Monthly Archives: November 2017

Are We Seeing B-21 Raider Development and Testing Activity at Area 51?

With New Projects in Development, and New Construction, The Area is Ramping Up.

We’re not sure what is happening inside (and close to) the restricted Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), but after visiting the area earlier this month, we are reasonably certain something significant is taking place right now. The massive area, reported to be 4,531 square miles, is one of the most secure national security sites and is closed to the public.

Earlier this month we drove the remote roads along the perimeter of the NTTR between Las Vegas, Nevada and Beatty, Nevada on the way to and from the Jedi Transition low-level flying area in Death Valley National Park. While this is one of the emptiest, most barren stretches of paved highway in the U.S. in just a few hours we made a number of interesting observations.

Sometime after 3:00 AM across from Creech AFB we saw a military-aged male with a beard in civilian clothes and a medium-sized piece of luggage or large lunch box board an airport-style shuttle bus and drive away on Highway 95 west of Creech. The vehicle drove a significant distance west and north on the highway before we lost sight of it. There is almost nothing out there. On the trip back that night we saw an F-117 fuselage covered by a tarp being transported on a flatbed truck in the dark west-bound on Highway 95. Earlier in the day someone had gotten photos of it by the side of the road.

In less than 24 hours, on one stretch of road at the outskirts of a massive 4,000+ mile testing range, we saw that much activity.

Moreover, the following day, on Nov. 14, an authority on the area referred to only as “G” of lazygranch.com, shot photos of an F-117 flying with a two-seat F-16. The very same day, in the afternoon a similar (or maybe the same with a diffirent configuration) two-seat F-16, carrying the Lockheed Martin’s AN/AAS-42, an IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) pod (theoretically capable to detect stealth aircraft by their IR signature), with sparse markings was photographed flying through the Jedi Transition. The photo was good enough that we could identify a patch worn on the right shoulder of each of the aircraft’s flight suits. The patches suggest the crew are associated with the famous “Red Hats” opposing forces test unit and the 53rd TEG Det 3, the unit thought to have replaced the 4477th “Red Eagles”, another opposing force simulation and testing unit.

Separate and additionally from those sightings near or around Tonopah Test Range, journalist Tyler Rogoway at The War Zone, has been a keen observer of the Nevada Test and Training Range. Rogoway reported on the appearance of several new construction projects at Area 51, notably, a new “U” shaped taxiway, vehicle roadway and most interestingly, a large aircraft hangar.

The new, large finished hangar within the square taxiway. (Photo: Ufo Seekers)

If you compare satellite imagery of Area 51 beginning in 1984 you see a progression of small changes followed by the significant addition of a long, second, parallel runway. Work on the second runway began in 1990 and seemed complete in about 1992. From 1999-2000 several new buildings appeared in satellite photos. In 2001-2002 an intermediate vehicle road connecting taxiways and runways was built. And most recently, in 2013, a major new construction project began at the southwest corner of the area. Soon after, in July 2014, the U.S. Air Force issued a request for proposal for a new, long range, low-observable strike aircraft. The project became the LRS-B. From 2014 to 2016 a large, new hangar was built at the southwestern corner of the facility. The structure appears to be nearly large enough to house an aircraft the size of the current B-1B Lancer bomber.

The latest satellite photos show what appears to be new engine test facilities, and most significantly, the southern taxiways and hangar in new-looking condition. Comparing the satellite photos of the facility going back to 1984, the two most significant, visible expansions are the second runway in 1990 and the new southwest square taxiway and hangar building beginning in 2014.

An analysis of satellite images over time reveal the major construction projects at Area 51/Groom Lake since 1984 including the most recent hangar and taxiways. (Photo: GoogleEarth)

The following video takes you on a “sightseeing tour” of Groom Lake from Tikaboo Peak:

Noted aerospace imaging expert Al Clark told TheAviationist.com, “In the general Groom Lake image our best reference is one of the F-16s parked on the west side of the base. The F-16 length is approximately 50-feet. Building number one, which is almost directly west of the F-16s is approximately 120’x120’. It looks to be an engine test/run-up hangar. The building that is more interesting is approximately 250-feet wide by a length of 275-feet. This is interesting because the B-2 wingspan is only 172-feet, so this is [possibly] designed to house large aircraft, in my opinion possibly the B-21 Raider. To the southwest of that structure it looks like what could be a weapons storage facility. The smaller bunker is approximately 75-feet long by 30-feet wide, and the larger bunker is approximately 75-feet wide and 100-feet long. Those are fairly large weapons bunkers. The general placement of the munitions depot tells me that there is something pretty volatile in it because they are keeping it away from the main base at Groom Lake.”

