Next stop: Zone 51 – My New Orleans

There is a lot to see looking up in Las Vegas. There is the Big Apple roller coaster that runs along the top of the casino in New York, New York; the High-Roller, a big wheel is so big and imposing that it seems capable of detaching and rolling to Mexico; the Stratosphere, a tower that towers over the skyline from miles away; helicopter rides to who knows where take off and land throughout the day.

Yet for me the most intriguing aerial site has been seen from above looking down. Welcome to the mystery airport. The city’s McCarran International Airport is located close to the city center. Another facility, known as “Janet”, is separate from the larger airport. (It’s unclear where this name came from, although a joke says it means “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal.” A little more daring, as Wikipedia suggests, “Joint Army Navy & Extra Terrestrial”).

From my room at 35e Floor of the Mandalay Bay / Four Seasons complex, I could look at the small airport and be intrigued that absolutely nothing was happening. There was enough nothingness to make it exciting.

There were a few planes there; nine on the first count; all passenger jets; all painted in solid white with parallel red and blue stripes; none with symbols or scriptures to identify them. Nearby was a terminal; his coat was the same understated shade of white as the planes and was also unidentified.

Word is, the airport is the gateway to mysterious Area 51 located somewhere north of town along a dry lake bed in the Nevada desert. What goes on in Area 51 is perhaps the nation’s biggest secret. Speculation is that it has to do with building and testing very sophisticated spy planes. And it would have extremely long runways, which would be good for planes having to go very high. Inevitably, Area 51 is also linked to the UFO investigation, although this could be mistaken for Roswell, a state in New Mexico. On the other hand, states are close enough to each other to be an alien playground. What seems most likely is that there is spy plane activity linked to Cold War desires to keep tabs on perceived enemies.

Everything that steals in the area, the government wants to keep it secret. Last week I happened to speak to a retired Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Colonel. He was not involved in Area 51 during his career but, like everyone in the Air Force, he has heard plenty of rumors about the Las Vegas fights. One was that the windows were blocked so that none of the passengers could see the destination. Another was that passengers were prohibited from talking to each other about their specific duties. There were also stories about Air Force pilots who accidentally flew over the site were then grounded and kept in isolation for a while. It’s a no-frills place.

During the two mornings I was at the hotel, I expected to see workers loading onto planes. In fact, I didn’t see anyone. During this time, I watched a single plane roll over the taxi area. I couldn’t see if there were any passengers. He took off and headed north. There were no planes on arrival.

One of the planes on the ground was a large B-747, the jet with the hump above the cabin – the type that was also used by presidents like Air Force One. It was not used while I was there. Thinking that the plane could provide an adequate flying command post in an emergency, I guess it was good that it stayed on the ground.

Although there were few parked planes; there were plenty of cars in the parking lot; at least 100, which I assumed belonged to the employees. It suggested to me that those who go to the area stay there for a few days other than nine to five. The Colonel said he heard that most flights leave early in the morning and return in the evening. I guess they’re less noticeable that way.

For those on board, the juxtaposition between Secret Area 51 and flamboyant Las Vegas must be shocking. However, what is said in one place is undoubtedly true in the other. What happens there stays there.


SOMETHING NEW: Listen to Louisiana Insider, a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state: or Apple Podcasts.

BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available in local bookstores and on book websites.