For decades, Area 51 has been associated with UFO sightings and government cover-ups. Such rumors have only been fuelled by the relative silence of U.S. officials. However, in recent years former intelligence agent Thornton “T.D.” Barnes has finally come clean on what really went on behind the secret facility’s gates.
If you’re a fan of the offbeat, you’re probably already well aware of Area 51’s mysterious reputation. The top-secret nature of the military installation in Nevada has made it the subject of many conspiracy theories. And perhaps the most enduring of these is the rumored connection between the base and alien life-forms.
While the buildings that make up the Area 51 complex can be made out in satellite images, they’re strangely absent from all publicly available government maps in the United States. And many conspiracy theorists have attributed this to the speculation that the authorities have held aliens and their spaceships on the site.
Over the years, Area 51 has been the location of a number of reports of UFO activity. The site has also been connected with the 1947 Roswell Incident, in which the U.S. government is alleged to have covered up an alien spaceship crash in New Mexico. Another rumor suggests that the 1969 moon landings were in fact filmed on the mysterious military base.
Of course, the conspiracy theories regarding Area 51 remain just that. The alien sightings and government cover-ups linked to the site have never been confirmed, and are likely just stories. But Area 51 was set up with a very specific mission in mind. And in this case, the truth is perhaps just as strange as fiction.
An individual with the inside scoop on Area 51 is the aforementioned Thornton “T.D.” Barnes. The Korean War veteran spent more than a decade in the military, including a stint at the infamous complex during the 1960s. And knowing the real significance of the base, Barnes wasn’t impressed when he learned of a plan to infiltrate the site in 2019.
It was then that in excess of a million Facebook users reacted to a mass gathering set-up on the social media site, suggesting they would storm Area 51 at 3:00 a.m. on September 20, 2019. According to the event page, the idea behind the mass meet up was to “see them aliens,” which clearly irked Barnes.
The organizers of the Facebook event rallied prospective attendees by assuring them that Area 51 officials “can’t stop all of us.” However, writing an opinion piece for Fox News in 2019, Barnes slammed the planned gathering as a “terrible idea.” He added that “the news of this mad event [left me] baffled.”
With that in mind, Barnes issued a scathing response to the planned Area 51 trespass. He stated that it “speaks of incredibly irresponsible and naive thinking by a horde of ‘iPad Warriors’ who don’t have a clue about the many consequences should they attempt to storm Area 51, or any other military installation for that matter.”
Continuing his criticism of the plan to infiltrate Area 51, Barnes claimed the organizers’ intentions to seek out aliens were “ludicrous.” He also stated that their actions could be seen as “terrorism.” Furthermore, pointing out the many dangers lurking on the military base, the veteran asked, “What if someone is hurt during this unlawful activity?”
The way in which Area 51 became the fascination of conspiracy theorists dates back to the military complex’s origins. The CIA set up a base on the site in Groom Lake, NV, back in the mid-1950s. At that time, the Cold War was in full swing, as tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union intensified.
Although the U.S. and the Soviet Union had fought together with the other Allied nations during World War Two, their relationship had been strained. The Americans were wary of communism and saw then-leader Joseph Stalin as a potential danger. Meanwhile, the Soviets resented the American’s for their refusal to officially recognize the U.S.S.R. and for entering the World War Two late in the day.
The tension between the two nations was made worse following World War Two, when the Soviet Union extended its control of Eastern Europe. This fuelled fears in the U.S. that the Russians were intent on world domination. For its part, the U.S.S.R. became resistant to the Americans’ accumulation of arms, aggressive public statements and tendency to involve itself in the affairs of other nations.
It was in this Cold War climate that the CIA set up the Groom Lake complex on the site known as Area 51. For years, however, that information was classified, as were details of what the location was truly being used for. As a result, the activities that occurred behind the gates of the compound remained a heavily guarded secret, shielded from the public with the help of armed guards and signs that warned against any attempts at unauthorized entry.
