The National Geographic Channel documentary "Area 51 Declassified," about the mystery surrounding top-secret military operations conducted at a Nevada testing facility in the 1950s and '60s, leaves one with the feeling they've just watched an episode of "MythBusters."
No, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman are nowhere to be seen in the hourlong film that debuts Sunday, May 22, but it offers such rational explanations for the litany of UFO sightings near the site that even the staunchest conspiracy theorist would find his fervor somewhat blunted.
At the heart of many of the sightings, the film contends, is the testing of the high-altitude aircraft the U.S. military used to spy on the Soviet Union during the Cold War: the U-2 and the OXCART. To avoid detection, these flew at an altitude of about three times that of a conventional airliner. Still, people living near Area 51 would occasionally spot these distant planes, with their silvery aluminum exteriors (which would turn red in the late afternoon sun), conclude they'd seen an alien spaceship and report it to the military.
For its part, the military didn't exactly refute the sightings. It was trying to keep the planes and the entire site a secret, so the explanations given were as evasive as possible. A conspiracy theory cottage industry was born.
On the ground at Area 51, employees such as T.D. Barnes knew of the occasional report but were blissfully unaware of all the UFO chatter and conspiracy theories.
"We didn't hear of that until much, much later, long after we were gone," the now-retired Barnes says, chuckling. "When they did start ... coming out with these wild stories about the aliens and UFOs and stuff, it actually sort of benefited us because if they did happen to see something that they weren't supposed to, no one would really believe they saw it because they hollered wolf too many times. So it took a little bit of pressure off of us ... ."
The film also touches upon nuclear tests conducted at Area 51, the reverse engineering of a captured Soviet MiG and how the families of employees were kept in the dark about activities there.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times