If you hear the name "Area 51," you think of aliens, don't you?
Pop culture movies, TV shows and books have linked this mysterious site in southwestern Nevada -- also known as Groom Lake, Dreamland, Home Base, The Box, The Container and other nicknames -- with the so-called Roswell UFO Incident, evoking everything from conspiracy theories to a disparaging smirk.
But as you might be told in a documentary on the subject, that's not the real story. You can learn the truth of Area 51 at Minter Air Field, which will host a presentation, "Area 51 Exposed," from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday in the airport hangar.
Aeronautics historian Peter Merlin will discuss Area 51's true role as the test site for a number of the United States' secret aircraft, including the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 spy plans, the F-117 Stealth Fighter, B-2 Stealth Bomber, and foreign aircraft that were captured or acquired from defecting pilots. An extension of Edwards Air Force Base, the Nevada site was chosen because, like Edwards, it was located near an enormous dry lake bed.
"I first read about Area 51 in 1983," Merlin said "That whole concept of a secret Air Force base was just fascinating to me."
Merlin grew up during the Apollo space missions and has had a life-long passion for all things connected to flight. A graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Merlin covered missions at the Kennedy Space Center for his college newspaper. He has written several books about aviation, including "The Smell of Kerosene: A Test Pilot's Odyssey," co-written with Donald Mallick; "X-Plane Crashes," co-written with Tony Moore; plus articles for AIR & SPACE Smithsonian Magazine. He has also appeared on programs for the History Channel, including "Modern Marvels," "Mystery Hunters" and "Man, Moment, Machine: Shot Down--The U-2 Spy Plane."
"I know there is the whole conspiracy thing about Area 51," Merlin said. "I approach it from a completely different perspective -- the documented history of the project and the people who worked there."
While located in Nevada, Area 51 is a great topic for the local air museum in Shafter. "They first started building the U-2 here in Bakersfield in a corner of Meadows Field," said Dean Craun, a member of the Minter Air Field museum board.
"It was part of Lockheed's Skunk Works," Craun said. "They assembled the fuselage and the wings here. They would load them out into these big cargo planes at night and then ship them out to Area 51 for testing."
According to Merlin, production originally started at Lockheed's factory in Burbank, but the facilities there were too limited. "When the Air Force ordered an additional 25 aircraft, they opened up the second production line in Bakersfield," Merlin said.
Craun noted that the secrecy required for the test site, along with Area 51's proximity to a nuclear test facility, led to speculation about other kinds of activities.
"It all adds to the mystique of Area 51," Craun said. Aliens, conspiracies: Secret aircraft testing facility focus of many rumors