For years, very little was known about the rectangular plot of land measuring 25 by 23 miles situated 80 or so miles from the city of Las Vegas. To this day, it’s illegal to fly over Area 51, though in recent years the compound has been documented in satellite images. Nevertheless, the site remains shrouded in mystery.
An insider who’s attempted to lift the lid on the real purpose of Area 51 in recent years is Barnes. The veteran was posted in Army intelligence during the Korean War. He later became an expert in radar and surface-to-air missile technology, spending a couple of years training at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Barnes later formed part of the inaugural Hawk missile combat battalion and devoted thousands of hours during the Cold War scanning radar on the lookout for enemy planes flying above Europe. Then, after a decade in the military, Barnes went to work for NASA on missions that would support Moon landings.
In the late 1960s Barnes started work in Area 51 for the CIA. When the military commandeered the site in 1955, its intended purpose was to help develop the U-2 spy plane on behalf of California’s Edwards Air Force Base. But by the time Barnes arrived, technology had already moved on somewhat.
The U-2 was a one-seat jet aircraft that could operate at high altitudes. It was used by the U.S. Air Force to carry out intelligence missions during the Cold War. The first model of the plane made its debut in 1955, although improvements in Russian radar eventually meant that the U-2 became less stealthy over time.
With the U-2 increasingly susceptible to being shot down, the CIA began work on an aircraft that could replace it. As a result, Barnes was enlisted by the agency at Area 51 to work on “Project OXCART.” The mission focused on the creation of a new spy aircraft known as the A-12.
While the CIA spent a long time perfecting the A-12, the reconnaissance aircraft was only in use for a short time – from 1967 to 1968, to be exact. Its purpose was to investigate possible enemy surface-to-air missile sites. However, in the end it flew fewer than 30 missions during its lifetime.
The reason for the A-12’s limited operational life was down to the CIA’s fears that the aircraft would show up on a pioneering Soviet radar system known as “Tall King.” In order to put these concerns to the test, the agency came up with a novel plan to trick the Russians into “seeing” so-called “ghost aircraft” in order to determine how sensitive their technology was.
Barnes was among the team that worked on the “ghost aircraft” project, which was known as “Palladium.” It had begun life as early as 1960, when Russia first placed a Tall King radar system on Cuba. In order to test the technology, the CIA electronically generated false targets and placed them onto enemy radar systems. As a result, the Soviets would mistakenly believe that aircraft were coming towards Cuban airspace.
In 2019 Barnes explained how Project Palladium worked in an interview with the military interest website The War Zone. “Using an electronics-laden C-97 [EC-97G], we could make Soviet radars believe they were tracking any number of aerial objects,” he revealed. “At one point, a Russian MiG-15 pilot even claimed he could see the target and had a lock on it.”
By tricking the Soviet radar system into picking up aircraft that weren’t there, Barnes and his team were able to determine that in the near future the enemy technology would be capable of downing the A-12. That’s why the jet was reportedly never used in any manned missions above the U.S.S.R.
The A-12 was subsequently replaced by the SR-71 Blackbird. The new aircraft had a pair of seats, rather than one, and was a little longer than its predecessor. The SR-71 launched in 1964, with the ability to reach altitudes of more than 80,000 feet while reaching velocities in excess of Mach 3.2.
Moreover, spy planes weren’t the only form of aircraft developed at Area 51. That’s because the facility was also used in the production of so-called stealth jets. These planes harnessed new technologies to make them practically undetectable. As a consequence, they were harder for the enemy to monitor or attack.
The first stealth jet of its kind to be tested at Area 51 was known as the “Have Blue.” Two prototypes were constructed during 1977 by employing up to cutting-edge digital modeling systems. They were covered in a special paint that was resistant to radar in order to help them avoid detection.
The Have Blue was ultimately ill-fated, however. While the aircraft was effective in eluding radar systems, it was also extremely unstable in aerodynamic terms. As a result, both test planes crashed in 1979. Nevertheless, the Have Blue paved the way for the F-117 Nighthawk, which was also developed at Area 51.
