Area 51-based F-16D Performs Rare Pass Through The Star Wars Canyons Hours After F-117 Is Spotted Chased By Two Seater F-16

This was probably the very same F-16 flying alongside an F-117 on Nov. 14, 2017.

On Nov. 14 (the day after an F-117 was photographed on a trailer south of Creech AFB) at 09.20AM LT, another F-117 was spotted flying north of Rachel,  Nevada.

The Stealth Jet was not flying alone (or close to another F-117, as happened, for instance, in 2016) but it was chased by a two-seater F-16. Noteworthy, few hours later on the very same day (Nov. 14), at about 1:15PM – 1:45PM, photographer David Atkinson took some shots of an F-16D performing two passes through the famous Star Wars Canyon.

At a close look the photographs of the two-seater F-16D Block 30, serial number 86-0052, show two interesting details. First of all the aircraft was carrying Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAS-42, an IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) pod carried by various aircraft (including the Aggressors’ Vipers out of Nellis Air Force Base).

The AN/AAS-42 on an Aggressors F-16 about to land in Nellis in 2013.

Second, and probably even more interesting, the both pilots of the F-16D seem to wear a Red Hats patch! The Red Hats was the nickname of a group of pilots and engineers of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron (4477 TES), a USAF squadron whose nickname was “Red Eagles” equipped with MiG-17s, MiG-21s and MiG-23s and created to expose the tactical air forces to the flight characteristics of fighter aircraft used by Soviet Union during the Cold War under project Constant Peg. Today the Red Hats have become an unnumbered unit within the Detachment 3, AFTC test wing. The unit, operating from Groom Lake, operates a variety of Russian-developed aircraft, including the MiG-29 and the Su-27P, one of which was observed dogfighting with an F-16 inside Area 51 back in 2016.

The F-16D serial number 86-0052 during the second pass. Note the AN/AAS-42 pod. (David Atkinson)

Take a look at the patch worn by the aircrew in the following image (H/T Rick Ingham). The backseater has a Red Hats patch, whereas the one in the front seat probably sports a 53rd TEG Det 3 patch, the patch of the unit believed to have taken over much of the 4477th “Red Eagles” activities. 

Red Hats and Red Eagles patches in this close up view (H/T Rick Ingham)

So, few hours after an F-117 was spotted flying near Rachel with a two seater F-16, this aircraft most probably based at Groom Lake in Area 51 flew through the Jedi Transition. Just a coincidence? Maybe.

However, considered the fact that this particular F-16 also carried an IRST pod seems to suggest the venerable F-117s are still being used for some kind of anti-stealth technology. This system, also carried by F-15E Strike Eagles, and equipping some other non-US combat planes as the Eurofighter Typhoon, lets the platform passively look for the emissions of the enemy fighter. F-22s and other stealth planes have a little radar cross section – RCS – but they do have an IR signature. This means that they can be vulnerable to small, fast non-stealthy planes that leverage low observable coatings, no radio comms, no radar (hence with a limited RCS and with almost zero electromagnetic emissions) and use their IRST sensors, hi-speed computers and interferometry, to geo-locate enemy radar evading aircraft.

In other words, there are certain scenarios in which IRST and other tactics could eliminate the advantage provided by radar invisibility.

As a side note, on Sept. 5, 2017, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz was killed in an a mysterious crash 100 miles Northwest of Nellis AFB in the Nevada Test and Training Range, midway between Tonopah Test Range and Groom Lake.

Speculation about the crash was fueled by Air Force media releases that did not indicate the type of aircraft that was being flown by Lt. Col. Schultz on Tuesday, September 5, 2017 when the accident occurred. There was also a delay in the story reaching news media that raised further questions since the accident was reported after another, unrelated accident involving two A-10s, was reported sooner. But AviationWeek.com correspondent Guy Norris wrote late Monday, September 11, that, “Sources indicate Schultz was the Red Hats squadron commander at the time of his death. The Red Hats became an unnumbered unit within the Detachment 3, AFTC test wing after the 413th flight test squadron (formerly 6513th test squadron) was deactivated in 2004.”

Image credit: David Atkinson

Warbird Digest
About David Cenciotti 3635 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance 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 four books.