While Area 51 has long been a favorite topic for conspiracy discussions of aliens, the site has a long and storied history in top-secret aviation development pioneered by the CIA, the Air Force, and private industry. The iconic U-2 enabled the US to penetrate the Iron Curtain by flying over the Soviet Union and gave the US an unparalleled advantage in intelligence gathering.
The CIA recently disclosed history of the development of the U-2 at Area 51. The U-2 Development Projects Staff chose the area as a place where they could test the plane safely and secretly. To maintain security, people and cargo came and went by air.
Lockheed developed the prototype for the U-2 at the Skunk Works in Burbank, California. Workers would dissemble and transport the components of the aircraft to Area 51 where they were reassembled.
The chief test pilot for the U-2, Tony LeVier, took the first plane for a high-speed taxi test at Area 51 on August 1, 1955. Much to his shock, he accidentally became airborne after accelerating the U-2 to 70 knots.
LeVier had had difficulty landing the plane, because the dry lakebed at Area 51 lacked markings to judge distance or height. He made contact with the ground, but bounced up again. Fortunately, he was able to land on the second try, and damage to the plane was minor. This test became known as the first unofficial flight of the U-2. The first U-2 official test flight took place a few days later on August 4, and visiting dignitaries were present on August 8.
Thousands of Americans worked in secret at Area 51 and succeeded on a project that critics believed to be impossible, thus contributing immensely to US intelligence efforts.