Dreamland Fifty Years of Secret Flight Testing in Nevada by Peter W. Merlin
May 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of flight test activities at Groom Lake, Nevada, best known to the public as DREAMLAND or Area 51. For half a century this remote desert outpost has served as a breeding ground for aircraft on the cutting edge of technology. It served as an important national asset during the Cold War and numerous conflicts throughout the globe.
Dreamland continues to support the warfighter and keep America on the cutting edge of aerospace technology.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established the Groom Lake test facility during Project AQUATONE, through which the Lockheed U-2 spy plane was developed. Capable of flying at high altitude while carrying sophisticated cameras and sensors, the U-2 was equipped with a single jet engine and long, tapered straight wings.
For security reasons, CIA officials did not believe that the new airplane should be flown at Edwards Air Force Base, California. At the request of U-2 designer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson of the Lockheed Advanced Development Projects division (better known as the Skunk Works), project pilot Tony LeVier was dispatched to scout locations around the southwestern United States for a more remote test site.
Richard M. Bissell Jr., director of the AQUATONE program, reviewed dozens of potential test sites with his Air Force liaison, Col. Osmond J. "Ozzie" Ritland. None seemed to meet the program's stringent security requirements. Ritland, however, recalled "a little X-shaped field" in southern Nevada that he had flown over many times during his involvement with the nuclear weapons test program. The airstrip, called Nellis Auxiliary Field No.1, was located just off the eastern side of Groom Dry Lake, about 100 miles north of Las Vegas. It was also just outside the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) nuclear proving ground at Yucca Flat.
In April 1955, LeVier, Johnson, Bissell, and Ritland flew to Nevada on a two-day survey of the most promising lakebeds. After examining Groom Lake, it was obvious that this would be an ideal location for the test site, with its excellent flying weather and unparalleled remoteness. The abandoned airfield that Ritland remembered was overgrown and unusable, but the lakebed was excellent. Bissell later described the playa as "a perfect natural landing field...as smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it."
Kelly Johnson originally opposed the choice of Groom Lake because it was farther from Burbank than he would have liked, and because of its proximity to the Nevada Proving Ground (later renamed Nevada Test Site). Johnson was understandably concerned about conducting a flight test program adjacent to an active nuclear test site. In fact, Groom Lake lay directly in the primary downwind path of radioactive fallout from atomic blasts.
Groom Lake was actually Johnson's second choice for the test location. He had already designed a base around his primary lakebed, dubbed Site I, which would have been a small, temporary camp with only the most rudimentary accommodations. Johnson estimated construction costs for such a facility at $200,000 to $225,000.