Why Are Planes Vanishing Over Area 51? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
We know the theory that Area 51 is America's top secret alien research base... and that there are UFOs and alien technologies there that could change the world forever. But there are some things about Area 51 that aren't so well known... like how it has also been the site of countless (sometimes fatal) plane crashes! From Lieutenant David Steeves to the world record aviator Steve Fossett, in this video Unveiled discovers the chilling mysteries of the Nevada Triangle...

Why Are Planes Vanishing Over Area 51?

Stretching between Las Vegas, Reno and Fresno is one of the most mysterious regions in the American southwest. Over the last few decades, an estimated two thousand planes have disappeared over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, many with strange stories attached. But why do these particular mountains seem to spell doom for pilots?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; why are planes vanishing over Area 51?

The terrain of the Sierra Nevada is so rugged and hostile that, while there’s evidence of indigenous settlements there dating back thousands of years, it wasn’t until 1912 that it was fully explored. This was true even at the height of the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and ‘50s, when gold was found in the range’s foothills; it still took decades for people to brave the treacherous mountains, even with the promise of buried treasure. And today, even though we have now mapped them, they’re not necessarily any less dangerous.

The so-called Nevada Triangle is a large region of the southwest that covers much of the mountain range, but it also includes other famously dangerous or mysterious places like Death Valley (which holds the world record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded at 134 degrees Fahrenheit) and the alien theorist hotspot, Area 51. With all this in mind, it perhaps comes as no surprise that the Nevada Triangle has a history plagued by unexplained airplane disappearances, much like its more famous cousin, the Bermuda Triangle.

If Flight 19 is one of the Bermuda Triangle’s most famous incidents – where five planes vanished without a trace in 1945 – then the Nevada Triangle’s equivalent is the disappearance of two bombers in 1943. After the first B-24, carrying six men, disappeared off the map, nine more planes were sent out to find it. And it was during this search that the second bomber, with seven airmen on board, also vanished. The search efforts at the time were eventually called off, and no trace of the planes was found until 1955, some twelve years after the event - when the nearby Huntington Lake Reservoir was drained for dam repairs, revealing the perfectly preserved remains of the second bomber, along with the unaccounted for airmen who were still in the plane at the bottom of the lake. As was known when the plane first went missing, two had parachuted out and survived… but it still took more than a decade for the wreckage to be found. As for the first bomber, it was also eventually discovered, this time after seventeen years, in 1960. It was also found near a lake in the mountains which was then renamed Hester Lake in honour of Robert Hester, the co-pilot on the doomed flight. Hester’s father had never stopped looking for him… but tragically he died in 1959, just a year before his son’s plane was finally recovered.

The seeming curse around the Nevada Triangle isn’t only old news, though. Much more recently, the record-setting and world-famous aviator Steve Fossett also met an untimely end within it. A talented celebrity pilot, Fossett took off in his Super Decathlon plane on September 3rd, 2007 for a short, routine flight… but he never returned. Within hours an enormous search effort was launched; fifty thousand people contributed to searching twenty thousand square miles of the unforgiving mountains, but it was all to no avail. It wasn’t until more than a year later that Fossett’s ID was found in the wilderness by a hiker, and another month after that until the pilot’s remains were uncovered nearby. It was deemed that Fossett had been involved in a major accident, so deadly that he died on impact… but the mystery remains as to why he – a veteran adventurer who had completed various incredible, world record travel feats – fatally crashed into a mountain on a short, seemingly ordinary flight.

While there’s no shortage of deaths and disappearances in this part of the world, though, has anyone ever survived an encounter with the notorious Nevada Triangle? One such man was Lieutenant David Steeves, a United States Air Force pilot whose T-33 training jet crashed in the mountains in 1957, during a flight from California to Alabama. The Air Force’s search attempts were, once again, in vain, and when no trace of Steeves was discovered he was officially declared dead. That was until more than fifty days later, however, when he showed up grizzled but alive at a remote camp in the Kings Canyon National Park. For fifteen of those days, Steeves had had no food and had crawled more than 20 miles nursing an ankle injury. He had dragged his parachute with him for warmth and finally came upon some provisions at an isolated cabin. But his incredible story doesn’t stop there; when Steeves was finally rescued, the celebrations were unfortunately short-lived. He was then accused of handing his T-33 jet over to the Soviet Union, owing to the fact that the plane’s wreckage still hadn’t been found. Steeves was discharged from the military and his marriage broke apart amidst the scandal… and his name wasn’t cleared until twenty years later, when his missing plane was finally identified. The only problem was that Steeves had already died – in another airplane crash, no less – in Indiana, more than a decade earlier, in 1965. He didn’t live long enough to see his reputation restored or his incredible story of survival appreciated.

Steeves’ story of at least living to see another day is still a rarity for the Nevada Triangle, however. While it’s much more likely to find and recover a plane here than it is from the Bermuda Triangle’s unforgiving waters, it’s a region of America which still seemingly claims plenty of lives – so, why does this happen? By far, the most mysterious feature of the Triangle is the presence of Area 51 right in the middle of it, the USA’s most famous – and most top-secret – military installation at Groom Lake in rural Nevada. Area 51’s official restricted airspace constitutes a rectangle measuring twenty-three by twenty-five miles; it’s a huge area which planes are forbidden from entering, and security is taken incredibly seriously. So much so that when astronauts accidentally took photos of the site in 1974 – in what’s now known as the “Skylab Incident” – even NASA got in hot water with the CIA.

Unsurprisingly, then, connections between the localised disappearances and the presence of Area 51 have been made down the years. While there’s no evidence that extra-terrestrials are responsible, there are various theories that some kind of alien activity is to blame. Meanwhile, there have also been questions raised about whether the Air Force would really shoot down planes that got too close to their top-secret experiments… Generally speaking, though, it actually takes far more than simply trespassing - flying where you’re not supposed to - for something as severe as that to happen. In 2009, for example, Air Force fighter jets reportedly chased a rogue pilot for four hours until he finally landed, rather than shooting down the plane on sight. Also, even when the civilian pilot Gabriel Zeifman passed specifically over Area 51 in 2020, he wasn’t met with lethal force - and Zeifman even snapped some photos which have since been published online. Add into the equation that plenty of the Air Force’s own planes have also unfortunately crashed in the Nevada Triangle region, and the argument against the military gets even weaker. Suffice it to say, the Air Force isn’t shooting down its own planes or the planes of world-famous pilots, and it gives lots of chances to aircraft that do wander into restricted airspace.

But the Nevada Triangle does still appear to be a statistical anomaly: something is seemingly causing planes to crash, but what? The most popular scientific theory blames what are known as downbursts, violent wind systems which often appear with no warning and frequently have fatal consequences. Downburst windspeeds can and do exceed 100 miles per hour and, crucially, they don’t tend to last long at all… meaning that by the time a plane wreck is found, or even by the time it goes down, the weather that made it crash has long gone. One particularly nasty downburst in Texas in April 2018, for example, even destroyed an entire aircraft hangar, having occurred almost without warning. No matter how skilled a pilot is, such a violent and unpredictable weather event could be the end. For this reason, downbursts are the leading theory on why Steve Fossett’s plane went down in 2007.

Whether the cause is natural or supernatural, the frequent crashes and disappearances in the Nevada Triangle remain as tragic as they are mysterious. But that’s why planes are vanishing over Area 51.