Why Area 51 is suddenly a ‘thing’
Why is Area 51 suddenly a "thing"?
A social media prankster has triggered 1.6 million vows to "storm" the secret desert testing facility. He had no idea his "joke" was all that was needed to detonate a powder keg of public unrest.
Combat pilots. Commercial airliners. Pentagon 'insiders'. All have, in recent years, added an element of credibility to the phenomenon that is unidentified flying objects.
"What the f--k is that thing?" blurts a US Navy F-18 Super Hornet fighter pilot.
"That looks crazy", the pilot of a commercial airline pilot exclaims as a strange flying object ducks and weaves its way through a flight corridor.
When asked last month if there was evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence visiting Earth, President Trump quipped: "I think our great pilots would know. And some of them see things a little bit different from the past. We're watching, and you'll be the first to know".
Now, the Pentagon has issued new guidelines essentially encouraging its pilots to make UFO sighting reports.
PLACE OF MANY NAMES
Area 51. Dreamland. Watertown. The Nevada Training Range. Paradise Ranch. Whatever you call it, it didn't exist … at least not officially, until 2013.
That's when the US Government released documents under a freedom-of-information inquiry into the Cold War's U-2 spy plane program. The declassified documents mentioned Area 51, by name, as a top-secret testing facility.
It's a place that gave birth to the U-2, the A-12 and SR-71 "Blackbird" spy planes, as well as successive generations of stealth fighters and bombers. Examples of Soviet warplanes were put through their paces there, to understand their abilities better. And each and every new advanced gizmo and gadget has to be put through its paces in a "real world" setting.
One of those places is Area 51.
Little surprise, then, that the Pentagon has vowed to protect the site from all invaders - foreign or domestic.
The remote desert airstrip and target ground is where "we train American armed forces", US Air Force spokeswoman Laura McAndrews said when addressing the "Storm Area 51" movement. "The US Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets."
Do those assets include wrecked alien spacecraft, and perhaps even captive aliens, as enthusiasts so fervently believe?
Californian Matty Roberts has admitted to putting up the Facebook page as a joke. But things quickly spiralled out of control. And it's not like he ever actually attempted to be serious about the proposal to "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us".
"If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Let's see them aliens!" his site declares. Naruto run is a famous - unrealistic - clip scene in an anime show.
Speaking to KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, Roberts said the popularity of his site "just completely took off out of nowhere … it was pretty wild".
The idea, he said, came after listening to a podcast interview of purported Area 51 "whistleblower" Bob Lazar. Lazar claims he examined exotic metals when working at the facility.
"I just thought it would be a funny idea for the meme page," Roberts told NPR.
But Roberts had no idea just how primed his audience was for such an otherwise innocuous wisecrack.
Public trust in the US government is at an all-time low, with just 17 per cent saying they trust their Washington leadership "all or most of the time". Tales of ancient aliens, government conspiracies and extraterrestrial interventions have been flooding mass and social media for decades.
The number of annual UFO reports peaked in 2014 at more than 8000. But, by 2018, that number had toppled to about 3000. What has changed, recently, has been the high profile of those addressing the issue.
FUELLING THE FIRE
Rocket plumes. Strings of military flares. Even the planet Venus on a misty night. All are regularly grabbed as "evidence" of aliens by social media channels - particularly YouTube - hungry for fresh viral content to feed credulous audiences.
It's nothing new.
Particularly if the footage or photos are somewhat … blurry.
The first outbreak of "UFO fever" happened in 1947 after fragments of a strange silvery metal were found in a field near Roswell, New Mexico. The tale ignited growing Cold War fears and released a fascination with advanced technology primed by World War II. Naturally, a nearby army air base's admission that the original reports referred to a downed balloon and its radar-reflecting payload was lost among the hype.
And that hype has been growing ever since.
It has now extended to the highest echelons of the US government.
In June, the US Defense Department was called to brief Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner and two other senators. At issue was the reports of US Navy fighter pilots sighting unusual aircraft.
