Air Force releases photo of F-22 stealth fighter with Area 51 base in the background

Tanker rides are among the opportunity provided to media representatives during Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base.

Every now and then, reporters and photographers are allowed to board U.S. Air Force KC-135 refuelers supporting the Blue or the Red forces.

However, media embarks can be cancelled if the tanker is scheduled to operate inside areas from where sensitive spots could be seen and photographed. For instance, some days ago, photographers initially cleared to take part to a tanker mission were not allowed to board the KC-135 because the tanker was heading towards one of those areas.

Considered the proximity of Nellis Air Force Base to the legendary Area 51, I was almost sure that most (if not all) photo restrictions in place within the Nevada ranges were aimed to prevent someone from taking pictures of the famous, spooky airfield located on the southern shore of Groom Lake.

Until I saw the following image (click to enlarge).

Red Flag 13-3 F-22 Tanker

Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo (highlight mine).

It shows an F-22 Raptor from the 1st Fighter Wing/27th Fighter Squadron out of Langley Air Force Base, Va., as seen from a KC-135 Stratotanker during a Red Flag 13-3 sortie on Mar. 5, 2013.

Just above the stealth fighter you can clearly see the salt flat used for runways of the Nellis Bombing Range Test Site airport (KXTA) on the north of the Area 51 USAF military installation.

Let’s make it clear: the above photograph does not add much to all the high-resolution images already available, including some stunning satellite imagery. There’s no sign of stealth planes or extraterrestrial vehicle.

Still, I can’t remember any recent image of a modern U.S. combat plane taken in the vicinity of Area 51 and considered all the photo restrictions in place on Red Flag’s tanker flights, I consider this picture extremely interesting.

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About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Something that makes this photo interesting to me (and maybe it’s just me): but any particular reason why the nose just in front of the cockpit seems to be digitally altered? When you enlarge the shot to right there, there is pixellation at that spot. But you can also notice a discoloration of the paint job around the nose in general. That and the fact that the angle of the nose blend into the cockpit glass just seems wrong as well.
    Again, maybe it’s just me.

    • I’m seeing the same thing. When you zoom in, the nose radome has a strange notch on top and the upper surface appears to be stair-stepped while the lower radome surface doesn’t. Maybe there’s an antenna or something that they don’t want people to see.

        • Yes, I concur. It’s rather weird.

          They don’t want some planes (including FF F-22s) to be photographed from short distance (read here: then they publish a hi-rez photo of a possibly modified plane with Groom Lake in the background….

          Unless it is an error and someone posted online something it wasn’t meant to be published, or I don’t believe the image was doctored to hide something.

    • Although it sure may look like it, it’s just how the F-22 raptor was designed. Being around them at some points, I’ve actually found the design to look digitally altered as well, even in person; which is strange to see in the air.

      This picture helps show it, not mine, but it does a pretty good job.

    • Check out the smearing of the background at the very rear of the
      cockpit, or the haloing around the tail. Looks to me like a cut and
      paste, in which case that blurring is probably an attempt to fix a background bleed onto the nose from a bright sky.

    • The whole photo displays digital artifacts (or ‘jaggies’ as we used to call them at work) when zoomed in, not just the aircraft itself. Just look at the landscape. I think it’s a function of the original photo’s resolution (shot with a digital camera I’m assuming) and the file size David’s reduced it to to integrate with whatever website builder David is using. Not to mention the screen rez used by folks viewing the site. Doesn’t seem much of a mystery, in my opinion.

  2. Just curious, when was this photo released. When I look for it at USAF’s official website, I find nothing.

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