I-Team: In Search of the New Area 51 - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: In Search of the New Area 51

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  • Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams

    Area 51: 20 Years of Intrigue

    Area 51: 20 Years of Intrigue

    It's been 20 years this month since Eyewitness News began reporting on a then-obscure military facility now known all over the world as Area 51. Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp broke the story of Area 51 and has a look back.More>>

The most famous, or infamous, military base in the world, Nevada's Area 51, is once again generating its share of wild speculation. The story continues to circulate that the base has either shut down or moved its most sensitive projects to other less-visible locations.

Twenty years ago this month, Eyewitness News started an investigation that put Area 51 on the map. The reason Area 51 became a household name is because of allegations they had flying saucers out there -- things that were made "somewhere else."

In aviation circles, a lot of people figure that story was pure disinformation, concocted by the military to draw attention away from something else that was going on out there. If that's the case, then the tactic surely backfired on the Air Force because, as a result of the saucer story, Area 51 became known all over the world and is still a focus of attention.

Civilian pilots and other eyewitnesses have been seeing strange things in the skies in and around a restricted airspace that straddles the Nevada-Utah border. If there's a base hidden out in this desert, it certainly isn't easy to spot.

Contrary to persistent media reports, the world's most famous secret base, the original Area 51, is doing just fine. A 1997 article in Popular Mechanics magazine claimed the whole place had shut down and moved to eastern Utah so the military could work on a secret space plane. Not true.

Nearly every day, unmarked planes ferry employees from a terminal at McCarran up to Groom Lake. Buses with blacked out windows still rumble up and down the long gravel road. Satellite photos show the facility, that's the only term the government will use, operating at Groom Lake is bigger than ever with new hangars and other facilities.

That means the cottage industry that's grown up around the base continues to thrive as well. In Rachel, the Little A'Le'Inn still sells "Beam Me Up, Scotty" highballs and ET merchandise. At the other end of the Extraterrestrial Highway, the rival Area 51 Research Center sells its own merchandise under the shadow of a 30 foot tall alien robot.

Curious types armed with cameras and high powered lenses still trek thru the desert or climb the mountains to get a glimpse of the base.

In 2005, military watchdog Chuck Clark learned the hard way that Area 51 was still up and running. He located a series of hidden sensors on public land, miles from the edge of the base. After showing them to the I-Team, his home was raided by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Things took a radical turn for Area 51 in 1989 when a man named Bob Lazar made the outrageous claim that he had worked on flying saucers at a facility called S-4 in the Area 51 complex.

Ever since Lazar told his story, the world has beaten a path to Area 51's door, which is why it might make sense for them to move their most sensitive projects to a place with a lower profile -- one that attracts less attention.

"Everybody knows about Area 51 and Groom Lake, but the interesting thing is, I don't think there is anything there anymore," said former CIA pilot John Lear.

Lear has done as much as anyone to put Area 51 on the map. He knows there are still programs underway out there, but he suspects the most sensitive projects, ones involving the most exotic technology, perhaps something resembling flying saucers, have been moved.

Lear thinks some of the most advanced work is now being done at a sister facility, Area 52, within the Tonopah Test Range. He also harbors suspicions about an adjunct facility called Base Camp, which is halfway between Areas 51 and 52. The facility is strictly off limits to outsiders and those who work on the inside don't talk about what they do.

He is even more intrigued by a vast and remote section of desert south of Wendover, Nevada on the Utah-Nevada line. Lear, an accomplished pilot whose father invented the Lear Jet, still has numerous friends in the aviation world, and they tell him stories about seeing camouflaged runways that open up in the middle of nowhere.

"As the pilots land, they tell me -- as they're coming in to be radar vectored at 500 feet -- they look down and it will just be like desert or normal landscape and all of a sudden, it will unzip like this and they will see a runway," he said.

A search of the area south of Wendover found no evidence of runways or military facilities, though others are looking as well.

Utah UFO hunters, perhaps yearning for an Area 51 of their very own, have proposed that a planned massive expansion of Dugway Proving Grounds is part of a program to create a new Area 51. They also note that Michael Air Base, which controls the airspace south of Wendover, has, like Dugway, been the site of some very strange things seen in the skies, including saucer-type craft and shafts of light that seem to emanate from the ground.

The one thing we've learned from chasing after the original Area 51 is we're unlikely to find out much unless they want us to know.

"If something is going on out there and they don't want people to know about it, they're not going to know about it. Not going to happen," said Area 51 Specialist T.D. Barnes.

Barnes has worked as a CIA radar specialist out at Area 51 for many years and is president of an organization called the Roadrunners, former Groom Lake employees who today are much freer to talk about what went on out there because some material has been declassified.

There are many who think that, just as the flying saucer story was created as disinformation, so was the story about the base shutting down. It has probably deterred a lot of people from heading out for a visit, which means fewer headaches for the base. The fact is, Area 51 is alive and well and there is nothing else like it in the world.

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