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Readers should be advised from the beginning that this book represents a history of the BASE, and not necessarily the classified aircraft PROGRAMS associated with its operation.

Book Review: Area 51, an uncensored history

Area 51 book cover

Area 51 book cover

When picking up Area 51, an uncensored history of America’s TOP SECRET military base, by author and Los Angeles Times editor Annie Jacobsen, you will immediately be surprised by the amount of pages (523 in total). It’s a thick book, and something you might find travelers reading on coast to coast flights. Readers should be advised from the beginning that this book represents a history of the BASE, and not necessarily the classified aircraft PROGRAMS associated with its operation. Jacobsen begins by highlighting the fact that Area 51 was originally created to support the CIA operated U-2 spy plane in 1955. Its location in the Nevada desert was chosen by CIA agent Richard Bissell. Jacobsen confirms that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), National Security Agency (NSA), and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), were all involved in classified operations at the remote test site. Area 51 would not become a household name until alleged government physicist Bob Lazar made his revelations about the base in 1989.

In the book, Jacobsen describes Lazar’s encounter with Dr. Edward Teller, and his later interview with EG&G which eventually led to his employment at the base (specifically the mysterious S-4). Lazar’s first trip to Area 51 on the “Janet” 737-200 aircraft is discussed, as well as the logistics of getting through security on base. After a bumpy thirty minute on a dusty road, Lazar claims he arrived at a location known as “S-4” where he allegedly worked on reverse engineering the propulsion systems of extraterrestrial flying vehicles. Although careful to quote her sources, Jacobsen provides no bombshell information or secondary independent confirmation from base workers who could authenticate his claims. As expected, readers are left with the same open ended question with respect to Lazar’s employment at Area 51/S-4.

Annie Jacobsen (image credit: Michael Hiller)

Annie Jacobsen (image credit: Michael Hiller)

On a positive note, the book provides one of the most accurate descriptions regarding the design and development of the U-2 spy plane. Jacobsen highlights the fact that early U-2’s had no paint, and their highly reflective aluminum colored “X” shaped outlines were responsible for some UFO sightings in the mid 1950’s. In fact, the CIA even encouraged such reports. Designed by famed Lockheed Skunk Works aeronautical engineer Kelly Johnson, the overall program was run by the CIA, with the Air Force providing test pilots and mechanics. Specifically designed to photograph Soviet military installations, the single seat U-2 could reach altitudes of up to 70,000 feet. In addition, Jacobsen presents a gripping account of the shoot down of Francis Gary Powers who was flying a U-2 over Soviet territory on May 1, 1960.

As Jacobsen points out, essentially everything that goes on at Area 51 is classified TS/SCI top secret/sensitive compartmented information. Secrets kept at Area 51 are done so by quarantining the information, so that only a selected few on top know the big picture. In Chapter seven of the book, Jacobsen touches on the multiple atomic tests which left major portions of Area 51 contaminated by radioactive fallout during the 1957 program known as “Operation Plumbbob”. Also contained in chapter seven are details pertaining to the super secret A-12 codenamed Oxcart. Designed by Lockheed as a single seat reconnaissance aircraft, the A-12 first flew on April 25, 1962 and could reach speeds of Mach 3.2 or 2,200 mph. It could fly five times faster than the U-2, and attain altitudes well above 95,000 feet. It required a staggering 186 mile section of land just to make a U-turn. The author stresses that the Titanium structure of the A-12 was completely original, and that entirely new manufacturing methods had to be developed.

A previously unknown fact about the base is revealed by Jacobsen in Chapter nine. According to Jim Freedman (property controller at Area 51), Howard Hughes even had a hangar on the site. No further information was provided regarding why Hughes was there. Later in Chapter Thirteen, the book highlights operations of the Mach 3 D-21 drone. The ramjet powered D-21 was designed to be air-launched from a specially configured M-21 “Mothership”. As Lockheed Skunk Works engineer Edward Lovick reveals, the D-21 could fly a predetermined flight path over China, take pictures along the way, and then head back out to sea. The book also highlights an accident involving the M-21/D-21 during a nighttime test flight on July 30, 1966. Jacobsen details how the smaller D-21 drone aircraft pitched down upon launch, effectively ramming itself into the larger M-21 carrier aircraft. The subsequent mid air collision split the M-21 in two pieces causing both test pilot Bill Park and flight engineer Ray Torick to eject over a pitch dark ocean. Later flights of the D-21 were launched by a pylon which was connected to the wing of a B-52 bomber. Chapter Seventeen discusses the flight test program involving recovered Russian MiG aircraft during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In this program, American pilots flying Russian aircraft could identify weaknesses in the enemy’s design, and thereby exploit them during air combat engagements. In Chapter Nineteen, the author briefly touches on the “Apollo Moon landing Hoax”, and how some believe that motion picture film taken on the moon by the astronauts was secretly shot near Area 51’s cratered landscape.