Is what we are seeing evidence of the LRS-B program development and the B-21 Raider? While there are likely several other major developmental programs underway including a new manned or unmanned reconnaissance and strike platform (the RQ-180 spy drone is one of them), LRS-B and B-21 are the most mature and most talked about in official channels and, as a result, most conclusions point to something related to their development out at Area 51 in the new hangar.

Prior to her departure from the office, former Air Force Secretary Deborah James told media, “Our 5th generation global precision attack platform will give our country a networked sensor shooter capability enabling us to hold targets at risk anywhere in the world in a way that our adversaries have never seen.” Her comments about the LRS-B program and B-21 acknowledge both the capability and necessity of the program, and may suggest the urgency of it as the Air Force maintains its small fleet of B-2 Spirit low-observable long range strike aircraft against a growing demand for its unique capability.

That might mean we are seeing the B-21 Raider development program take shape right under our noses at Area 51. Or this is what they want us to believe.

Poland Launches “Harpia” Programme To Procure A New Multirole Combat Aircraft

Warsaw eyes new combat aircraft to replace the Su-22 and MiG-29 jets.

According to the announcement made by the Armament Inspectorate on Nov. 23, Poland has eventually initiated the procedure to acquire new fighter aircraft for the Polish Air Force.

The new assets would be replacing the fleet of Soviet-era Su-22 Fitters and MiG-29 Fulcrums, still part of the Polish Air Force’s inventory. The Armament Inspectorate of the Polish Ministry of Defence announced that it is willing to carry out a market analysis – this is one of the first stages of the analytical-conceptual phase of procurement with regards to operational requirements.

Two Polish Air Force MiG-29s. The Fulcrum is one of the type that Warsaw will replace within the “Harpia” programme.

The interesting fact is that the requirement has been defined for a “Multi-role Combat Aircraft”, within a programme that has been given the name “Harpia” (harpy eagle), along with “Airborne Electronic Jamming Capabilities.”

It is assumed, as the Polish Media Outlet “Dziennik Zbrojny” points out, that the analytical-conceptual phase with regards to procurement of the multi-role combat aircraft may last until December 2018, nonetheless, as procurement is complicated, steps may be made to extend the aforesaid term.

When it comes to the other operational requirement, concerning the Electronic Warfare, the Armament Inspectorate of the Polish MoD expects the potential bidders to present offers related to EW pods or modules that could be potentially integrated with the fighter aircraft.

Any entity interested in participation in the aforesaid market analysis may submit their requests until Dec. 18, 2017.

Even though the market analysis has been announced, the tight procurement schedule adopted by the Polish MoD leaves little space for extra spending – as currently Poland pursues costly programs such as Orka (new generation submarine) or Wisła (medium range air/missile defense program).

The insider talk suggests that F-16V could be the possible way to go for the Polish MoD. Meanwhile, Eurofighter GmbH also launched quite intense marketing campaign in Poland with regards to Harpia this year – e.g. by sending two Eurofighter aircraft to attend the Radom Air Show static display.

Considering the generational progress and capabilities made available by the type, the Polish could also consider the F-35 Lightning II even though this does not seem to be the path the Polish Air Force intends to take. Nonetheless the procurement is still in its infancy and it is too early to try to guess what the final decision will be.

A U.S. F-35A Lightning II from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, performs for a crowd of nearly 100,000 people at Le Bourget Airport, France, during the Paris Air Show, June 23, 2017. The Paris Air Show offers the U.S. a unique opportunity to showcase their leadership in aerospace technology to an international audience. By participating, the U.S. hopes to promote standardization and interoperability of equipment with their NATO allies and international partners. This year marks the 52nd Paris Air Show and the event features more than 100 aircraft from around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Tech. Sgt. Ryan Crane)

Image Credit: Wojciech Mazurkiewicz

A Serious Look at the History of Inappropriate Contrails Made by Pilots

The Social Media Sensation from Last Week’s Penis Drawn in the Sky Isn’t the First.

