Category Archives: Drones

U.S. Navy Inducts MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Into Service Ahead Of First Operational Deployment to Guam

NBVC Point Mugu’s first two Triton drones commence operations (with interesting tail markings).

On May 31, Unmanned Patrol Squadron One Nine (VUP-19) DET Point Mugu hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony, marking on track delivery of an Early Operational Capability (EOC) to the Fleet and completion of their new hangar at Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC) Point Mugu.

VUP-19, that will fly and maintain Triton to support overseas operations beginning in 2018, currently operates two MQ-4C Tritons: the first arrived at NBVC on Nov. 9, 2017 and the second arrived in April this year. The two UAVs are housed in a specially built hangar used by the maintenance detachment to accommodate the pair of 130.9-ft wingspan drones built by Northrop Grumman for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Shorealone Films photographer Matt Hartman attended the ceremony at NBVC Point Mugu and took the photographs you can find in this post. Noteworthy, the two aircraft feature different tail markings: the first one #168460 sports a high-visibility emblem of VUP-19, whereas the second one #168461 sports a smaller, low-rez badge.

High-rez markings on the MQ-4C #168460

Low-rez markings on the MQ-4C #168461

The U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C “Triton” Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) is an ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) platform that will complement the P-8A Poseidon within the Navy’s Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force family of systems: for instance, testing has already proved the MQ-4C’s ability to pass FMV (Full Motion Video) to a Poseidon MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft). An advanced version than the first generation Global Hawk Block 10, the drone  it is believed to be a sort of Block 20 and Block 30 Global Hawk hybrid, carrying Navy payload including an AN/ZPY-3 multi-function active-sensor (MFAS) radar system, that gives the Triton the ability to cover more than 2.7 million square miles in a single mission that can last as long as 24 hours at a time, at altitudes higher than 10 miles, with an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles.

The U.S. Navy plans to procure 68 aircraft and 2 prototypes.

VUP-19 emblem on the new hangar at NBVC Point Mugu.

The unmanned aircraft of VUP-19 are expected to deploy to Guam later this year, with an early set of capabilities, including basic ESM (Electronic Support Measures) to pick up ships radar signals, for maritime Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance mission. A more significant SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) capability will be deployed to the fleet in 2021, when the Triton is expected to reach an IOC (Initial Operational Capability). By then, the U.S. Navy plans to add two additional MQ-4Cs to the Guam deployment that would allow a 24/7/365 orbit. With the IOC of the Triton, the service will retire the EP-3E ARIES II as the Navy’s signals-intelligence platform.

Interestingly, some of the MQ-4C test flights could be tracked online. Here’s an example dating back to October last year:

The U.S. Navy plans to operate five 24-hour orbits around the world. The UAVs will be controlled from two MOBs (Main Operating Bases): Naval Station Mayport, Florida, and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington. The aircraft will be launched (and recovered) from 5 bases: Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy; an unspecified location in the Middle East (Al Dhafra, UAE, where the U.S. Air Force RQ-4 are forward deployed?); Naval Air Station Guam; Naval Station Mayport; and Point Mugu.

Make sure you visit this link to have a look at the whole set of photographs taken by our friend Matt Hartman during the ribbon cutting ceremony at Point Mugu.

The Time I Found a Formerly Top Secret D-21 Supersonic Drone in the Arizona Desert

In the Back Lot of the Pima Air & Space Museum You Can Discover History.

1547 Hrs. December 20, 2009. In the Back Storage Yard of the Pima Air & Space Museum Outside Tucson, Arizona.

Most of what is lying around in the dusty expanse of the aircraft graveyards around Tucson, Arizona is readily identifiable and not entirely remarkable.

Ejection seats from old F-4 Phantoms. An old CH-53 helicopter hulk. An interesting find over there is a fuselage section of a Soviet-era MiG-23 Flogger. No idea how it got here. Other than that, it’s just long rows of old, broken, silent airplanes inside high fences surrounded by cactus, dust, sand and more sand. An errant aileron on a dead wing clunks quietly against the hot afternoon breeze as if willing itself back into the air. But like everything here, its days of flying are over.