The F-117 Nighthawk launched in 1983 and later became known for its ominous appearance. It sported a reflective exterior and employed magnetic paint to evade radar. In addition, its small exhausts worked to reduce the aircraft’s infrared impressions.
Being virtually undetectable, the F-117 Nighthawk was able to dodge air defenses and attack targets. It used laser technology to steer its bombs towards their intended destinations. And the aircraft also had the capability of carrying nuclear weapons, which it could easily land directly in enemy territory.
Fortunately, the F-117 Nighthawk was never used in a nuclear attack, during the Cold War or thereafter. It did, though, prove pivotal in the development stealth craft. While the U.S. Air Force withdrew the aircraft from operational use in 2008, it’s still used occasionally for testing and training missions.
However, it wasn’t until 2013 that the U.S. government confirmed the existence of Area 51. That year, a previously undisclosed CIA file documenting the development of the U-2 aircraft was made public via the Freedom of Information Act. The document stated that the site had been selected in 1955 with the express purpose of testing the spy plane.
Apparently, test flights of the U-2 – which flew at much higher altitudes than other contemporary aircraft – corresponded with reports of local UFO sightings. It’s since been acknowledged that prototype planes flying at Mach-3 speeds could quite possibly resemble accepted concepts of what alien spaceships might look like from the ground.
So, it seems that there’s a reasonable explanation as to how Area 51 came to be associated with alien life-forms over the years. It’s not unreasonable that observers near the site would notice strange objects in the sky, given the aircraft that were developed there. Of course, the secrecy around the military facility helped to further fuel the rumors.
In fact, according to Annie Jacobsen, an author with an interest in Area 51, the apparent alien sightings were a welcome distraction from the site’s real purpose. “As early as 1950 the CIA developed a UFO office to deal with the sightings of unidentified flying objects over Nevada,” she told the BBC in 2019. “When people first saw the U-2 spy plane flying, no one knew what they were seeing. The CIA used that disinformation to their benefit by fostering an alien mythology.”
But while UFO sightings may be easily explained, that hasn’t lessened Area 51’s reputation for the otherworldly. That’s probably why the 2019 Facebook event planning to storm the facility managed to gain so much traction. However, Area 51 veteran Barnes was quick to quash all rumors of alien life in the area.
In his opinion piece for Fox News, Barnes looked back at his time working in Area 51. Of his stint at the military base, the veteran wrote, “During all these years of radar tracking and working with astronauts, test pilots and military pilots, not once did I ever think that I’d seen, nor did I ever hear a pilot say that he or she had seen, an alien spacecraft.”
Continuing to pour scorn on the rumors of extraterrestrial life in the military facility, Barnes added, “The Facebook warriors, thinking that they will find aliens at Area 51 are ludicrous – there is no basis for their thinking so whatsoever. They have no smoking gun… There are no and have never been aliens or extraterrestrial craft at Area 51, period!”
To this day, what happens in Area 51 is still strictly confidential. It’s thought that more than 1,000 people work at the site, which may still operate as a training and testing center. However, while the history of the mysterious complex has now come to light, as long as what happens there remains shrouded in secrecy, it seems likely that it will remain a fascination of conspiracy theorists.
What we do know from Barnes’ experience, though, is that the engineering work that goes on inside Area 51 produces some pretty spectacular planes. And there’s one U.S. spy jet that has a particularly incredible and somewhat miraculous story. As the aviation enthusiasts will probably know, the F-117 jets didn’t show up on radar – and yet, much to everyone’s shock, Serbians managed to shoot one down in 1999.
