Why Area 51?
Much of the testing took place at the facility at Groom Lake, a dry lakebed near Las Vegas, Nevada, in an isolated area that came to be known as Area 51 and Watertown. The area was chosen by top officials of the U-2’s Development Projects Staff who flew to Nevada in search of a site where the U-2 could be tested safely and secretly.
They spotted what appeared to be an airstrip by a salt flat – Groom Lake – near the northeast corner of the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Nevada Proving Ground, which had been used during World War II as an aerial gunnery range for Army pilots. The site was perfect for testing the U-2 and training its pilots; however, upon further discovery, the U-2 Project Staff learned Groom Lake was not actually part of the AEC proving ground. They asked the AEC to add the Groom Lake strip to its real estate holdings in Nevada, to which the AEC readily agreed, and the deal was approved by President Eisenhower.
How Area 51 got its various names:
The strip of wasteland was known at the time by its map designation: Area 51. To make the new facility sound more attractive to the pilots and workers who would reside there, Lockheed’s famous aeronautical engineer, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, called it “Paradise Ranch,” which was soon shortened to just “the Ranch.” Many of the workers even referred to themselves as “ranch hands.”
Area 51 is also known by the nickname “Watertown,” which was rumored to have been inspired by the name of CIA Director Allen Dulles’s birthplace of Watertown, New York. Records show that the name was a reference to when rainwater would runoff the nearby mountains and flood the dry lakebed of Groom Lake. Whenever the lakebed flooded, project managers would refer to the facility as “Watertown Strip.”
The name “Dreamland” was also commonly associated with the Groom Lake facility. According to Thornton D. (TD) Barnes, president of Roadrunners Internationale, an association of former Air Force, CIA, and contract personnel serving at Area 51 during the Cold War, Dreamland was a radio call sign for the base, introduced in the late 1960s. It replaced the previous name, Yuletide, and referred specifically to the large block of airspace (called a Special Operations Area) surrounding Area 51 and parts of the Nevada Test Site and Nellis Air Force Range (now known as the Nevada Test and Training Range).
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