The opportunity for puns and social media memes from last week’s giant penis drawn in the sky by Navy pilots over Okanogan Highlands in Washington state was massive. But despite the jokes that spread like wildfire on social media and the opportunity for tongue-in-cheek headlines, the U.S. Navy isn’t laughing.

You likely already know from social media feeds that an EA-18G Growler from Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130) “The Zappers”, of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is responsible for the giant phallic contrail executed with remarkable accuracy, and no small measure of masculine embellishment. But the spread of the now famous photos across Facebook, Instagram and every other contributory media comes at a terrible time for the U.S. Navy and for the military in general.

An EA-18G Growler of Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130), “The Zappers” of NAS Whidbey Island who drew the inappropriate contrail. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Media reports indicate the pilots responsible have been grounded from flight operations pending the outcome of an official investigation.

Last week the U.S. Air Force celebrated its 70th birthday at the Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo at Nellis AFB in Nevada. The theme for the expo was “Breaking Barriers since 1947” and showcased the gender inclusive doctrine of the U.S. Air Force across all of its job fields. For the U.S. Navy to suffer this very public embarrassment is contradictory to the official message of inclusion and non-discrimination the other services, like the U.S. Air Force, have spent millions portraying to the public. In effect, one incident by one flight crew sent a sexist message that reached more people via social media than the massive, official public affairs efforts of the other services including the Air Force that espouse gender inclusion.

Social media spread thousands of memes about the incident to millions of viewers. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist from Social Media Outlets)

But this isn’t the first time inappropriate contrails have created an uproar. In November 2014, the Royal Air Force suffered a similar embarrassment when a photo was widely shared that showed phallic-shaped contrails in the sky over RAF Lossiemouth on the western edge of the town of Lossiemouth in Moray, north-east Scotland. The Lossiemouth incident was, in fact, a valid navigational track of a Tornado fighter flying a relatively standard traffic pattern. The incident was more hype than reality and ran in tabloid British newspapers, often known for their sensational content, especially on a slow news day. More recently, in July 2017, a RAF Typhoon aircraft from RAF Coningsby flew what on Flightradar24 seemed to be a phallic route.

The U.S. Navy suffered another, more tangible, embarrassment from sexist misconduct with their Blue Angels demo team in 2014.

The incidents resulted in an official report dated May 16, 2014. The official documents surrounding an investigation of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Team, The Blue Angels, stated that the “Commanding Officer witnessed, accepted and encouraged behavior that, while juvenile and sophomoric in the beginning, ultimately and in the aggregate, became destructive, toxic and hostile. The Blue Angels’ Ready Room environment under his command ran counter to established Navy standards and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and dramatically weakened good order and discipline in the squadron.”

Any mention of gender-based misconduct in the U.S. Navy ultimately raises conversation about the 1991 Tailhook Scandal.

The Tailhook Scandal resulted in an official investigation that cited over 80 cases of sexual misconduct by U.S. Navy officers and personnel. The scandal became so widespread throughout the Navy that reports indicate the careers of 14 admirals and “almost 300 naval aviators” were compromised by the incidents.

As with every story, however, there are several perspectives that influence the public perception of the Whidbey Island Penis-Pilots. The U.S. is experiencing a noteworthy increase in the number of sexual misconduct allegations in the media against politicians. They include the current U.S. President. A potential danger with the proliferation of both genuine and spurious claims of sexual misconduct is that people become desensitized to the reports. That creates a dangerous environment where serious, genuine misconduct may go undetected.

There is a further potential anomaly to the story of the inappropriate sky-writing pilots. As proved by the memes about the incidents posted on social media, few people have considered the admittedly remote possibility that one or both of the flight crew responsible for the November 16 skywriting incident last week may have been female. The two crew members involved in the incident have not been identified. While the statistical likelihood is that both members are male gender pilots based on what is likely the ratio of male to female aircrew members at Electronic Attack Squadron 130, there does remain the extremely remote possibility, based strictly on the fact that some female EA-18G pilots do exist in the Navy. At least one female EA-18G pilot was at Whidbey Island that we know of in 2013, albeit in another unit; VAQ-129 as opposed to VAQ-130, the unit attributed to the recent sky-penis.

