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.

2 thoughts on “Dreamland Life

  1. Vahe David Demirjian says:

    Hi Bill,

    When I first became aware of the recent book on Area 51 by Peter Merlin, I wanted to see if it had anything to say regarding late 1980s and early 1990s rumors of a hypersonic spyplane as well as the Black Manta and Blackstar rumors. As it turned out, the book put to rest any old suggestions that a hypersonic spyplane had been tested at Area 51, and it omitted the Blackstar/Brilliant Buzzard and Black Manta rumors because there is no evidence that a stealthy tactical reconnaissance flying wing was operational with the US Air Force in the late 1980s and early 1990s, nor was there ever a TSTO system tested at Area 51 (Merlin informed me by e-mail that Aviation Week and Space Technology’s West Coast editor Mike Dornheim said that AW&ST should not have published the Blackstar article by William Scott due to its lack of proof for the existence of a military TSTO system).

    In your 1993 book “Aurora: The Pentagon’s Secret Hypersonic Spyplane”, you admitted that Aurora probably was not the real name of the line-item in the 1985 Pentagon budget document for requested production funding in FY1987. In fact, when the Pentagon budget document dated February 4, 1985 was released, news reports immediately speculated that Aurora had to do with either the B-2 or F-117, and Ben Rich’s mention in his 1994 about Colonel Adelbert “Buz” Carpenter telling him that he coined the codename Aurora for requested funds for a few aspects of the B-2 program, including support/logistics, not only confirmed initial speculation about Aurora being related to the B-2 but also put to rest any suggestions by you that the name Aurora appeared in the budget document by mistake. Carpenter deliberately coined the codename Aurora for requested funding related to the B-2 program because the cost of the B-2 was becoming hard to conceal, and the 1985 budget document did not list the B-2 as a separate item despite mentioning “Advanced Technology Bomber” (which was still being officially used in Pentagon documents for Northrop’s winning ATB design before that aircraft was designated B-2 in early 1988) in the text. As Merlin notes in his book on Area 51, Pentagon budget documents written in 2017 applied the codename Stingray to a secret effort to create a combined test force at Edwards Air Force Base to prepare for flight tests of the B-21 Raider there.

    Since it is apparent that the codename Aurora was related to the B-2 program and not a hypersonic aircraft, I wanted to ask the following questions:
    1. In your 2006 Popular Science article “The Top-Secret Warplanes of Area 51”, you wrote: “The question, finally, is does Aurora exist? Years of pursuit have led me to believe that, yes, Aurora is most likely in active development, spurred on by recent advances that have allowed technology to catch up with the ambition that launched the program a generation ago.” Have you since changed your mind about the veracity of rumors about the USAF deploying a hypersonic spyplane in the late 1980s and early 1990s in light of flight tests of the X-51 scramjet-powered experimental aircraft and your investigative journalistic work on the Northrop Grumman flying wing drone which you dubbed “RQ-180”?
    2. Press reports published in 1994 revealed that the CIA and NRO conceived the Quartz requirement in the 1980s for an unmanned super-stealthy strategic reconnaissance aircraft to replace the SR-71 and U-2 (the US Air Force joined the Quartz program in the late 1980s after seeing Quartz as a low-cost option for a Blackbird successor despite the fact that Lockheed in the late 1970s and 1980s initiated design studies for a hypersonic spyplane on the USAF’s behalf), and Aviation Week and Space Technology articles from 1994 reporting on the impending rollout of the RQ-3 DarkStar explicitly mentioned the Tier III program that also called for an unmanned stealthy strategic reconnaissance aircraft but with less complex avionics and spying equipment than that planned for the Quartz. Since the “RQ-180” fulfills the P-ISR role which the Quartz or Tier III would have carried out, and the SR-71 was put back into service in 1995, only to be retired again in 1998, did you feel vindicated in your opinion that the SR-71’s initial retirement had nothing to do with a new generation of spy satellites? It is interesting to note that in a testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 1993, intelligence official Keith Hall stated that the SR-71 had been retired because the SR-71 fleet had no satellite data link, and reconnaissance UAV designs for the canceled Quartz program would have had a data link to transmit satellite imagery to field commanders in a short space of time.
    3. Did you ever take note of the CIA’s top-secret Isinglass/Rheinberry program in the 1960s for a hypersonic replacement for the Archangel-12 and U-2, since the McDonnell Model 192 boost-glide hypersonic spyplane shows that the US intelligence community looked at a hypersonic aircraft as a successor to the Archangel-12 long before Lockheed undertook design studies for a hypersonic spyplane?


    1. Bill Sweetman says:

      I’m a consultant now. So I could tell you, but then I’d have to bill you.

      More seriously: I have a book in the works on secret U.S. aircraft projects. I have had to re-look at a lot of the evidence. Some stands, some does not. My point in the post, too, is that Peter Merlin’s excellent book doesn’t put everything to rest, far from it, because there’s still a gap between the observed modernized A51 that was paid for by Reagan budgets, and the observed activity there. And yes, I know about Isinglass and its importance.

      Stay tuned.

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