By: TD Barnes
In July 1957 a civilian pilot was detained when he made an emergency landing at the Watertown airstrip. Edward K. Current Jr., a Douglas Aircraft Company employee, had been on a cross country training flight when he became lost, ran low on fuel, and decided to land at Groom Lake. He was held overnight and questioned. Nevada Test Organization (NTO) security officials reported the incident to the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), which administered the air closure over the Test Site. The following day, the NTO Office of Test Information issued a press release to the news media, describing the incident. The statement noted that the "Watertown landing strip is in the Groom lake area at the northeast corner of the Nevada Test Site." In June 1958 an area comprised of 38,400 acres of land surrounding the Watertown base was officially withdrawn from public access under Public Land Order 1662. This rectangular addition to the Nevada Test Site was designated "Area 51." The airspace over Groom Lake became part of a new Restricted Area called R-4808N (replacing the former Prohibited Area P-275), that covered both the Nevada Test Site and Area 51. It prohibited overflights below 60,000 feet. In January 1962 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expanded the restricted airspace above Groom to 22 by 20 nautical miles. The lakebed now lay at the center of a 440-square-mile box at the heart of the Nellis Air Force Range. Eventually, the airspace was restricted continuously, at all altitudes. A flight of three F-105 Thunderchiefs, led by British exchange pilot Anthony "Bugs" Bendell, was on a practice nuclear weapon delivery sortie about 80 miles north of Nellis AFB when one aircraft experienced an oil pressure malfunction. One F-105 returned to Nellis while Bendell led the stricken craft to the airfield at Groom Lake. After making a pass over the field with no response to distress calls, Bendell advised the student pilot to land. At this point, two F-101 Voodoos intercepted Bendell and forced him to land also. As the Air Force Red Flag exercises increased in attendance participating pilots begin to declare emergencies in a guise to obtain permission to land in the restricted airspace "box" at Groom Lake. The emergency landings ceased after one of the pilots was retained for a prolonged period for debriefings and the plane held even longer to send a message to the Air Force that such security breaches would no longer be tolerated.