Naturally, any committee member responsible for national defence would take an interest in reports of a high-flying aircraft apparently moving at hypersonic speeds, with no heat signature.
Degrees of scepticism vary. But, suddenly, more officials seem willing to comment.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Christopher Mellon said: "We know that UFOs exist. This is no longer an issue … The issue is, why are they here? Where are they coming from, and what is the technology behind these devices that we are observing?"
But President Trump is less sure.
"I did have one very brief meeting on it," he recently admitted to the US ABC network. "But people are saying they're seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particularly."
It wasn't long after the Roswell incident that Area 51 entered the public consciousness.
Conspiracy theories about the Nevada testing ground have been growing ever since the first outbreak of "UFOs" were "sighted" there in the 1950s.
Such ideas are easy to cook up: The facility, after all, was beyond top secret.
It is distant and hard to access - by design.
It is a restricted area - by necessity.
It houses secrets of immense national security - so they're secret.
Naturally, the Pentagon would neither confirm nor deny any speculation pertaining to Area 51- no matter how outlandish, or real.
It would be decades before the link between strange sights above the remote salt pan and the testing of an ultra-secret new spy plane intended to fly high over the USSR - the U-2.
But, by then, the conspiracy theories had taken on a life of their own. Dozens of books have been published, each attempting to out-do its predecessors.
And every strange event or outlandish idea eventually finds itself associated with this most mysterious of government facilities.
It's an idea embraced by common culture, with movies like Independence Day, Dreamland, Area 51, Paul, Zero Dark Thirty, Even Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
So, are aliens really visiting Earth?
"Almost certainly no," says Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan Iain Boyd. "Humans' misinterpretation of observations of natural phenomena are as old as time and include examples such as manatees being seen as mermaids and driftwood in a Scottish loch being interpreted as a monster.
"In these types of cases, incorrect interpretations occur because people have incomplete information or misunderstand what they're seeing."
Scratch the surface, and most UFO stories tend to fall to pieces. Even the most well documented, with audio and video recordings, remain - at best - unresolved.
The famous US Navy "What the f--k is that thing?" infra-red videos are not what they seem.
They were promoted by the To The Stars Academy, a UFO study program founded by rock musician and UFOlogist Tom DeLonge. The footage had not been released by the Pentagon, as claimed. And two prominent articles on the incident published by the New York Times were co-written by longstanding UFO speculator and author Leslie Kean.
Little surprise, then, that the pilot of the F-18 Super Hornet at the centre of the video "evidence" dismisses interpretations of the grainy footage and accounts of that day's events as simply untrue.
Other incidents, such as the reported sighting of a strange aircraft by commercial airline pilots over Oregon, are harder to explain - except that their flight path took them relatively close to Area 51 … and strange things fly there.
So why has the US Navy recently made it easier - and less demeaning - for its pilots to report UFO sightings?
It's all related to the installation of powerful new radars and computers aboard US aircraft carriers and fighter jets. They are picking up objects they never "saw" before - be they birds, balloons, or even ice-crystal clouds.
"Based on my prior experience as a science advisor to the Air Force, I believe that the Pentagon wants to avoid this type of confusion, so it needs to better understand flying objects that it can't now identify," Professor Boyd says. "UFOs represent an opportunity for the military to improve its identification processes."
Technicians have been racing to find ways to filter out such "noise" so the tiny signature of a nearby stealth jet stands out.
"During a military mission, whether in peace or in war, if a pilot or soldier can't identify an object, they have a serious problem," Professor Boyd says. "Fortunately, the military can use advanced technologies to try to identify strange things in the sky."
Meanwhile, those same advanced technologies are likely to continue to produce "spoof" signals.
"Until humans understand UFOs better, we won't be able to teach computers about them," he says. But ongoing research "may eventually lead to a comprehensive, fully integrated approach for object identification involving the fusion of data from many sensors through the application of artificial intelligence and autonomy.
"Only then will there be fewer and fewer UFOs in the sky - because they won't be unidentified anymore."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel