UFO sightings at Area 51: Government flying saucer test?

UFO sightings were reported near Area 51, the cold war-era test site in Nevada that was publicly acknowledged for the first time recently. Could they be related to a US flying saucer project?

Laura Rauch/AP
A car moves along the Extraterrestrial Highway near Rachel, Nevada, April 10, 2002. The CIA acknowledged the existence of Area 51, the cold war-era test site in Nevada near Groom Lake, in newly declassified documents.

Did the US government test a flying saucer at double-super-secret Area 51?

We ask that question because the US military did work on building its own flying saucer in the 1950s, and a recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency report for the first time publicly acknowledged Area 51, the cold war-era test site in Nevada near Groom Lake.

Putting two and two together, we figured maybe the flying saucer project and the test site could be related. That could explain some of the old reports of UFO sightings in the area – reports that have helped make Area 51 a place of great interest for those who believe in aliens, UFOs from outer space, and the existence of Bigfoot.

If you’ve never heard of the US saucer effort, it was code-named Project 1794. The Air Force paid for it, hoping to end up with an incredibly maneuverable, versatile circular flying machine that could travel at Mach 3 or above.

While its existence has long been public, the National Archives recently posted a once-secret final summary of Project 1794 online. This did not get as much attention as did the Area 51 stuff, but in some ways it’s just as interesting.

The saucer development was carried out by Avro Aircraft Ltd., a Canadian firm. The firm attempted to design a flat, circular vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that could fly as high as 100,000 feet at great speed.

Propulsion was to be provided by six Siddeley Viper jet engines whirling a giant horizontal fan within the vehicle. Air from this fan was to have been directed to a circular ring along the bottom edge, lifting the thing off the ground and so forth.

Initial work involved design, production of scale models, and initial wind-tunnel tests. The airflow through the saucer turned out to be enormously complex. But at the end of this initial phase, Avro was optimistic.

“The aircraft can be satisfactorily controlled and maneuvered from engine idling to maximum thrust at supersonic speed through a satisfactory supersonic flight envelope,” the just-released report concluded.

The Air Force wasn’t so sure. Officials declined to pay a further $3 million for continued development of a big saucer. However, the Air Force and Army helped fund construction of a smaller prototype, the Avrocar. Eighteen feet across, powered by three turbojets, the Avrocar went through extensive testing from 1959 through 1961.

However, this testing appears to have occurred exclusively in Canada. The Avrocar did reach forward speeds of about 115 miles per hour, but never got more than a few feet off the ground, despite test-pilot attempts to blast it higher.

NASA did bring the Avrocar to the United States for further wind-tunnel tests. This indicated that the saucer might be unstable at high speeds. The US military finally cut off funds in 1961.

So alas, it looks like neither Project 1794 nor the Avrocar ever flew at Area 51. The index of the newly declassified CIA report acknowledging its existence contains no reference to “Avro,” “Avocar,” “flying saucer,” or “1794." (“Aliens” isn’t in there, either. Just in case you were going to ask.)

The CIA report instead deals mostly with the design and production of the U-2 spy plane, an aircraft which in its own way was as technically astounding as any flying saucer would have been.

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