When we tried to find current pilot rosters for Electronic Attack Squadron 130 (VAQ-130), the unit involved in the recent November 16, 2017 incident, we could not locate a current listing to see the number of female pilots in the unit. We were, however, easily able to find record of female EA-18G Growler pilots in the U.S. Navy. One media source, published in July 2013 by the Rapid City Journal and written by staff correspondent Molly Barari cited the career of a (then) Lt. j.g. who said she had not experienced any differential treatment because she’s a woman: “Male or female, you need to have a thick enough skin to accept a lot of criticism.”

Finally, while the official, and practical doctrine of all U.S. military services must be gender equality, this incident perpetuates the lore of the fighter pilot, male and female, as a rule-bending renegade who often flies and fights at the outer limits of acceptable norms. While there is an element of sensation in this image, there is also the history or impropriety and misconduct. To this day, the military services struggle to moderate the extremes of daring-do and wanton sexism unacceptable in any culture.

Top image: The original photo shared widely across social media. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist from Social Media Outlets)

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

The Day After An F-117 Was Spotted On A Trailer In Southern Nevada Another One Was Photographed Flying With An F-16 Near Rachel

Some F-117s have already taken the road to the scrapyard, others continue flying. Enjoy your Black Friday with a Black Jet story.

As already reported, an F-117 Nighthawk was spotted on a trailer on US-95, south of Creech AFB, in southern Nevada, on Nov. 13, 2017.

Although we don’t know exactly where the aircraft was being transferred, it is safe to assume the aircraft might be heading to the boneyard, to be scrapped or prepared for a museum.

Indeed, in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, the USAF will retire the fleet permanently, once and for all.

Actually, the U.S. Air Force will not remove all the F-117s this year: one aircraft will be divested by the end of 2017 (possibly the one on the trailer); the rest will be withdrawn from use at a rate of four every year, beginning in 2018.

So, whilst the final “demilitarization” of the Stealth Jet (officially retired in 2008 but maintained and kept in a “Type 1000” storage to be occasionally flown at Tonopah Test Range until today) is a sad news for aviation enthusiasts all around the world, the fact that not all the F-117s have been permanently retired means that there will probably be a few more chances of watching the Black Jet fly somewhere over Nevada (or somewhere else).

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

Our friend G. from the outstanding lazygranch.com website shot some interesting photographs of the unusual formation. “The image is backlit, but the plane shapes are distinctive enough to identify the type of aircraft” he wrote in his post. Indeed, the photos lack a bit of quality (it would have been interesting to ID the F-16 by the presence of some particular markings or code), but according to G. there’s a reason for this:

I had used the camera to do long exposure photography as in this web page: http://www.lazygranch.com/letap.html

This time I had used the 400mm lens instead of the 200mm lens I used in the letap.html page. I managed to kill 4 camera batteries doing this. The problem was the freezing weather was effecting the battery life.

The 400mm lens was essentially set up to focus at infinity. In these multi-frame long exposure series of photographs, the lens is left in manual focus since there is nothing in the frame to auto focus on. The camera is initially focused by hand to get the sharpest image of the lights on Papoose Mountain, which are the lights on the mountain in the distance. Papoose Mountain is what you see as a background in the base photographs done from Tikaboo Peak.

I had one poor quality camera battery left. I normally don’t use it because it only charges to about 55%. I had left the 400mm lens in manual focus. When I heard the aircraft, I put in the poor quality battery. The planes were far enough away that the EOS system considered them to be sharp enough to allow the images to be taken. When the planes flew north so that the sun was in a better position and the planes were closer, the camera wouldn’t fire. I missed some great shots. That was when I figured out the lens was left on manual focus.

Eventually, G. added an interesting comment to his post: “Groom Lake uses two seater F-16s”.

Therefore, although the Air Force has started retiring the type (again), it’s nice to see that someone is still enjoying a daylight ride in one of the once most secret and futuristic aircraft ever built. The accompanying F-16 makes the sighting  even more interesting…

Visit this link and let me know what you think.

Above: composite photo made using a crop from a Foster Van Schaick taken in 2014 and one of the screenshots from a video filmed by Randy Williams and made available to The Aviationist by Brett Wyman.