It’s March 27, 1999, and Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko is in the air over Serbia. The pilot is manning the incredible F-117 – the United States Air Force’s so-called stealth fighter. Zelko and his undetectable craft are a crucial part of the NATO-led Operation Allied Force. This series of airstrikes is meant to end the conflict between Kosovo’s Serb and ethnic Albanian populations. But then the airman suddenly realizes that ground forces have a missile lock on his jet. That is not meant to happen; the stealth fighter is supposed to be invisible to radar. There’s no time to analyze this now, though: the American pilot is locked in a fight for his life – and the missile is coming his way.
The targeting of the F-117 likely caused some initial confusion. After all, everything from the United States Air Force (USAF) plane’s angular shape to its built-in features was deliberately designed to deflect radar detection. But, as it transpired, Zelko’s craft wouldn’t be able to zip across Serbian skies unseen that night.
That’s because Serbian commander Zoltan Dani had come up with an ingenious method to try and pinpoint the untraceable F-117. It was a tactic the Americans had long fought to ensure wouldn’t be possible – but it suddenly made the hitherto-untouchable target vulnerable. And thus began one of the most unbelievable stories of Operation Allied Force.
The F-117 itself is a marvel of creation. The craft – also known as the Nighthawk – started life as a commission from the USAF. The organization was looking to add a stealth aircraft to its hangar – but this was no easy task. So it contacted the Lockheed Corporation (now under the umbrella of the Lockheed Martin Corporation) to get the job done.
It’s important to understand that this was a revolutionary idea at the time. In fact, the F-117 commission was the first of its kind upon delivery in 1982. So what was the USAF looking for? Well, it specifically envisioned an aircraft with the ability to fly without detection on radar. So Lockheed began to design a prototype with this feature at its center.
Although it’s unclear when Lockheed embarked on the monumental task of designing the F-117, the first record of the military’s desire for a stealth aircraft appeared in 1974. This was when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, described exactly the type of plane that the F-117 would become.
For the aircraft to avoid radar detection, then, it would have to meet a very specific set of criteria. For instance, engineers had to come up with a plane that gave off very little light, infrared or radio energy. These frequencies would otherwise show up on radar – and give away the position of the stealth jet.
Turning a hypothetical boffins’ wish-list of attributes into something as tangible as the F-117 was easier said than done, though. The development process even saw multiple Lockheed prototypes crash to the ground. But the firm eventually designed something that worked as envisioned – and in 1982 it delivered the first operational stealth aircraft to the USAF.
The completed F-117 has a unique design, with each element serving to help the plane fly undetected by radar. Firstly, the stealth aircraft has a triangular shape with wings that whip back from the nose at a sharp 67-degree angle. Its flat exterior has an important purpose, too: it can deflect radar waves sent its way.
The shape of the F-117 is only one of the radar-avoiding techniques built into the aircraft, though. It also has a pair of General Electric turbofan engines, which power the jet without afterburners. In other words, the engines fire the aircraft to subsonic speeds without releasing any infrared emissions.
And inside the F-117, pilots can fly with infrared sensors, digital maps, inertial guidance and satellite-sent radio signals. These navigational tools replaced conventional internal radar systems – preventing the aircraft from appearing on other radar detectors. The designers brushed the outside of the stealth jet with a coating that can deflect detection as well.
Finally, the F-117 avoids detection because it doesn’t carry any of its munitions externally. The plane does have a few pieces of weaponry on board, though, such as radar- or infrared-seeking missiles and bombs deployed with laser guidance. So all of these design features combined to make a craft that was as close to invisible as possible at the time.
But the jet was secretive in more ways than one. It was, after all, a commission carried out by the Advanced Development Projects of Lockheed – which had also been responsible for ultra-secret craft such as the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. The USAF didn’t even acknowledge the existence of the F-117 as part of its arsenal until 1988 – six years after Lockheed had delivered the first completed aircraft.
Within two years of their official acknowledgment, though, the USAF had 59 F-117s in its fleet. The jets – which could carry 5,000 pounds and fly at speeds of up to 684mph – played a large part in the military conflicts of their time, too. In the first Gulf War and the invasion of Panama, for instance, the craft earned a reputation for striking with near-surgical accuracy.
