt to storm Area 51, or any other military installation for that matter.”
Continuing his criticism of the plan to infiltrate Area 51, Barnes claimed the organizers’ intentions to seek out aliens were “ludicrous.” He also stated that their actions could be seen as “terrorism.” Furthermore, pointing out the many dangers lurking on the military base, the veteran asked, “What if someone is hurt during this unlawful activity?”
The way in which Area 51 became the fascination of conspiracy theorists dates back to the military complex’s origins. The CIA set up a base on the site in Groom Lake, NV, back in the mid-1950s. At that time, the Cold War was in full swing, as tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union intensified.
Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union had fought together with the other Allied nations during World War Two, their relationship had been strained. The Americans were wary of communism and saw then-leader Joseph Stalin as a potential danger. Meanwhile, the Soviets resented the American’s for their refusal to officially recognize the U.S.S.R. and for entering the World War Two late in the day.
The tension between the two nations was made worse following World War Two, when the Soviet Union extended its control of Eastern Europe. This fuelled fears in the U.S. that the Russians were intent on world domination. For its part, the U.S.S.R. became resistant to the Americans’ accumulation of arms, aggressive public statements and tendency to involve itself in the affairs of other nations.
It was in this Cold War climate that the CIA set up the Groom Lake complex on the site known as Area 51. For years, however, that information was classified, as were details of what the location was truly being used for. As a result, the activities that occurred behind the gates of the compound remained a heavily guarded secret, shielded from the public with the help of armed guards and signs that warned against any attempts at unauthorized entry.
For years, very little was known about the rectangular plot of land measuring 25 by 23 miles situated 80 or so miles from the city of Las Vegas. To this day, it’s illegal to fly over Area 51, though in recent years the compound has been documented in satellite images. Nevertheless, the site remains shrouded in mystery.
An insider who’s attempted to lift the lid on the real purpose of Area 51 in recent years is Barnes. The veteran was posted in Army intelligence during the Korean War. He later became an expert in radar and surface-to-air missile technology, spending a couple of years training at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Barnes later formed part of the inaugural Hawk missile combat battalion and devoted thousands of hours during the Cold War scanning radar on the lookout for enemy planes flying above Europe. Then, after a decade in the military, Barnes went to work for NASA on missions that would support Moon landings.
In the late 1960s Barnes started work in Area 51 for the CIA. When the military commandeered the site in 1955, its intended purpose was to help develop the U-2 spy plane on behalf of California’s Edwards Air Force Base. But by the time Barnes arrived, technology had already moved on somewhat.
The U-2 was a one-seat jet aircraft that could operate at high altitudes. It was used by the U.S. Air Force to carry out intelligence missions during the Cold War. The first model of the plane made its debut in 1955, although improvements in Russian radar eventually meant that the U-2 became less stealthy over time.
With the U-2 increasingly susceptible to being shot down, the CIA began work on an aircraft that could replace it. As a result, Barnes was enlisted by the agency at Area 51 to work on “Project OXCART.” The mission focused on the creation of a new spy aircraft known as the A-12.
While the CIA spent a long time perfecting the A-12, the reconnaissance aircraft was only in use for a short time – from 1967 to 1968, to be exact. Its purpose was to investigate possible enemy surface-to-air missile sites. However, in the end it flew fewer than 30 missions during its lifetime.
The reason for the A-12’s limited operational life was down to the CIA’s fears that the aircraft would show up on a pioneering Soviet radar system known as “Tall King.” In order to put these concerns to the test, the agency came up with a novel plan to trick the Russians into “seeing” so-called “ghost aircraft” in order to determine how sensitive their technology was.
Barnes was among the team that worked on the “ghost aircraft” project, which was known as “Palladium.” It had begun life as early as 1960, when Russia first placed a Tall King radar system on Cuba. In order to test the technology, the CIA electronically generated false targets and placed them onto enemy radar systems. As a result, the Soviets would mistakenly believe that aircraft were coming towards Cuban airspace.
In 2019 Barnes explained how Project Palladium worked in an interview with the military interest website The War Zone. “Using an electronics-laden C-97 [EC-97G], we could make Soviet radars believe they were tracking any number of aerial objects,” he revealed. “At one point, a Russian MiG-15 pilot even claimed he could see the target and had a lock on it.”
