Dreamland: The Secret History of Area 51

Image of Dreamland: The Secret History of Area 51
Release Date: 
October 28, 2023
Schiffer Military History
Reviewed by: 

“something for history buffs, aviation enthusiast, aeronautical students and anyone interested in how America developed some the most advanced aircraft of the Cold War and into the 21st century.”

“Area 51.” The designation conjures thoughts of secret military aircraft, UFOs and aliens. How much of this is myth, legend, or reality is addressed in this massive coffee table book that covers the base, aircraft, people, and organizations that made this America’s premier fight test installation.  Officially located in Groom Lake, Nevada, this facility was to be the flight test facility for many of America’s most famous military aircraft.

In this encyclopedic book, the author covers the nearly 70-year history of one of America’s most closely guarded military installations, providing not only the stories of the machines, but the numerous people, some more well-known than others, and everything there is to know, or at least what’s been declassified, about the test pilots and machines that have called this installation home.

Established in the mid-1950s, the base quickly became synonymous with three of the most famous aircraft in American military aviation, all products of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s famous “Skunk Works” led by the legendary Kelly Johnson, head of the company’s Advanced Development Projects. One of the most brilliant engineers in American aviation, Johnson was involved in the development of what would become the U-2, SR-71, and F-117 aircraft.

The U-2 was the first of what would become many joint development projects between the U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Begun in the 1950s to provide the capability to overfly the Soviet Union, the U-2 was a significant design project, intended to fly above the air defenses of hostile countries while taking high resolution photographs. Essentially a jet powered glider that could cruise at 70,000 for over 3,000 miles, the U-2 was extensively tested at Area 51 before becoming one of the most iconic aircraft of the Cold War. Some of the secrecy about the aircraft lifted when one was shot down over the Soviet Union, leading to the capture of Francis Gary Powers and creating one of the dramatic moments of the Cold War between Nikita Khrushchev and President Eisenhower. In spite of this setback, the aircraft had its greatest moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when U-2 flights not only detected the presence of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba, but provided President Kennedy with the intelligence he needed to formulate what would eventually be a successful resolution to the crisis.

The U-2 had a number of successor projects at Area 51, dubbed in the restricted airspace maps as Dreamland. The SR-71 was another joint project between the Air Force and CIA that pushed the capabilities of manned aircraft, able to cruise at Mach 3 for very long distances while flying on the edge of space. However, Area 51 also served other flight tests critical to America’s Cold War efforts, and the author provides an amazing look at one of the lesser known but critical activities—the flight test of foreign adversary aircraft.

When America launched its Rolling Thunder air campaign against North Vietnam in 1965, the Air Force and Navy received a rude awakening in air combat against Russian-provided MiG aircraft that were more maneuverable than their American counterparts. Taking advantage of aircraft that were either flown to the west by defecting Communist pilots or captured intact by the Israelis in many of their wars with their Arab neighbors. Both test pilots and pilots with recent combat experience in Vietnam flew these aircraft to understand their performance and develop tactics that U.S. pilots could use in air combat. The exploitation efforts of these aircraft, while highly classified at the time, directly contributed to the effectiveness of the U.S. Navy’s new Fighter Weapons School, soon labeled Top Gun, and the Air Force’s continuing series of aerial exercises designated Red Flag.

The author, with incredible depth and using an amazing array of never before seen photographs, details the many other test and evaluations conducted at Dreamland, including the critical technical exploitation of Soviet-made radars and surface to air missile systems captured by the Israelis during the 1973 Yom Kippur, which provided a vital library of data and information that would prove crucial to the successful air campaign of Operation Desert Storm. 

Of course, no history of Dreamland would be complete without the amazing tale of the development of the F-117, the world’s first stealth aircraft that completely changed the concepts of military aircraft design as it successfully carried out combat operations in Panama, the Persian Gulf, and the Balkans during the late 1980s and 1990s. This legacy of low radar cross section aircraft continues today with the F-22 and F-35 aircraft and even the numerous unmanned aircraft that were also tested and evaluated at Dreamland.

The author does not delve into the mythology or conspiracy of whether unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are at Area 51, but he does show many of the previously unknown concept aircraft, missiles, and even helicopters that were tested at the range that fascinated and intrigued aviation enthusiasts for decades.

Finally, since Dreamland was an operational installation, the myriad support functions and organizations needed to carry out the base’s mission are described in detail along with biographies of some of the critical personnel who ensured the test and evaluation operations were conducted as safely as possible, always a challenge when having test pilots fly experimental state-of-the-art aircraft.

This book has something for history buffs, aviation enthusiast, aeronautical students and anyone interested in how America developed some the most advanced aircraft of the Cold War and into the 21st century.