M-21 "Mothership" with D-21 drone on top. (image credit: USAF)

M-21 "Mothership" with D-21 drone on top. (image credit: USAF)

Surprising little is mentioned in the book regarding the aircraft programs that help America win the Cold War. Curiously missing is any mention of the Boeing Phantom Works “Bird of Prey” which flew 38 missions at Groom Lake between 1992 and 1999. Pioneering breakthrough low observable technologies, the Bird of Prey cost $67 million dollars, and is now on display at the Air Force Museum in Dayton Ohio. Also missing from the book are any references to the Northrop “Tacit Blue” technology demonstrator. This strangle looking aircraft was the first to use a quad-redundant fly-by-wire flight control system. It also tested the same side-scanning radar used on the B-2 stealth bomber. Tacit Blue flew at Area 51 from 1982 to 1985. Also missing are any details of the McDonnell Douglas “Manta Ray” which flew along with F-117A stealth fighters during Operation Desert Storm as reported in Aviation Week and Space Technology June 10, 1991. This yet to be revealed reconnaissance aircraft first flew at Groom Lake in 1981. There is almost no mention in the book regarding the Lockheed “Have Blue” aircraft (predecessor to the F-117A). First flown at Area 51 in 1977, Have Blue demonstrated the feasibility of a manned fighter aircraft with a low radar cross section. Unfortunately, the book contains very little regarding Ben Rich (Skunk Works director from 1975 to 1991). Mr. Rich’s activities at the test site could have been significantly expanded upon. By excluded detailed information in the book on these significant aircraft programs, Jacobson has lost a very important part of our national history.

In the last chapter of the book, and also in the Epilogue, Jacobsen drops a very controversial conclusion regarding the “Roswell incident” of July 1947. The author claims (from an anonymous source connected to the government contractor EG&G) that indeed a flying disc was involved, and that bodies were recovered. However, according to Jacobsen’s source, they were not alien in origin. In fact, two were still alive upon impact. They were described as “child like”, and under five feet tall. They exhibited deformities including unusually large heads, and oversized eyes. As incredible as it may sound, Jacobsen’s source claims that the young crew members of the craft were originally kidnapped by Dr. Joseph Mengele, who performed horrific surgical procedures on them which resulted in their “alien” looking appearance. Everything relating to the crash was sent to Wright Patterson AFB, where it remained until 1951. In that year, it was moved to Groom Lake, hence the term “Area 51”. Apparently, according to Jacobsen’s source, anything having to do with the Roswell crash remains fell under the jurisdiction of the Atomic Energy Commission. A small team consisting of five specially chosen EG&G engineers were tasked to pick apart the Roswell craft, and to continue the work which began at Wright Patterson AFB. They were told that the project they would be working on remain secret forever. Jacobsen claims that the craft was Russian in origin, and was based on the advanced flying wing concepts originally designed by the Horten Brothers in Germany. It had been specifically sent by Stalin to fly over the United States to create panic, and to overwhelm America’s early warning radar system. Annie Jacobsen’s book provides a unique historical account of Area 51, but fails to breach new ground. Its lack of exposing dozens of additional classified aircraft tested in the 1980’s and 1990’s represents a huge gap in its coverage of the base. In addition, Jacobsen’s claims regarding Roswell remain unverified by any independent secondary source.

The front of a Horten Ho 229 (Horten H. IX) at the Smithsonian Institution's Garber Restoration Facility. The ony Horton wing to be recovered. (image credit: Michael Katzmann)

The front of a Horten Ho 229 (Horten H. IX) at the Smithsonian Institution's Garber Restoration Facility. The only Horton wing to be recovered. (image credit: Michael Katzmann)

The front of a Horten Ho 229 (Horten H. IX) at the Smithsonian Institution's Garber Restoration Facility. The ony Horton wing to be recovered. (image credit: Michael Katzmann)

The back end of the Horten Ho 229 (Horten H. IX) at the Smithsonian Institution's Garber Restoration Facility. (image credit: Michael Katzmann)

After reading Area 51, this reviewer was left with the conclusion that the author should have carefully studied Joseph Farrell’s ground breaking book Roswell and the Reich before going to press. Rating: two out of four stars.

About Michael Schratt

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Michael Schratt (military aerospace historian) has lectured across the country on the subject of "Mystery Aircraft", and classified propulsion systems buried deep within the military industrial complex. A recent guest speaker at the “OSHKOSH” AirVenture 2006/2007 event, (the world’s largest air show), Michael has developed a number of contacts who have had first hand experience dealing with classified “black programs”, including former USAF pilots, retired Naval personnel and aerospace engineers who have maintained a TOP SECRET Q “MAJIC” clearance. A private pilot and military aerospace historian, he currently works as an aerospace draftsman/researcher near Tempe AZ.