In an Air Force press release, one-time F-117 maintainer Yancy Mailes lauded the plane’s uncanny ability to drop guided bombs exactly where they were intended to land. The expert explained, “It was the marriage of the GBU-27 to the F-117 that had a laser designator in its nose that made it such a precise, deadly platform.”
Mailes also recalled the pivotal role that the F-117’s precision had played in the first Gulf War conflict – particularly its second stage, which raged from mid-January through February 1991. The maintainer said, “It was best demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm when pilots snuck into Iraq and dropped weapons down the elevator shaft of a central communications building.”
Still, the F-117 – like all technology – was eventually phased out of service. The USAF retired the F-117 on April 22, 2008, after the craft had spent a quarter-century flying stealth for the military. Yet not all of the 59 aircraft made it back home safely. Yes, as previously mentioned, one of the famous radar-deflecting Nighthawks was gunned down in the line of duty.
That particular F-117 made up part of the American fleet in Operation Allied Force. This was the 1990 NATO-backed bombings of what was then still the state of Yugoslavia. The conflict arose in the country’s autonomous region of Kosovo – where Albanian-speaking Muslims made up the majority of the population. The problem was that the region’s ethnic Serbs reportedly felt marginalized and scared living in territory that they regarded as their home.
It seems that the situation became even tenser when Serbian socialist Slobodan Milošević entered the political landscape in the 1980s. In 1987, for instance, he promised Kosovo’s Serbian population – following their clashes with Albanian police – that no one would be able to physically oppress them any further. He later took control over Kosovo and removed Albanian officers from patrol.
But Milošević’s actions against Kosovo-based Albanians didn’t stop there. Under Milošević’s presidency, the government removed television channels, radio stations and newspapers in the Albanian language. Many Kosovar Albanians lost their jobs in the public sector, too, including in hospitals, banks and schools. Teachers were barred from entering their classrooms in 1991 – leaving their Albanian-speaking students to study from home.
All of this pushed the ethnic Albanian population to do something. So they banded together in 1991 to form the Kosovo Liberation Army – also known as the KLA. And, in the summer of 1998, this group took deadly action. The KLA assassinated Kosovo-based Serbian police officers and killed civilians. This sparked reaction from the Serbian-led authorities, who burned down houses and rolled through Albanian villages in armored vehicles, pushing people from their homes.
Things got worse in January 1999 after the KLA took down four more Serbs. That’s when government forces encircled the village of Račak and massacred 45 ethnic Albanians, including a child. At this point, then, the international media began to focus upon the growing violence in the region – and NATO did, too.
NATO even moved without the green light from the United Nations. What did it do? Well, it gave Milošević the option of allowing peacekeepers and refugees into Kosovo and removing the Serbs. But the Yugoslav leader refused the deal – and NATO forces prepared for Operation Allied Force. Its planes took off on March 24, 1999, with missiles ready to fire on Serbian strongholds.
So on March 27, 1999, it was Dale Zelko’s turn to take off as part of the air raids. He flew the F-117, the stealth jet – you’ll remember – designed to avoid radar detection. But the pilot had a bad feeling about this particular mission: weather conditions would prevent the Nighthawk from taking off with its typical escorts.
Normally, you see, two types of aircraft flew with the F-117 to protect the stealth plane. The F-16 was one of them, and it was usually armed with anti-radar missiles. A plane known as the Prowler would also jam electronic signals at the same time. But neither could take off with the Nighthawk – and that’s why Zelko was harboring misgivings.
Zelko told TV broadcaster the BBC in 2012, “I’d never felt so strongly – if there was ever a night, a mission for an F-117 to get shot down, it would be this one.” Yet little did the Nighthawk pilot know that he also had more than bad weather to contend with. On the ground, you see, Serbian commander Zoltan Dani had come up with an idea for taking down the stealth jet.
