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study for intelWhen the first edition of Studies in Intelligence rolled off the presses this month in 1955, the young CIA—it had just celebrated its eighth birthday—was engaged operationally around the world to “protect or advance” US interests in the Cold War against communism. At home, its intelligence analysts and their processes were maturing, as they sought to describe and understand the threats the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, North Vietnam and others posed to US interests. At the same time, the US government was in the process of developing advanced reconnaissance tools, with the CIA leading the initiative to create aircraft, such as the U-2 and A-12 OXCART, and satellites, like CORONA, to photograph strategic installations in hostile locations.

Area 51, U-2 and the Accidental Test Flight

arch– Archangel was to design a replacement spy-plane for the U-2 after it became apparent the USSR had tracked the U-2 from its very first mission.

Groom Lake Air Force Base – Area 51

U-2 after flight at Groom Lake. Courtesy of TD Barnes and Roadrunner Internationale.

Tony LeVierOn August 1, 1955, during a high-speed-taxi test in the first U-2, Lockheed’s chief test pilot, Tony LeVier, inadvertently became airborne at a remote test site in the desert of western Nevada called the Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake. You may know it as Area 51. LeVier who had conducted the first taxi-test a few days prior, accelerated the U-2 to 70 knots when he suddenly realized he was airborne, leaving him in “utter amazement.”

U2 after flight lands“I had no intentions whatsoever of flying,” recalled LeVier in transcripts quoted in “The CIA and Overhead Reconnaissance – the U-2 and OXCART Program, 1954-1974 (PDF 16.56MB)” written by CIA Historians. “I immediately started back toward the ground, but had difficulty determining my height because the lake-bed had no markings to judge distance or height. I made contact with the ground in a left bank of approximately 10 degrees.”


He was unable to land the U-2 on his first attempt, and it bounced back into the air, but he managed to successfully bring it down on a second try. Damage to the prototype U-2 was very minor. This test would later be considered the first unofficial flight of the U-2.

LeVier piloted the U-2’s first official test flight a few days later on August 4th, and the first official flight with visiting dignitaries present was on August 8th.

– Over-all shot of Watertown area. Courtesy of TD Barnes and Roadrunners Internationale.

Why Area 51?

Much of the testing took place at the facility at Groom Lake, a dry lake-bed 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.

– Trailer area at Area 51. Courtesy of TD Barnes and Roadrunners Internationale.

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 lake-bed 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).

Although the commonly preferred official name for the facility today is the Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake, both the names Watertown and Area 51 were used as official names for the facility. According to Barnes, Area 51 may be found on official Nevada Test Site (NTS) maps and other documentation, while some Department of Energy documents indicate that Watertown is legally listed as a member of Alamo Township in Lincoln County, Nevada.

– Flight line, Area 51. Courtesy of TD Barnes and Roadrunners Internationale.

How do you get a super-secret aircraft to a super-secret facility?

For security reasons, primary access to Area 51 was by aircraft. A C-124 would transport the components of a U-2, which were constructed in Burbank, California, then disassembled and transported to Watertown for reassembly and testing. A daily air shuttle also transported personnel and other cargo between Watertown and the “Skunk Works,” the Lockheed Martin production facility in Burbank.

lockheed-skunk-works-4-patch-f712The U-2, however, wasn’t the only Agency aircraft transported, tested, and flown out of Area 51. The first flight test of the CIA’s Lockheed A-12 –  OXCART took place at the Groom Lake facility on April 25, 1962; the remaining operational aircraft arrived for flight tests through mid-1964. By the fall of 1965, the eleven pilots selected to fly A-12 missions and their aircraft were ready for deployment.

U2 after flight lands

– Pilot transition from U-2 after flight at Groom Lake. Courtesy of TD Barnes and Roadrunners Internationale.


The legacy and sacrifice of those who worked at Area 51:

CIA, Air Force, and private industry personnel from many specialties helped make the U-2 a reality and several lost their lives in the process. Four of those were pilots who had known the risks of handling an aircraft that was difficult to fly, even in the best of circumstances. Fourteen members involved in the U-2 project also lost their lives when their transport plane en route from Burbank to Watertown crashed during bad weather into Mount Charleston, a few miles outside of Las Vegas.

