LAS VEGAS -- A once-secret air base in the Nevada desert is marking an unofficial anniversary Tuesday.
Area 51 was one of the most secretive places on the planet, known primarily to the top secret employees who worked there or by those few who lived in the vicinity. But that anonymity vanished forever because of what happened 25 years ago when a controversial electronics whiz told a fantastic tale during a television interview. That interview with I-Team reporter George Knapp became an international sensation.
Knapp had been preparing for the 5 p.m. news on May 13, 1989 when the scheduled interview canceled. Knapp placed a call to aviator John Lear to see if someone else could fill the spot. Lear had hinted to Knapp he knew someone who worked out near Area 51, and the guy claimed to have been tinkering with flying saucers from another planet.
That first interview with Bob Lazar sounded outrageous and it ended up exposing details about the government’s secret base called Area 51. Lazar was initially reluctant to talk, but he did.
“Sometimes I really do regret it, and I almost feel like apologizing to them, saying, I'm sorry. Can I have my job back?” Lazar said.
Twenty five years after he was forever transformed into "Bob the UFO guy," Lazar says he regrets ever talking about flying saucers or a secret base in the Nevada desert or any of the things that made his name known all over the world.
“There isn't a day that I don't get emails and I try to get this across to them. I don't even want to talk about this anymore,” he said.
People will tell him they don’t believe his story, but Lazar doesn't’t care.
“Great. Pass it around; you know I really don't want you to because it makes life difficult for me.”
A quarter century ago, not many people outside of Nevada had ever heard of Area 51, the mysterious base 100 miles north of Las Vegas, a place the government said didn't exist. It was the location of choice for all manner of black projects, spy planes that were kept secret from the public.
Former CIA pilot John Lear remembers the day that Area 51 became a household name. He shot home video of an interview where a nervous Lazar talked with Knapp about Area 51.
“Yeah, he's nervous because he was putting it all on the line there. He's going to reveal secrets he'd signed on he would never tell anybody,” Lear said.
In the interview, Lazar's face was hidden and he used a pseudonym, Dennis, which was the first name of his boss out in the desert. He claimed he worked intermittently at a location called S-4 south of Groom Lake, the main facility of Area 51. He said the hangars had been built into the side of a mountain, disguised as desert, and inside were nine flying saucers.
Months later, he revealed his identity to the world and said the technology he had worked on was from somewhere else and it was being taken apart to figure out how it worked.
The information exploded like a bomb, and in the quarter century since then, the world has beaten a path to Area 51's door. Every major news organization in the world has written stories. The base has inspired documentaries, television dramas and has made it into several blockbuster movies. Dozens of books have been written, fiction and non-fiction, hundreds of news articles, many of them critical of Lazar and skeptical about his background, have been printed. His tale launched 1,000 product lines with every trinket you can imagine, along with assorted businesses such as a Triple A baseball team and the world's only Extraterrestrial Highway running right past the entrance to Groom Lake.
President Obama recently made a point of publicly acknowledging the Area 51 base and former President Bill Clinton told Jimmy Kimmel he had looked into the stories about space aliens. Even the Kardashians have made the trek out to the desert.
“Look how that story moved through the Internet so quickly, not just the Internet but the news itself. Within 48 hours, it was broadcast in Japan,” Lazar said.
Back in Las Vegas for a visit, Lazar recalls why he came forward in the first place. He had traveled to the S-4 base only a handful of times but began to get scared.
“I began to get really worried in that, they had given me all this classified information, they are not calling me anymore. They won’t take my phone calls. In the meantime, they are deciding what to do with me,” Lazar said.
For a variety of personal reasons, Lazar couldn't keep the story to himself. He shared his tale with John Lear and Gene Huff. They, and a few others, made treks out to the outskirts of S-4 because Lazar said he had learned when test flights of the saucer would take place. Three weeks in a row, a glowing object appeared over the mountains.
“The time when Bob said there would be a test, there was a strange light jumping around in the sky above the location where he said it would be at the time and date he said it would be,” Huff said.
“The craft took off when I said. It was taking off from past the mountain range, which was Papoose Lake, S-4, south of Area 51, a restricted area so it’s not like anyone was out there with a model airplane or anything and it flew around with incredible maneuvers that impressed everybody to the point where we got scared and got behind a car fearing it was going to explode. But really, how do you explain that?” Lazar said.
He has more than his share of critics, including the poobahs of the UFO community who think he made it up. And there are holes in Lazar’s background that have yet to be filled, but -- to date -- no one has yet been able to explain how he knew those test flights would take place three weeks in a row.
NOTE: The Area 51 exhibit at the Atomic Testing Museum is having a grand re-opening on Saturday, May 17. It is located at 755 E. Flamingo Rd. The phone number is (702)794-5151 and it is open on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
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