Dani’s role as a military commander wasn’t an easy one. His soldiers had great skills, and they had the morale required to win a tough battle. Yet they didn’t have the resources that NATO brought to the table. His forces also proved vulnerable to attack from the F-16 and its anti-radar missiles.
But Dani and his men had come up with a way to avoid the F-16s. This involved his men constantly moving around and only firing up their weapon systems for 20 seconds at a time. The tactic proved successful in eluding enemy detection. From there, then, the commander came up with another idea: one that could take down an otherwise-untraceable stealth jet.
Dani later said he drew inspiration from famed Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla as he reconfigured his troops’ equipment. According to Popular Mechanics magazine, the commander’s strategy had him “using a low bandwidth radar to queue the activation of a higher bandwidth, just when the F-117 would be visible to it.”
And it came time for Dani to put his method to the test on March 27. So, as his squad detected the F-117, they fired two missiles – and only one of them missed the Nighthawk. The commander later recalled, “When it hit, it felt very, very good. Like scoring the winning goal in a football match.”
The missile strike sent the F-117 hurtling uncontrollably through the air – with Zelko alive and at the helm. Zelko successfully ejected from the aircraft, though, and the F-117 crashed into the ground, remaining remarkably intact. Yet as the pilot floated through the air, he had some surprising thoughts about his ill-fated flight over Yugoslavia.
Zelko told the BBC, “I thought about the Serbian SAM (surface-to-air missile) operator, imagining having a coffee and conversation with this guy, saying to him, ‘Really nice shot.’ I had this huge respect for him and the Serbian people.” But his generous mood would soon dissipate when he hit the ground – in enemy territory.
Zelko then broke military protocol by radioing his comrades to tell them where he had landed. You see, he assumed that his descent from the plane had made it difficult for the enemy to find him. But the Serbians started a manhunt – as some had calculated where he would touch down as he parachuted to Earth.
Zelko had actually landed in a town called Ruma – and he worked quickly to hide. First, the pilot dug into the ground, burying his parachute into the earth. He then literally covered his tracks as he searched for a place to lay low. The unlucky airman had to make do with a drainage ditch overgrown with heavy foliage.
Before sliding into his hiding place, though, Zelko rubbed his exposed skin with mud to make himself less visible. The earthy material would cover his scent, too, should sniffer dogs come searching for him. And soon enough they did – along with police, soldiers and even villagers who took part in the massive manhunt for the NATO pilot.
As he lay in his hiding place, Zelko could feel the battle raging around him, too. But even as exploding bombs shook the earth, he couldn’t move to a new location. Instead, he waited it out – and, eventually, his patience paid off. It took eight hours for a helicopter to fly to his rescue over enemy lines.
The story of Zelko’s ill-fated flight and his damaged aircraft didn’t end there, though. Years after the conflict ended, Dani’s son, Atila, reached out to the pilot after seeing a documentary on his father’s unit called The 21st Second. Atila hoped to reconnect the former Serbian commander with the man he had shot down.
Surprisingly, Zelko was more than open to the concept. He told the BBC, “As soon as I read the idea of meeting the man who shot me down, my immediate reaction was, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ and I became obsessed with the idea. I felt I had to connect deeply and personally with this person and the Serbian people. It became a mission of passion for me.”
Zeljko Mirkovic, who filmed the first documentary on Dani, followed along when he reunited with Zelko. The subsequent documentary, The Second Meeting, revealed how the men and their families bonded and became real friends. And that was precisely the message the filmmaker hoped to convey. He said, “We all believed we had the right to send the message – hope, peace – which could be accepted universally.”
Since Operation Allied Force, too, the Balkans have come to find a semblance of peace. Milošević fell from power in 2000 after the U.N. indicted him for war crimes. Yugoslavia also split into its constituent parts: initially Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro. And in 2008 the region of Kosovo followed Montenegro in declaring its independence from Serbia. This decision has since been recognized by 110 countries around the world – and is reinforced by the thousands of NATO troops still protecting the fledgling nation.