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

Nov 25 2017 - 2 Comments

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

  • leroy

    Could be pilots were out on a training hop, could be practice for bombing a mountainous North Korea. After all, the U.S. and ROK will be performing a massive air exercise over SK in early December. The drills will include both U.S. stealth fighters – the F-22 and mighty F-35:

    U.S., South Korea to hold joint air force drill in early December

    SEOUL (Reuters) – The air forces of South Korea and the United States are scheduled to hold a regular joint drill next month, deploying six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters in the exercise, a South Korean defense ministry official said on Friday.

    The drill, called Vigilant Ace, will run from Dec. 4 to 8, the official told Reuters. The F-22 stealth fighters will be joined by F-35 aircraft, a U.S. Air Force official said.

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-usa-southkorea/u-s-south-korea-to-hold-joint-air-force-drill-in-early-december-idUSKBN1DN28I

    Stealth on the Peninsula. Leroy approves! Let’s hope it’s a prelude to invasion.

    North Korea should have been attacked the minute they started up their enrichment and other nuclear facilities. We’re late, but fortunately … not too late.

    The DPRK Army will fold. The average worm-infested NK soldier wants nothing to do with this regime. You think they’re stupid and brainwashed. As the recent defection of a NK soldier showed – they’re not! They know how life is in SK and China, and they want it. Who can blame them? This cancer on the body of humanity must be removed at all cost. Come hell or high water, it will be.

    Oh. And China just closed off the main bridge to NK – the “China-North Korea Friendship Bridge” which crosses the Yalu River at Dandong. That means few Chinese goods will get shipped in. Kim is slowly getting strangled. When we fight, expect Xi and the PLA to be with us. Beijing is as sick of this fat sicko as we are.

  • leroy

    They really need to remove those unit patches before they go flying where the public can ID them. It just serves to degrade OPSEC awareness. Yes, and OPSEC itself.