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Exclusive: U2 Spy Planes Confused for UFOs, Fueled Area 51 Mystique

In her new book "AREA 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base," which goes on sale May 17, Annie Jacobsen offers for the first time an inside look at the history of America's top secret military base. It is the first book based on interviews with the scientist, pilots, and engineers -- 74 in total -- who for the first time reveal what really went on in the Nevada desert, from testing nuclear reactions to building super-secret supersonic jets to pursuing the war on terror.

Jacobsen, a contributing editor and investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times Magazine, interviewed the former Area 51 employees in 2008 and 2009, shortly after the CIA declassified much of the work they had done, including countless pages of redacted memos and declassified reports. Area 51 is still officially a military secret, unmentioned by name, Jacobsen notes. 

In this exclusive excerpt, Jacobsen reveals that test flights of the U-2 spy plane, built at the mysterious Area 51 test site, were often confused for UFOs -- fueling the stories surrounding the facility. 

Chapter 4: The Seeds of a Conspiracy

As soon as the U-2s started flying out of Area 51, reports of UFO sightings by commercial airline pilots and air traffic controllers began to inundate CIA headquarters. 

Later painted black to blend in with the sky, the U-2s at that time were silver, which meant their long, shiny wings reflected light down from the upper atmosphere in a way that led citizens all over California, Nevada, and Utah to think the planes were UFOs. 

The altitude of the U-2 alone was enough to bewilder people. Commercial airplanes flew at between ten thousand and twenty thousand feet in the mid-1950s, whereas the U-2 flew at around seventy thousand feet. Then there was the radical shape of the airplane to consider. Its wings were nearly twice as long as the fuselage, which made the U-2 look like a fiery flying cross.

In 1955 the UFO phenomenon sweeping America was seven years old. The modern-day UFO craze officially began on June 24, 1947, when a search-and-rescue pilot named Kenneth Arnold spotted nine flying discs speeding over Washington State while he was out searching for a downed airplane Approximately two weeks later, the crash at Roswell occurred. 

By the end of the month, more than 850 UFO sightings had been reported in the news media. 

Rumors of flying saucers were sweeping the nation, and public anxiety was mounting; Americans demanded answers from the military. 

According to a CIA study on UFOs, declassified in 1997, the Air Force had originally been running two programs. One was covert, initially called Project Saucer and later called Project Sign; another was an overt Air Force public relations campaign called Project Grudge. The point of Project Grudge was to “persuade the public that UFOs constituted nothing unusual or extraordinary,” and to do this, Air Force officials went on TV and radio dismissing UFO reports. 

Sightings were attributed to planets, meteors, even “large hailstones,” Air Force officials said, categorically denying that UFOs were anything nefarious or out of this world. But their efforts did very little to appease the public. With the nuclear arms race in full swing, the idea that the world could come to an end in nuclear holocaust had tipped the psychological scales for many Americans, giving way to public discussion about Armageddon and the End of Times. 

In 1951, Hollywood released the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, about aliens preparing to destroy Earth. Two years later, The War of the Worlds was made into a movie and won an Academy Award. Even the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung got into the act, publishing a book that said UFOs were individual mirrors of a collective anxiety the world was having about nuclear annihilation. 

Sightings continued and so did intense interest by both the Air Force and the CIA.

At Area 51, the reality that the U-2 was repeatedly being mistaken for a UFO was not something analysts welcomed, but it was something they were forced to address. The general feeling at the Agency was that CIA officers had more important things to do than handle the public hysteria about strange objects in the sky. 

Dealing with UFO reports, the CIA felt, was more appropriately suited for pencil pushers over at the Air Force. 

According to declassified documents, the CIA did open up a clandestine UFO data-collecting department, albeit begrudgingly. Seeing as the CIA could easily clear its own analysts to handle information on the U-2, this made sense. This attitude, that CIA officers were above plebeian affairs such as UFO sightings, was endemic at the Agency and trickled down from the top. CIA director Allen Dulles was an elitist at heart, an old-school spy brought up in the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II espionage division of the Army. 

Dulles preferred gentlemen spy craft and disliked technology in general, which was why he’d delegated control of the U-2 spy plane to Richard Bissell in the first place. As for the UFO problems, Dulles assigned that job to a former OSS colleague named Todos M. Odarenko.  The UFO division was placed inside the physics office, which Odarenko ran. Almost immediately Odarenko “sought to have his division relieved of the responsibility for monitoring UFO reports,” according to a CIA monograph declassified in 1997. 

And yet the significance of UFOs to the CIA could not have had a higher national security concern. 

The case file regarding unidentified flying objects that Allen Dulles had inherited from the Agency’s previous director, General Walter Bedell Smith, was, and remains, one of the most top secret files in CIA history. 

Because it has yet to be declassified, there is no way of knowing how much information Bedell Smith shared with his successor. But Bedell Smith himself would more likely than not have had a need-to-know about the Army intelligence’s blackest programs, and that would have included the flying disc retrieved at Roswell. 

When the crash occurred, in July of 1947, Bedell Smith was the ambassador to the Soviet Union. During the search for the Horten brothers under the program known as Operation Harass, Bedell Smith was serving as commander of the First Army at Governors Island, New York — a locale from which Project Paperclip scientists were monitored, evaluated, and assigned research and engineeering jobs. 

And when the crash remains left Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to be shipped out to the desert in Nevada, Bedell Smith was the director of the CIA. The degree of  need-to-know access he had regarding secret parallel programs set up there remains one of the great riddles of Area 51.

 

Reprinted from the book AREA 51 by Annie Jacobsen. Copyright © 2011 by Annie Jacobsen. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ANNIE JACOBSEN is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and an investigative reporter whose work has also appeared in the National Review and the Dallas Morning News. Her two-part series “The Road to Area 51” in the Los Angeles Times Magazine broke online reader records and remained the “most popular/most emailed” story for ten consecutive days. 

Learn more at the Area 51 website.