Area 51 has to be the worst-kept secret in the aerospace industry.
It’s where some of the most innovative military aircraft ever built by Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Skunk Works were flight tested. Supposedly.
For decades, the government has refused to acknowledge the existence of the military outpost, which is about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas. Until now.
For the first time, Area 51 has been recognized by the CIA, according to a newly declassified history of the U-2 program. The documents were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Jeffrey T. Richelson, a National Security Archive senior fellow at George Washington University.
It’s known that Area 51 was created during the Cold War so that the military could test cutting-edge projects like the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk without worrying about being discovered.
There have been numerous historical essays and books published about the site – even photos. But because of the new documents, the accuracy can be verified, according to Richelson.
"The newly released material provides a combination of significant new material, official confirmation of — or corrections to — what has been written and official acknowledgment that permits researchers to follow up the disclosures with FOIA or Mandatory Declassification Review requests that may produce even more information,” he said.
The documents show numerous references to Area 51 and Groom Lake, with a map of the area.
Area 51 has been ground zero for conspiracy theorists for decades.
Flying saucers. Bug-eyed aliens. Staged moon landings.
In truth, Area 51 was the proving grounds for Lockheed’s biggest programs. The Skunk Works got its nickname in 1943 at its original Burbank headquarters, which was located next to a manufacturing plant that produced a strong odor.
At the time, a worker jokingly called the facility "Skunk Works," a reference to a remote location in the popular comic strip Li’l Abner, where a hermetic character brewed a foul concoction from worn shoes and dead skunks.
The name stuck. It’s now headquartered in Palmdale.
The Skunk Works produced the high-flying U-2 spy plane that was first designed during the Eisenhower administration to breach the Iron Curtain and, as engineers said, snap "picture postcards for Ike" of hidden military strongholds in the Soviet Union. The jet still flies today.
The SR-71 Blackbird flew reconnaissance missions starting in 1966 at speeds exceeding Mach 3 and altitudes of 85,000 feet. The last SR-71 mission was in the spring of 1995.
It remains a technological marvel. On Sept. 1, 1974, an SR-71 flew from New York to London in 1 hour, 54 minutes, 56 seconds. It beat the previous trans-Atlantic speed record by nearly three hours.
Skunk Works also built the F-117 Nighthawk, the world’s first radar-evading aircraft, which attacked the most heavily fortified targets in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It was the only coalition jet allowed to strike targets inside Baghdad's city limits.
And those are just the Area 51 aircraft we know about.
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