BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer
If you hear the name "Area 51," you think of aliens, don't you?
Pop culture movies, TV shows and books have linked this mysterious site in southwestern Nevada -- also known as Groom Lake, Dreamland, Home Base, The Box, The Container and other nicknames -- with the so-called Roswell UFO Incident, evoking everything from conspiracy theories to a disparaging smirk.
Area 51 Exposed
When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Minter Air Field Museum Hangar
Admission: $15, includes box lunch for first 100 people.
"I called it the 'Dragon Lady,'" said James Whitehead.
Whitehead, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, was referring to the U-2 spy plane.
Whitehead, who lives in Bakersfield, was a U-2 pilot -- the first African-American to fly the secret craft.
"Sometimes it was a nice lady, but it only has two wheels (instead of three), so when you're trying to land it, it can be a dragon," Whitehead said.
Whitehead will attend the Minter Air Field Air Museum's presentation "Area 51 Exposed" on Saturday and will be available to answer questions about the spy plane.
Whitehead completed his flight school training and received his pilot's wings in November 1958. After serving in Vietnam, he was accepted into the U-2 program in 1966 and flew missions over Cuba. He left the military to fly for TWA, but also joined the Air National Guard, where he finished as the assistant to the director at the Pentagon from 1990 to 1993, and the logistical deployment of the Air National Guard units for Operation Desert Storm. He also instituted the Human Resources Quality Board to ensure equal opportunity for people of color in military and civilian aviation careers.
Whitehead said he was very aware of Area 51 during his Air Force years.
"The pilots that learned to fly the U-2 in Area 51, they were the original group," Whitehead said. "I knew some of them."
As an elite pilot, Whitehead said he knew of the testing of "black ops" aircraft, including spy planes and stealth aircraft. He also got a chance to meet U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down while on a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union in 1960 and was returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange in 1962.
"He was still working at Lockheed in Palmdale at the time," said Whitehead, who noted that he had landed his U-2 plane, and Powers helped him install the extra wheels -- called pogo wheels -- that enabled him to taxi the U-2 back to the hangar.
Minter Field was dedicated on Feb. 7, 1942. Some 12,000 pilots received their basic training at the field. The museum is housed in what was the original fire station for the field.
Retired pilot knew man who was shot down
But as you might be told in a documentary on the subject, that's not the real story. You can learn the truth of Area 51 at Minter Air Field, which will host a presentation, "Area 51 Exposed," from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday in the airport hangar.
Aeronautics historian Peter Merlin will discuss Area 51's true role as the test site for a number of the United States' secret aircraft, including the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 spy plans, the F-117 Stealth Fighter, B-2 Stealth Bomber, and foreign aircraft that were captured or acquired from defecting pilots. An extension of Edwards Air Force Base, the Nevada site was chosen because, like Edwards, it was located near an enormous dry lake bed.
"I first read about Area 51 in 1983," Merlin said "That whole concept of a secret Air Force base was just fascinating to me."
Merlin grew up during the Apollo space missions and has had a life-long passion for all things connected to flight. A graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Merlin covered missions at the Kennedy Space Center for his college newspaper. He has written several books about aviation, including "The Smell of Kerosene: A Test Pilot's Odyssey," co-written with Donald Mallick; "X-Plane Crashes," co-written with Tony Moore; plus articles for AIR & SPACE Smithsonian Magazine. He has also appeared on programs for the History Channel, including "Modern Marvels," "Mystery Hunters" and "Man, Moment, Machine: Shot Down--The U-2 Spy Plane."
"I know there is the whole conspiracy thing about Area 51," Merlin said. "I approach it from a completely different perspective -- the documented history of the project and the people who worked there."
While located in Nevada, Area 51 is a great topic for the local air museum in Shafter. "They first started building the U-2 here in Bakersfield in a corner of Meadows Field," said Dean Craun, a member of the Minter Air Field museum board.
"It was part of Lockheed's Skunk Works," Craun said. "They assembled the fuselage and the wings here. They would load them out into these big cargo planes at night and then ship them out to Area 51 for testing."
According to Merlin, production originally started at Lockheed's factory in Burbank, but the facilities there were too limited. "When the Air Force ordered an additional 25 aircraft, they opened up the second production line in Bakersfield," Merlin said.
Craun noted that the secrecy required for the test site, along with Area 51's proximity to a nuclear test facility, led to speculation about other kinds of activities.
"It all adds to the mystique of Area 51," Craun said. Aliens, conspiracies: Secret aircraft testing facility focus of many rumors