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After decades of denying the facility's existence, five former insiders speak out
It has become the holy grail for conspiracy theorists, with UFOlogists positing that the Pentagon reverse engineers flying saucers and keeps extraterrestrial beings stored in freezers. Urban legend has it that Area 51 is connected by underground tunnels and trains to other secret facilities around the country. In 2001, Katie Couric told Today Show audiences that 7 percent of Americans doubt the moon landing happened—that it was staged in the Nevada desert. Millions of X-Files fans believe the truth may be "out there," but more likely it's concealed inside Area 51's Strangelove-esque hangars—buildings that, though confirmed by Google Earth, the government refuses to acknowledge.
Here are a few of their best stories—for the record:
On May 24, 1963, Collins flew out of Area 51's restricted airspace in a top-secret spy plane code-named OXCART, built by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. He was flying over Utah when the aircraft pitched, flipped and headed toward a crash. He ejected into a field of weeds.
Almost 46 years later, in late fall of 2008, sitting in a coffee shop in the San Fernando Valley, Collins remembers that day with the kind of clarity the threat of a national security breach evokes: "Three guys came driving toward me in a pickup. I saw they had the aircraft canopy in the back. They offered to take me to my plane." Until that moment, no civilian without a top-secret security clearance had ever laid eyes on the airplane Collins was flying. "I told them not to go near the aircraft. I said it had a nuclear weapon on-board." The story fit right into the Cold War backdrop of the day, as many atomic tests took place in Nevada. Spooked, the men drove Collins to the local highway patrol. The CIA disguised the accident as involving a generic Air Force plane, the F-105, which is how the event is still listed in official records.
As for the guys who picked him up, they were tracked down and told to sign national security nondisclosures. As part of Collins' own debriefing, the CIA asked the decorated pilot to take truth serum. "They wanted to see if there was anything I'd for-gotten about the events leading up to the crash." The Sodium Pento-thal experience went without a hitch—except for the reaction of his wife, Jane.
"Late Sunday, three CIA agents brought me home. One drove my car; the other two carried me inside and laid me down on the couch. I was loopy from the drugs. They handed Jane the car keys and left without saying a word." The only conclusion she could draw was that her husband had gone out and gotten drunk. "Boy, was she mad," says Collins with a chuckle.
At the time of Collins' accident, CIA pilots had been flying spy planes in and out of Area 51 for eight years, with the express mission of providing the intelligence to prevent nuclear war. Aerial reconnaissance was a major part of the CIA's preemptive efforts, while the rest of America built bomb shelters and hoped for the best.
"It wasn't always called Area 51," says Lovick, the physicist who developed stealth technology. His boss, legendary aircraft designer Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, called the place Paradise Ranch to entice men to leave their families and "rough it" out in the Nevada desert in the name of science and the fight against the evil empire. "Test pilot Tony LeVier found the place by flying over it," says Lovick. "It was a lake bed called Groom Lake, selected for testing because it was flat and far from anything. It was kept secret because the CIA tested U-2s there."
When Frances Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1960, the U-2 program lost its cover. But the CIA already had Lovick and some 200 scientists, engineers and pilots working at Area 51 on the A-12 OXCART, which would outfox Soviet radar using height, stealth and speed.
Col. Slater was in the outfit of six pilots who flew OXCART missions during the Vietnam War. Over a Cuban meat and cheese sandwich at the Bahama Breeze restaurant off the Las Vegas Strip, he says, "I was recruited for the Area after working with the CIA's classified Black Cat Squadron, which flew U-2 missions over denied territory in Mainland China. After that, I was told, 'You should come out to Nevada and work on something interesting we're doing out there.' "
Even though Slater considers himself a fighter pilot at heart—he flew 84 missions in World War II—the opportunity to work at Area 51 was impossible to pass up. "When I learned about this Mach-3 aircraft called OXCART, it was completely intriguing to me—this idea of flying three times the speed of sound! No one knew a thing about the program. I asked my wife, Barbara, if she wanted to move to Las Vegas, and she said yes. And I said, 'You won't see me but on the weekends,' and she said, 'That's fine!' " At this recollection, Slater laughs heartily. Barbara, dining with us, laughs as well. The two, married for 63 years, are rarely apart today.