But there… What is that strange, manta-ray shaped, dusty black thing lying at an angle just on the other side of that fence? It may be an old airfield wind vane or radar test model. But it also may be…

Once I found an opening in the fence I could walk right up to the D-21. It had been recovered by the museum from the AMARG Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB and was awaiting restoration. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

I had only read about it and seen grainy photos of it. I know it’s impossible. The project was so secret not much information exists about the details even today. But I stand there gawking through the chain link fence as the ruins of the other planes bear silent witness. It’ like the corpses of the other airplanes are urging me to look closer. To not leave. Their silent dignity begs me to tell this story.

After nearly a minute of studying it through the fence I realize; I am right. It is right before my eyes. Ten feet away. Despite the 100-degree heat I get goosebumps. And I start running.

I quickly locate a spot where the entire fence line opens up. I skirt the fence and in a couple minutes running around the sandy airplane corpses I’m inside. There, sitting right in front of me on its decrepit transport cart and dusted with windblown sand, abandoned in the Sonoran Desert, is one of Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich’s most ambitious classified projects from the fabled Lockheed Skunk Works.

A previously classified photo of the Lockheed D-21 drone at the Skunkworks manufacturing facility. (Photo: Lockheed)

I just found the CIA’s ultra-secret Mach 3.3+ D-21 long-range reconnaissance drone. The D-21 was so weird, so ambitious, so unlikely it remains one of the most improbable concepts in the history of the often-bizarre world of ultra-secret “black” aviation projects. And now it lies discarded in the desert. The story behind it is so bizarre it is difficult to believe, but it is true.

July 30, 1966: Flight Level 920 (92,000 ft.), Mach 3.25, Above Point Mugu Naval Air Missile Test Center, Off Oxnard, California.

Only an SR-71 Blackbird is fast enough and can fly high enough to photograph this, the most classified of national security tests. Traveling faster than a rifle bullet at 91,000 feet, near inner-space altitude, one of the most ambitious and bizarre contraptions in the history of mankind is about to be tested.

“Tagboard” is its codename. Because of the catastrophic May, 1960 shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2 high altitude spy plane over the Soviet Union the CIA and is in desperate need of another way to spy on the rising threat of communist nuclear tests. Even worse, the other “Red Menace”, the Chinese, are testing massive hydrogen bombs in a remote location of the Gobi Desert near the Mongolian/Chinese border. It would be easier to observe the tests if the Chinese did them on the moon.

The goal is simple, but the problem is titanic. Get photos of the top-secret Red Chinese hydrogen bomb tests near the Mongolian border deep inside Asia, then get them back, without being detected.

Lockheed Skunkworks boss Kelly Johnson and an elite, ultra-classified small team of aerospace engineers have built an aircraft so far ahead of its time that even a vivid imagination has difficulty envisioning it.

Flat, triangular, black, featureless except for its odd plan form as viewed from above, like a demon’s cloak, it has a sharply pointed nose recessed into a forward-facing orifice. That’s it. No canopy, no cockpit, no weapons. Nothing attached to the outside. Even more so than a rifle bullet its shape is smooth and simple. This is the ultra-secret D-21 drone.

An Air Force photo of the D-21 mounted on the M-21 launch aircraft. The M-21 launch aircraft was a special variant of the SR-71 Blackbird. Only two were produced. (Photo: USAF)

The D-21 is truly a “drone”, not a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Its flight plan is programmed into a guidance system. It is launched from a mothership launch aircraft at speed and altitude. It flies a predetermined spy mission from 17 miles above the ground and flashes over at three times the speed of sound. It photographs massive swaths of land with incredible detail and resolution. And because of its remarkably stealthy shape, no one will ever know it was there.

