Nellis Range
Groom Lake, Nevada

The “operating location near Groom Lake” (the only phrase the Air Force has ever used to designate the secret air base) has gone by numerous names over its fifty-year existence. During the 1950s, it was called Watertown, Paradise Ranch, or more commonly just “the Ranch.” In the 1960s, it earned its most well-known name from its designation on an Atomic Energy Commission sectional map of the Nevada Test Site – Area 51. The closest thing to a “real” name for the facility is “Detachment 3 – Air Force Flight Test Center.” Until sometime in the mid to late 1990s, air traffic controllers at Groom Lake identified their location as “Dreamland.”

The secret base was originally built in 1955 as a cooperative effort between the Central Intelligence Agency and Lockheed. Its purpose was to be a testing and training base for the then-new U-2 spy plane, which was operated by the CIA to provide overhead reconnaissance photography of the Soviet Union (by the mid 1950s, Edwards Air Force Base was considered too visible to test the secret aircraft).

In the early 1960s, the base (which was initially supposed to be ‘temporary’) saw a huge expansion to accommodate a new generation of CIA aircraft. The base at the Groom dry lakebed became home to planes such as the A-12, which was the CIA’s version of the super-fast Blackbird family of spy planes. In the late 1960s, Groom Lake became home to a small collection of purloined Soviet MiGs in programs going by the code names HAVE DRILL and HAVE DONUT.

In the late 1970s, ownership of the base was formally transferred from the Central Intelligence Agency to the United States Air Force, who remain in control of the installation. A prototype stealth aircraft code named HAVE BLUE was tested at Groom Lake in the late 1970s, as was a prototype stealth cruise missile code named SENIOR PROM.

With the unprecedented peacetime military spending increases of the Reagan White House in the 1980s, the secret base at Groom Lake again underwent significant expansions, although the nature of programs and operations conducted at Groom Lake since the early 1980s remains largely obscure. The few programs conducted at Groom Lake which have been made public include an aircraft built by Northrop during the early 1980s called TACIT BLUE, a Boeing technology demonstrator flown in the late 1990s called Bird of Prey, and a Lockheed UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) called Polecat, whose existence was made public in the summer of 2006.

Despite its obscurity, Groom Lake remains a full-fledged flight test facility employing thousands of people.

©2006 Trevor Paglen