FileMaker at Area 51
by Brian Dunning
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of you who have endured this column over the years have perhaps
noticed my predilection for traveling to interesting places and
taking notes in FileMaker Mobile. If so, you've also noticed that
this has rarely served a useful purpose, other than to instruct
and entertain those who are very easily entertained.
For a while I've had a video on my web site about a trip to
Area 51 that I took with my brother Todd and my friend John
who are both pilots and have creative ways of finagling free flight
time. But until this moment, I've never revealed the dark secret
about the role FileMaker Mobile played in that adventure. The
dark secret is that I used FileMaker Mobile on that adventure.
I used it to log GPS waypoints of interesting spots along the
journey, taking some field notes at each. And now, you too can
retrace our steps by downloading the database from my web site
There are little thumbnail pictures, notes, and coordinates for
a dozen or so intriguing waypoints.
Finding information on how to get to Area 51 is not difficult,
since there are about a thousand web sites devoted to it. Area
51 is the unofficial pop-culture name for one of the airfields
inside Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, north of Las Vegas. It's
rumored that the government keeps alien visitors there, and routinely
flies captured alien spacecraft, in their ongoing quest to deceive
the public and undermine society. It's also known to have been
an operating base for the A-12/SR-71 spy planes, and reasonably
presumed to be a current base for whatever type of aircraft replaced
those when they were retired. Our optimism to meet and greet aliens
was guarded, but we were hopeful of seeing some interesting contrails
So our first step was to fly to North Las Vegas airport, which
is closer to Nellis and a lot more convenient for a private plane
than the bigger international airport in town. It's interesting
to note that North Las Vegas has perhaps the friendliest and most
helpful air traffic controllers for private planes anywhere in
the country. Friendly and helpful air traffic controllers are
often a surprise, but they shouldn't be in a town that makes so
much money welcoming visitors. Once on the ground, we rented a
Jeep and headed north. Since I didn't get to fly the plane, I
got to drive the Jeep. Todd and John were duly impressed.
One of the first places you get to, and one of the first waypoint
records in the FileMaker database, is what is variously known
as "The Black Mailbox" or "The White Mailbox,"
right on the side of the main highway at the turnoff for Groom
Lake Road. It's actually white, but the name Black Mailbox persists,
perhaps as a way to add mystique, since enthusiasts consider this
to be where the aliens receive their mail. The mailbox could use
the mystique. There's a large ranch between the mailbox and Area
51, and the rancher has clearly stenciled "THIS IS FOR THE
RANCH, NOT AREA 51" all over his suffering mailbox, but it
does little good. The mailbox is thickly coated in graffiti and
stickers, and when we were there at ten o'clock at night, there
were a half dozen cars parked and crowds standing around.
An uneventful drive down a long, well-maintained unpaved road
brings you to the boundary of Nellis Air Force Base. Here are
all the signs you see on Discovery Channel documentaries about
threats to use deadly force and warnings against taking photographs.
You'll find duplicates of these signs at every military base in
the country. There is no fence or gate, but there is a large turnout
where there is always an alien watcher or two camped out. You're
still quite a few miles from Groom Lake and the road twists through
low hills, so you can't begin to see anything from where we had
to stop. We'd heard the stories about "thugs" and "cammo
dudes" who won't speak to you but try and intimidate you
with their presence and chase away the curious. I hoped we'd get
chased away, and I wasn't disappointed. We hadn't been there five
minutes when a white Jeep Cherokee up on the hillside started
flashing us with a big light. I was for flashing him back, but
my companions outvoted me, and we grudgingly drove away. As long
as you remain outside the boundary and don't take pictures, you're
not doing anything wrong, and I was curious to see if they'd ever
actually come down and talk to us.
So much for the Jeep portion of the trip. The next morning we
rose early and headed back for our plane, because the most interesting
part of the trip was ahead: aerial surveillance of Area 51.
Fortunately our trip was a few months prior to September 11.
You probably wouldn't be able to fly the same route today, at
least not without quickly drawing some wingmen flying much more
expensive and durable hardware than you. Since September 11, private
pilots all carry little cheat sheets reminding them what all the
wing-wagging signals mean and how to reply when the F-16 signals
you to land.
The first thing you learn flying over Nellis is that Area 51
is by no means unique. There are airstrips all over the place,
many with their own hangars and complexes. People talk a lot about
how Area 51 is "uncharted" and "not on the map,"
but this is convention: none of the airstrips inside air force
bases are on the map. We saw at least a dozen inside Nellis, and
all are equally uncharted. Area 51 is the biggest one we saw,
although we stayed put on the perimeter and couldn't see very
far inside due to all the mountains. Area 51 is right there on
the border of Nellis AFB, so it's pretty easy to see. It's certainly
not the most secluded site available for secret alien experiments.
Nevertheless they seem to guard it pretty jealously. They have
this really huge radar array on top of the biggest peak around,
and any time you walk within fifty miles of the place, there are
little red laser dots on your forehead. The pre-September 11 perimeter
of the Nellis Military Operating Area (the boundary you want to
stay on the good side of) is a zig-zagging stair step pattern,
and to get the best views, we cut in as sharply as we could while
keeping a fair buffer zone between ourselves and that big scary
red line on the GPS screen. It may have amused us, but it didn't
amuse the guys in Area 51's air traffic control tower. One of
them who was in a salty mood came on the radio and said:
"Sierra Papa, what is your destination?"
We refrained from stating what he already knew, that we were
just liquoring around up there trying to peer inside and see aliens,
and instead told him we were on our way to Tonopah, a tiny fuel
depot in the middle of the Nevada desert.
"Would you like a direct vector to Tonopah?"
So we increased the buffer zone a bit. It was like Han Solo
telling Chewbacca to "Keep your distance, but don't look
like you're keeping your distance." Well, it was kind of
like that, except that we were only in a cheesy plane and not
a spaceship, and were all dorks and not as cool as Han Solo, but
otherwise it was just like that.
Eventually we did make it to Tonopah, where we refueled for
the trip home, and marveled at the experience of having been chased
away from the people who guard the aliens both on land and in
the air. I've always felt that if you're not able to accomplish
anything noteworthy with your own life, the next best thing is
to get chased away by people who have at least made the Discovery
Channel. And if you can document the episode in FileMaker Mobile,
you've created an enduring record that just might outlive you,
and give your grandchildren something to be proud of. All of this
stuff, and some other cool things not mentioned here, appear in
the FileMaker database. Download it and check it out.