Today the D-21 rides on the back of a Lockheed M-21, a specialized variant of the SR-71 Blackbird, the famous Mach 3+ high altitude spy plane. The M-21 version of the SR-71 carries the D-21 drone on its back up to launch speed and altitude. The it ignites the D-21’s unique RJ43-MA20S-4 ramjet engine and releases it on its pre-programmed flight.

Chasing the M-21 and D-21 combination today is a Lockheed SR-71, the only thing that can keep up with this combination of aircraft. It is the SR-71’s job to photograph and film the test launch of the D-21 drone from the M-21 launch aircraft.

There have been three successful launch separations of the D-21 from the M-21 launch aircraft so far. In each of these flights, even though the launch was successful, the D-21 drone fell victim to some minor mechanical failure that destroyed the drone, because, at over Mach 3 and 90,000 feet, there really are no “minor” failures.

Today Bill Park and Ray Torick are the flight crew on board the M-21 launch aircraft. They sit inside the M-21 launch aircraft dressed in pressurized high altitude flight suits that resemble space suits.

Once at predetermined launch speed and altitude the M-21/D-21 combination flies next to the SR-71 camera plane. Keith Beswick is filming the launch test from the SR-71 camera plane. Ray Torick, the drone launch controller sitting in the back seat of the tandem M-21, launches the D-21 from its position on top of the M-21’s fuselage between the massive engines.

Something goes wrong.

The D-21 drone separates and rolls slightly to its left side. It strikes the left vertical stabilizer of the M-21 mother ship. Then it caroms back into the M-21’s upper fuselage, exerting massive triple supersonic forces downward on the M-21 aircraft. The M-21 begins to pitch up and physics takes over as Bill Park and Ray Torick make the split-second transition from test pilots to helpless passengers to crash victims.

The triple supersonic forces rip both aircraft apart in the thin, freezing air. Shards of titanium and shrapnel from engine parts trail smoke and frozen vapor as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. There is no such thing as a minor accident at Mach 3+ and 92,000 feet.

Miraculously, both Bill Park and Ray Torick eject from the shattered M-21 mother ship. Even more remarkably, they actually survive the ejection. The pair splash down in the Pacific 150 miles off the California coast. Bill Park successfully deploys the small life raft attached to his ejection seat. Ray Torick lands in the ocean but opens the visor on his spacesuit-like helmet attached to his pressurized flight suit. The suit floods through the face opening in his helmet. Torick drowns before he can be rescued. Keith Beswick, the pilot filming the accident from the SR-71 chase plane, has to go to the mortuary to cut Ray Torick’s body out of the pressurized high-altitude flight suit before he can be buried.

The ultra-secret test program to launch a D-21 drone from the top of an M-21 launch aircraft at over Mach 3 and 90,000 feet, is cancelled.

The D-21 program does move forward on its own. Now the drone is dropped from a lumbering B-52 mothership. The D-21 is then boosted to high altitude and Mach 3+ with a rocket booster. Once at speed and altitude the booster unit drops off and the D-21 drone begins its spy mission.

After more than a year of test launches from the B-52 mothership the D-21 drone was ready for its first operational missions over Red China. President Nixon approved the first reconnaissance flight for November 9, 1969. The mission was launched from Beale AFB in California.

Despite a successful launch the D-21 drone was lost. In the middle of 1972, after four attempts at overflying Red China with the D-21 drone and four mission failures, the program was cancelled. It was imaginative. It was innovative. It was ingenious. But it was impossible.

So ended one of the most ambitious and outrageous espionage projects in history.

1604 Hrs. December 20, 2009. In the Back Storage Yard of the Pima Air & Space Museum Outside Tucson, Arizona.

I pet airplanes when I can. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe to be able to say I did. Maybe to try to gain some tactile sense of their history. Maybe to absorb something from them, if such a thing is possible. Maybe so that, when I am old and dying, I can reflect back on what it felt like to stand next to them and touch them. I don’t know why I touch them and stroke them, but I do.