1955 CIA flight– Wreckage of a 1955 CIA flight that crashed near the peak of Mt. Charleston on its way to Area 51.

The sacrifice these pilots and U-2 project personnel made for their country helped the US win the Cold War. Along with thousands of Americans who worked at Area 51, their patriotism, ingenuity, and willingness to take on a project critics believed was impossible at the time – the creation of the U-2—allowed the US to penetrate the Iron Curtain and gain an unparalleled advantage over the Soviets in intelligence gathering.

Want to know more?

Have you ever wanted to see Area 51 with your own eyes? Watch Angels in Paradise: The Development of the U-2 at Area 51.

This video was made in the 1960s for family members of the people working at Groom Lake on the U-2 to explain the workers’ long absences from home.

To learn more about the CIA’s U-2 and OXCART history at Area 51, see: The CIA and Overhead Reconnaissance – the U-2 and OXCART Program, 1954-1974 (PDF 16.56MB)

To learn about the U-2 from a pilot’s perspective, here is a PDF of a U-2 Flight manual. (PDF 17.97MB)

See how U-2 reconnaissance helped resolve the Missile Gap question.

Archangel: CIA’s Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft

As the CIA’s responsibilities and reach expanded, so did the need to acquire, train, and nurture a professional workforce capable of taking on the difficult operational, analytical, and technical tasks the US government had placed before it. In 1955 no manual existed for this purpose. There was no foundational literature that represented the learning and views of professionals engaged in intelligence work.

In a 2005 article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Studies, CIA historian Nicholas Dujmovic explained that senior CIA officers, most notably the director of the Office of National Estimates, Sherman Kent, proposed during 1953–54 the creation of a journal, Studies in Intelligence.

Corona Between the Sun and the Earth

CORONAThe First National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Reconnaissance Eye in Space
Robert A. McDonald, Ph.D., Editor

Published by The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), Bethesda, MD

Related Material: CIA Cold War Records — CORONA: America’s First Satellite Program

[PDF Only 18.42MB*]

More> Historical Document:

This material has been reviewed by the CIA. That review neither constitutes CIA authentication of information nor implies CIA endorsement of the author’s views.

Related Material: CIA Cold War Records — CORONA: America’s First Satellite Program [PDF Only 18.42MB*]

Historical Document
Posted: Mar 15, 2007 02:51 PM
Last Updated: Sep 16, 2015 12:06 PM

Along with the journal, which was first published soon after in September 1955, Kent proposed the creation of a center for the study of intelligence. Twenty years later, Kent’s final vision came true, with the creation of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence in 1974.


 That first issue of Studies – which is available in the National Archives—was pretty slim. It contained an introduction by the CIA’s Director of Training, Kent’s essay outlining his hopes for the journal, and a short preview of what its editors expected in the following issues. As modest as this beginning was, the journal gradually and steadily built a foundation of literature that included articles about the profession from many angles: some examined then current analytical and operational practices; others were written to advocate the adoption of specific practices; and, as the CIA aged, articles began to appear describing historical events. Occasionally, humorous articles like the one about CIA’s Canoe Pool (vice car-pool) would appear within its pages. [PDF 447KB]

CIA Canoe PoolSince Studies early issues, in which a handful of well-established CIA professionals reflected on their work, more than a thousand intelligence professionals, academics, students, and policymakers have contributed around 1,500 articles—classified and unclassified—including stories about operations, analysis, collection, and emerging technology and methods. They have captured the history of the intelligence profession, documented lessons of the past, and critiqued a multitude of books on the field. They have been accomplishing what Sherman Kent in 1955 saw as essential for the profession when he wrote:

The most important service that intelligence literature can perform is the permanent recording of our new ideas and experiences.

The literature in Studies has not only advanced the profession and influenced the way in which the Intelligence Community accomplishes its mission, it has furthered public understanding of this often misunderstood, stigmatized, and glamorized world for nearly 25 years through the journal’s unclassified editions and on-line postings on Central Intelligence Agency or (cia.gov).

In addition, through various scheduled releases and Freedom of Information requests, a large volume of the classified literature has also become available to the public. In 2013 and 2014, for example, more than 240 previously classified or unpublicized Studies articles—more than 2,400 pages in all—become publicly available for the first time.

To learn more about Studies in Intelligence, see: Fifty Years of Studies in Intelligence – Building an “Intelligence Literature.” Dujmovic’s description of the journal’s history and its spirit is still perfectly fitting 10 years later.

 peace alien

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