By tricking the Soviet radar system into picking up aircraft that weren’t there, Barnes and his team were able to determine that in the near future the enemy technology would be capable of downing the A-12. That’s why the jet was reportedly never used in any manned missions above the U.S.S.R.
The A-12 was subsequently replaced by the SR-71 Blackbird. The new aircraft had a pair of seats, rather than one, and was a little longer than its predecessor. The SR-71 launched in 1964, with the ability to reach altitudes of more than 80,000 feet while reaching velocities in excess of Mach 3.2.
Moreover, spy planes weren’t the only form of aircraft developed at Area 51. That’s because the facility was also used in the production of so-called stealth jets. These planes harnessed new technologies to make them practically undetectable. As a consequence, they were harder for the enemy to monitor or attack.
The first stealth jet of its kind to be tested at Area 51 was known as the “Have Blue.” Two prototypes were constructed during 1977 by employing up to cutting-edge digital modeling systems. They were covered in a special paint that was resistant to radar in order to help them avoid detection.
The Have Blue was ultimately ill-fated, however. While the aircraft was effective in eluding radar systems, it was also extremely unstable in aerodynamic terms. As a result, both test planes crashed in 1979. Nevertheless, the Have Blue paved the way for the F-117 Nighthawk, which was also developed at Area 51.
The F-117 Nighthawk launched in 1983 and later became known for its ominous appearance. It sported a reflective exterior and employed magnetic paint to evade radar. In addition, its small exhausts worked to reduce the aircraft’s infrared impressions.
Being virtually undetectable, the F-117 Nighthawk was able to dodge air defenses and attack targets. It used laser technology to steer its bombs towards their intended destinations. And the aircraft also had the capability of carrying nuclear weapons, which it could easily land directly in enemy territory.
Fortunately, the F-117 Nighthawk was never used in a nuclear attack, during the Cold War or thereafter. It did, though, prove pivotal in the development stealth craft. While the U.S. Air Force withdrew the aircraft from operational use in 2008, it’s still used occasionally for testing and training missions.
However, it wasn’t until 2013 that the U.S. government confirmed the existence of Area 51. That year, a previously undisclosed CIA file documenting the development of the U-2 aircraft was made public via the Freedom of Information Act. The document stated that the site had been selected in 1955 with the express purpose of testing the spy plane.
Apparently, test flights of the U-2 – which flew at much higher altitudes than other contemporary aircraft – corresponded with reports of local UFO sightings. It’s since been acknowledged that prototype planes flying at Mach-3 speeds could quite possibly resemble accepted concepts of what alien spaceships might look like from the ground.
So, it seems that there’s a reasonable explanation as to how Area 51 came to be associated with alien life-forms over the years. It’s not unreasonable that observers near the site would notice strange objects in the sky, given the aircraft that were developed there. Of course, the secrecy around the military facility helped to further fuel the rumors.
In fact, according to Annie Jacobsen, an author with an interest in Area 51, the apparent alien sightings were a welcome distraction from the site’s real purpose. “As early as 1950 the CIA developed a UFO office to deal with the sightings of unidentified flying objects over Nevada,” she told the BBC in 2019. “When people first saw the U-2 spy plane flying, no one knew what they were seeing. The CIA used that disinformation to their benefit by fostering an alien mythology.”
But while UFO sightings may be easily explained, that hasn’t lessened Area 51’s reputation for the otherworldly. That’s probably why the 2019 Facebook event planning to storm the facility managed to gain so much traction. However, Area 51 veteran Barnes was quick to quash all rumors of alien life in the area.
In his opinion piece for Fox News, Barnes looked back at his time working in Area 51. Of his stint at the military base, the veteran wrote, “During all these years of radar tracking and working with astronauts, test pilots and military pilots, not once did I ever think that I’d seen, nor did I ever hear a pilot say that he or she had seen, an alien spacecraft.”
Continuing to pour scorn on the rumors of extraterrestrial life in the military facility, Barnes added, “The Facebook warriors, thinking that they will find aliens at Area 51 are ludicrous – there is no basis for their thinking so whatsoever. They have no smoking gun… There are no and have never been aliens or extraterrestrial craft at Area 51, period!”
To this day, what happens in Area 51 is still strictly confidential. It’s thought that more than 1,000 people work at the site, which may still operate as a training and testing center. However, while the history of the mysterious complex has now come to light, as long as what happens there remains shrouded in secrecy, it seems likely that it will remain a fascination of conspiracy theorists.