T.D. Barnes, CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51. Danbury, CT: Begell House, 2021. Photographs. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 590 pp. HBK.
Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins
Area 51 has long been a source of fascination, intrigue, and conspiracy theories. It has also inspired popular culture from television and film to 2019’s widely publicised (but barely attended) Facebook-based attempt to ‘storm the site. However, those familiar with the military aviation world have long known that Area 51 is little more than a US Air Force (USAF) (formerly Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) facility where experimental aircraft are tested. This includes everything from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117 stealth fighter. T.D. Barnes, who worked with the CIA during its formative years at Area 51, attempts to set the record straight with this new book covering the CIA’s activities in the Nevada desert during the early and mid-Cold War. The result is a profoundly informative work that reveals new stories and will please enthusiasts. Still, the size of the book and its challenging organisation might be overwhelming for casual readers.
From the early origins of Station D, which only much later became known as Area 51, Barnes traces the major CIA aviation programs based there. These include the U-2, the A-12 (and associated Blackbird ‘family’ aircraft of the YF-12, SR-71, and M-21), and the MiG exploitation programs that evaluated and flew captured Soviet aircraft. Some side projects associated with these significant programs are explored as well, most notably Project PALLADIUM, which provided valuable intelligence on Soviet radar capabilities. The details of these programs will already be known to many readers. For example, the Blackbird family programs are well documented by works such as Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (revised edition, 2016) or Richard Graham’s The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird (2015). However, Barnes’ work reveals fascinating new details about even these well-covered topics. Barnes presents both familiar and new stories from the perspective of the CIA rather than from the USAF or industry contractors. The Palladium program is particularly interesting, involving complicated, world-ranging plots to send fake signals in the direction of the Soviet Union to see what their radars could detect. Barnes does a good job of tracing the story from field teams collecting information to how information was analysed and used in technological and strategic decision-making at the highest levels.
This fresh perspective is also wide-ranging. At times, Barnes zooms out to discuss broad historical topics and focuses on minute details of a particular program. As a result, readers will find a wealth of immense detail, as well as many photographs, some of which have not been published before (although some of the photos are of low resolution and appear pixelated on the page). Although technology is often at the centre of these stories, Barnes also sheds interesting light on the institutional histories; seeing the organisational evolution and institutional rivalries from the CIA’s perspective is an interesting and welcome lens on this material. For example, Barnes traces the various tensions between the CIA and the USAF, from high command to individual personnel.
The individual level is where the book really shines. Barnes gives a true, ‘on the ground’ account of many of these programs, not only showing how the CIA’s efforts affected the Cold War, but depicting what it felt like to live there, to work there, and the realities of day-to-day life inside a top-secret facility working on advanced, world-changing programs. The Blackbirds may have been top-of-the-line, sleek, space-age aircraft. Still, Barnes contrasts that with stories about the trouble getting clearances and badges, the type of housing available on the station, the type of bars that employees frequented, and the games with which personnel and pilots amused themselves. Whether he is telling a detailed technological history or something personal, the focus is on the details of these stories – there is no large historical analysis, nor a broad historical argument made in this book.
As interesting as the material is, some readers have a few barriers to entry. The first is the whopping price tag of US$149. Although this cost might be too high for some readers, it is worth noting the amount of material one gets for the price. The book is heavy and massive, almost unwieldy. It contains nearly 600 oversized, double-columned pages, each of which is almost twice the dimensions of a typical print book. In terms of word count, this is probably about three typical books’ worth of material, which might help to justify the cost for some readers.Historians looking for a thesis will not find one, as the work does not seek to make a historical argument. Instead, it is focused on detailed accounts of individual stories. Furthermore, although the book is packed with detail, the immense amount of material might be difficult for some readers to navigate. In addition, it is written in a meandering style, which is sometimes charming, but at other times leads to repetition. In some cases, stories are told and retold, sometimes more than once. Usually, the retellings of stories contain slightly different emphases, but periodically sentences are repeated verbatim, and in some cases, photographs are reused. There are no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. Except for a few instances where a document is referenced directly in the text, readers may have trouble finding sources for information or quotes.
In conclusion, enthusiasts of the U-2, A-12/SR-71, and captured MiG programs will likely find much to like about this book, including newly discovered details and fresh images from a new perspective. Although it is a bit less accessible to casual readers, researchers will find plenty to pore over here.
Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header image: A Lockheed M-21 carrying Lockheed D-21 drone in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)