The D-21 is dusty and warm in the late afternoon Arizona sun. Its titanium skin is hard, not slightly forgiving like an aluminum airplane. It gives away nothing. Silent. Brooding. After I touch it my hand came away with some of the dust from it. I don’t wipe it off.

Sometime later in the coming years, the D-21B drone, number 90-0533, is brought inside the vast restoration facility at the Pima Air & Space Museum and beautifully restored. Now it lies in state, on display inside the museum.

But when I first found it sitting abandoned in the storage yard, dusty and baking in the Sonoran Desert sun, it felt like its warm titanium skin still had some secret life left in it.

The fully restored Lockheed D-21 drone at the Pima Air & Space Museum outside Tucson, Arizona. (Photo: Pima Air & Space Museum)

Almost Unnoticed, U.S. Air Force Begins MQ-9 Reaper Drone Operations out of Poland

USAF deploys its MQ-9 Reaper Drones to Poland.

USAF issued a short release, suggesting that the service has deployed MQ-9 Reaper UAV systems to Poland. The drones would be stationed at the Mirosławiec Air Base, which is the Poland’s airbase dedicated to host the unmanned platforms. The release issued by the Americans reads as follows:

The United States and Poland have a standing relationship to address issues of regional and global security. To advance those interests, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, the air component of U.S. European Command, is operating MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft at Miroslawiec Air Base as a visible expression of U.S. efforts to enhance regional stability. This mission, starting in May 2018, has been fully coordinated with the Polish government. It is designed to promote stability and security within the region and to strengthen relationships with NATO allies and other European partners.

The release, as we can see, is laconic and went by virtually unnoticed. It was issued on May 21 and does not specifiy how long the deployment is going to last. The Mirosławiec Airbase only operates smaller UAV platforms, hence Reapers would be a major addition to its capabilities.

The news issued by USAFE sparked some doubts and questions among the experts and defense media practitioners in Poland. Since the Polish MoD cancelled some of its drone procurement plans some time ago, shifting the priorities, the USAFE assets may act as a complementary measure filling in the capability gap – this is an opinion that has widely circulated in the Polish defense media public sphere. The experts suggest that no further procurement in the area of ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) would be pursued by the Polish MoD, making use of the US assets to complement the capabilities at hand even though, for what deals with JASSMs (Joint Air-to-Surface Strategic Missiles) that have been acquired by the Polish Air Force, there is concern about a capability gap when it comes to actually designating targets for this strategic weapon.

Dawid Kamizela who works an analyst for the Polish Dziennik Zbrojny outlet expressed his concern that the UAVs in Poland may not even boost the Polish ISR capabilities. In a conversation, he told us the following:

According to what we have seen when it comes to operational practice pertaining to the MQ-9, the detachment in Poland, most probably, solely deals with maintenance of the assets and take offs and landings. The core of the operational activities would be controlled from CONUS, and the intelligence gathered when the UAV is flying in the Polish airspace is also being sent to CONUS directly – it is not being collected in Poland, it does not even ‘touch’ any part of the Polish infrastructure. As worrying as it is, the above would mean that even if Poland receives any intelligence, it would not come in a form of raw data, but rather as an interpreted report. Taking the local awareness into account, along with the knowledge of local conditions and geopolitical factors, the US interpretation may differ from the conclusions that could potentially be formed by the Polish analysts in Warsaw. This sparks numerous doubts, when it comes to the actual boost of the Polish ISR capability.

The Polish military has no MALE UAVs at its disposal now, procurement is being planned as a part of the Zefir programme that has not, fortunately, been a subject to cuts. MQ-9 and Israeli Hermes 900 platforms are viable candidates here. The Israeli drones, as the Defence24 outlet notes, have already made their operational debut in the Polish airspace, during the NATO Summit hosted in Warsaw and the World Youth Day. Two Zefir packages, as Defence24 recalled, are to be acquired until 2022, with procurement of another two envisaged as an option after the aforesaid deadline.

