Dreamland Life

The last big book on Area 51 was written in 2011 by Annie Jacobsen, previously best known for throwing a case of the screaming abdabs over some Syrian musicians on a 2004 Northwest Airlines flight. It would never have gotten past an agent but for the sensational ending, where one of Jacobsen’s veteran sources told the Real StoryTM of the 1947 Roswell incident. The wreckage recovered, Jacobsen’s source disclosed, was that of a flying-wing airplane designed in the Soviet Union by the Horten brothers, crewed not by aliens but by children, surgically modified into unearthly forms on Stalin’s orders by Dr Josef Mengele.

Take the time you want to read that again.

The story fired a neuron in my brain, but it took space historian and serious Trekkie Dwayne Day to recall the 1956 James Blish sci-fi story Tomb Tapper, in which a Soviet bomber exhibits mysteriously long range before crashing in the USA. An investigator with an EEG taps into the dying pilot’s brain and believes that the memories he finds are of alien origin. But they are not. They are illustrations from children’s books because the pilot is a nine-year-old girl.

This did raise the question of whether Jacobsen’s source might have gone, to use British military terminology, a bit doolally.

I find that even more believable after reading the new big book on the subject: Dreamland – The Secret History of Area 51, by Peter Merlin. The author’s goal was to write a detailed, documented history of the base itself, based on unclassified information, and in that he has succeeded. It may be pricey, but considered by the pound, the word, or the data contained in it, it’s a bargain. (Do the author a favor and order from the publisher.)

There are no aliens in the book, nor new projects that the well-informed reader will not have heard of, but a ton of fascinating detail, particularly on projects that have received less attention than the U-2 and Blackbird (where outdoing the British experts, Chris Pocock and Paul Crickmore, is a fool’s errand). There is for example plenty to learn about the Red Hats and their acquired MiGs, and lesser-known projects like Aquiline, aimed at developing a spy drone that the adversary would mistake for a large bird. For more modern programs, there is a good discussion of Boeing’s Bird Of Prey, and the serial numbers of the first few production Northrop Grumman RQ-180 stealth drones – all, Merlin maintains, from unclassified sources.

Merlin focuses tightly on the location itself, under various names used and discarded over the years – Watertown, Area 51, Homey or Dreamland – and does not venture into other secret projects. Some of the best content is not about the hardware at all, but on life at the base. If anyone ever wants to set a novel or a streaming series at the world’s most famous secret location, they will have Merlin’s book within close reach at all times. Photos of residential buildings and trailers, bars and movie nights and basketball courts, and hobbies that people indulged in to keep themselves sane. On a harsher note, accounts of teams sent out into the desert, in vehicles, on foot or on horses borrowed from local ranchers, to search for a missing airplane and its pilot, with sinking hope that a friend will be found alive.

To return to Jacobsen’s scoop, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few people went a bit doolally.

I could take offense, meanwhile, to the bracketing of the mysterious Aurora with UFOs and other weirdness surrounding the base. But Merlin’s narrative underscores, by omission, an important starting point to the Aurora story: between the departure of the F-117 program to Tonopah, around 1984, to the arrival of the Bird of Prey in the late 1990s, there is little activity documented save the Red Hats and Aquiline. But it is after 1984 (as Reagan administration funding would have started to turn into buildings on the ground) that the base gets expanded and modernized into the extensive facility that was visible from Freedom Ridge, where I first met Merlin in 1994 – and for what?

Merlin hints at the existence of other programs in his postscript, but with a caveat drawn from a 1999 paper: “Some secrets lie beyond the analyst’s reach, others may be discovered and published with impunity, and between these two extremes lie a very great many secrets that may be explored only partially, or perhaps solely, under certain restrictive conditions.” Merlin added to this in an Aviation Week podcast in December: “There’s a great deal of history of Area 51 that is not in my book because it still remains in the shadows and probably will for quite some time.”

Merlin commented on the same occasion that the UFO story that became welded to the base at – well, the time of the mysterious expansion project, gave the USAF problems because of an influx of extraterrestrial enthusiasts, but then added: “It was great for the Air Force, because anytime someone now were to mention Area 51, no one would take them seriously, because the first thing anyone thinks of is flying saucers and little green men. So it’s almost impossible to have a serious conversation about Area 51. If I tell someone that I’ve written a book about Area 51, they’re not going to think airplanes, they’re going to think flying saucers.”

And, in my opinion, that may well have been intentional.

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