An-124 cargo aircraft were used to transfer the MQ-9s in Poland.

According to the unofficial information we have obtained, the Reapers arrived in Poland on May 9 and they were transported via the NATO SALIS solution by two An-124 airlifters that landed at the Poznan airport.

Image Credit: USAF, An-124 Image Credit: Jacek Siminski

Triangular Object Spotted “Dogfighting” With Two F-16s Inside Area 51

Photos shot from UFO Seekers allegedly show unknown, triangular object interacting with two U.S. Air Force F-16s. But it’s probably a bird.

On Feb. 15, 2017, UFO seekers Tim Doyle and Tracey Su were camping near Groom Lake to take pictures and film videos of activity in the skies inside Area 51. During their stay, they spotted a couple of F-16s dogfighting and snapped some shots at the jets. It wasn’t until they got back home, when they started reviewing the pictures, that they noticed a third unidentified aircraft that they described as a “triangular” object which appeared to be dogfighting the “Vipers” (as the F-16s are dubbed within the fighter pilots community).

The video below includes the pictures shot by Tracey (go to 19:45).

“We try to be a medium between the UFO Community and the Aviation Community. My dad worked at Plant 42 and other family had similar jobs. So people shouldn’t believe we would ever jump to advocating the existence of aliens or an alien craft at AREA 51. But that day we did catch a third craft, unfortunately we only used the photos in the video. All media from that trip was lost in a hard drive failure. In fact UFO Seekers lost over 5 months worth of media (6TB). It may have been a foreign aircraft as that is the primary purpose of the airspace at Groom Lake. Also I know the Air Force tests craft like the Polecat at the NTTR so it may have been an unmanned drone. But maybe, just maybe, it was something more,” said Tim in a message to The Aviationist.

The two F-16s flying close to the mysterious object (highlighted). This is a screen grab from UFO Seekers video filmed close to Area 51.

Here’s the mysterious object. Aircraft, drone or bird? (Screenshot from the UFO Seekers video).

The resolution of images in the video does not allow a proper identification of the object which might well be a drone (or a distant manned aircraft…such as an F-117 that was spotted flying over Nevada with accompanying F-16, in the recent past), still the story of the alleged interaction has had some exposure.

Assessing the size is difficult: even though the perspective might be a factor here, the object seems to be smaller than the F-16s, but probably much larger than a micro-drone as the bird-sized Perdix drones, 103 of those, launched from three F/A-18F Super Hornets, took part in one of the world’s largest micro-drone swarms over the skies of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California on Oct. 25, 2016. That said, the aircraft could be a prototype of some new UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), maybe a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle), a weaponized drone.

Considered the position of the two fighters, rather than a dogfight, it seems that the jets were chasing the mysterious object rather than engaging it. Maybe they had just intercepted it in a simulated VID mission, or they were simply shadowing or filming a test flight. However, unlike what happened last year with the shots of the Su-27P dofighting with an F-16 inside Area 51, these new photos embedded in a YT video can’t provide a clear picture of the interaction.

Update: According to our friend Tyler Rogoway at The War Zone, the object is clearly a bird. “I literally see this all the time in frames. Birds catching thermals,” he says. “Viewing a bird somewhat edge on while soaring, that is exactly what they look like,” he said in a tweet to The Aviationist. To be honest I don’t see a bird here, but I may be wrong.

Update 2: Mick West, creator of Metabunk and famous debunker, has done an interesting analysis coming to the conclusion it was a bird. Here it is:

More or less the same analysis done by @AircraftSpots

Case closed? It seems so.

What’s your opinion? Let us know.

H/T @ufo_seekers

EQ-4 Global Hawk Drone Deployed to UAE with a Battlefield Airborne Communications Node Payload Reaches 20K Flight Hours

One of the RQ-4B Global Hawk drone converted into EQ-4 has logged 20,000 flight hours operating as a “flying gateway” for other aircraft involved in the air war on ISIS.

On Feb. 13, one of the U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drones reached 20,000 flight hours. The UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) is one of the three RQ-4Bs converted into EQ-4 and carry the BACN payload instead of the imagery intelligence (IMINT) sensors: it’s primarily a data and communications bridging node that supports multiple bridges simultaneously across multiple radio types. The crews who operate these particular flying gateways call them: “Wi-fi in the sky.”

“This milestone was the original lifespan of the aircraft,” said Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Pipes, Hawk Aircraft Maintenance Superintendent deployed to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, in a public release. “It’s exciting to see where this technology and this aircraft can take off too and how it can help those who are downrange.”

The aircraft (based on the photo the example “A2019”, an RQ-4 Block 20 converted into EQ-4), reached this milestone at its deployment base of Al Dhafra, UAE, from where the Global Hawks equipped with a Battlefield Communications Airfield Node payload are regularly launched for missions that can last 24 hours, or more. For instance, the very same aircraft surpassed the 10,000 flying hours in March 2015 during a 30.5-hour mission.

“From being a manned aircraft pilot, getting 12-hours in the air was a long day…you needed a day or so to recover before going up on your next mission,” said Major Manuel Ochoa, U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk pilot from the 99th Air Expeditionary Recon Squadron stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base. “When it comes to this plane, you can cycle pilots without having to land and that is a great benefit.”

Missions flown by the BACN platforms are extremely important. As explained several times here at The Aviationist, BACN is a technological “gateway” system that allows aircraft with incompatible radio systems and datalinks to transfer information and communicate.

The U.S. military uses various datalink systems to exchange tactical information, and many are not capable of working together.  For example, a U.S. Air Force F-15 can use its Link-16 system to exchange target information with a U.S. Navy F/A-18.  However, the F/A-18 could not exchange information with a USAF B-52 or B-1 bomber.  The advanced F-22 can connect with other Raptors via datalink but can only receive over the standard, legacy Link-16 datalink used by most allied aircraft.

This lack of compatibility between different platforms is a major obstacle in all those theaters where air assets from many services are called upon to provide support for ground troops of different nations.  Additionally, the complicated joint operations required to engage a modern integrated air defense system are greatly simplified by exchanging target information via datalinks.

Hence the need for a “flying gateway” as the EQ-4s, all assigned to 380th Air Expeditionary Wing based at Al Dhafra Air Base to support OIR (Operation Inherent Resolve).

An U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk logs over 20,000 flight hours Feb. 13, 2018 at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates. The Global Hawk’s mission is to provide a broad spectrum of ISR collection capability to support joint combatant forces in worldwide peacetime, contingency and wartime operations. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott)

 

The BACN system is also used to link ground troops and Forward Air Controllers (FACs)/Joint Terminal Attack Controllers in a non-line-of-sight (LOS) environment.  For instance, in the rugged, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan, troops are not always able to establish LOS communications with close support aircraft overhead.  Moving position or relocating to higher ground could be fatal in a combat situation.

E-11A aircraft (Bombardier Global 6000 advanced ultra long-range business jets that have been modified by the U.S. Air Force to accomodate Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payload) with 430th Expeditionary Electronic Squadron deployed to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan have been involved in this kind of missions (some of those trackable on the Internet as highlighted several times) since they arrived in theater for the first time 9 years ago.

By orbiting at high-altitude for long times, BACN equipped air assets can provide a communications link from ground commanders to their allies in the sky.  For example, a legacy USAF A-10 attack aircraft could loiter away from a battle area while using the BACN link to communicate with a special-forces FAC on the ground.  The A-10 pilot could wait until all targeting information is ready before “un-masking” and beginning an attack run.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that the original story refers to BACN as “Battlefield Communication Airfield Node”.