Tag Archives: drones

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

Here’s Boeing Submission To The U.S. Navy MQ-25 Stingray Unmanned Carrier Aviation Air System Competition

Boeing’s MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system has been unveiled.

After teasing its shape with a mysterious tweet that included a photograph of an aircraft under protective cover on Dec. 14, as planned, Boeing has unveiled a better (still, partial) view of its submission to the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned carrier aviation air system competition (UCAAS).

Through its MQ-25 competition (with final proposals due on Jan. 3, 2018), the U.S. Navy plans to procure unmanned refueling capabilities that would extend the combat range of deployed Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Boeing EA-18G Growler, and Lockheed Martin F-35C fighters. The UCAAS will operate from both land bases and the flight deck of its Nimitz- and future Ford-class aircraft carriers, seamlessly integrating with a carrier’s catapult and launch and recovery systems. The induction of the new tanker drone will offload some aerial refueling duties from the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet.

“Boeing has been delivering carrier aircraft to the Navy for almost 90 years,” said Don ‘BD’ Gaddis, a retired admiral who leads the refueling system program for Boeing’s Phantom Works technology organization, in a company public release. “Our expertise gives us confidence in our approach. We will be ready for flight testing when the engineering and manufacturing development contract is awarded.”

According to Boeing the UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) is completing engine runs before heading to the flight ramp for deck handling demonstrations early next year.

The Navy issued its final request for proposals in October. Proposals are due Jan. 3.

With Northrop Grumman withdrawing from the competition in October 2017, Boeing, General Atomics, and Lockheed Martin are the three aerospace company competing for the initial development contract. The U.S. Navy has a requirement for 72 tanker drones, even though the service will initially only buy four examples of the winning design in order to assess whether the winner will be able to meet all the requirements before handing out any larger production deals.

Top image: Boeing photo by Eric Shindelbower

Up close and personal with NASA’s Global Hawk drones at Edwards Air Force Base

NASA operates the giant Northrop Grumman Global Hawk drone to collect weather data.

On Feb. 5, NASA showed off its newest and smartest unmanned Global Hawk aircraft to reporters at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center located on Edwards AFB, CA.

Shorealone Films photographer Matt Hartman went there to report about the NASA’s Global Hawk fleet.

NASA GH 1

These aircraft have been helping NOAA scientists, researchers and forecasters with gathering weather information from altitudes and conditions not suitable for humans.

NASA GH 2

The missions tasked by these aircraft can last almost 24hours without refueling.

The Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology (SHOUT) project led by the NOAA Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Program, will deploy the NASA Global Hawks carrying a suite of meteorological sensors and deploying dropsondes during four research flights in February.

NASA GH 3

According to the NASA website, the agency acquired its three drones from the U.S. Air Force. These are among the very first UAS (unmanned Aerial Systems) built under the original Global Hawk Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator development program sponsored by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

The Global Hawk is a gigantic drone: 44 feet in length it has a wingspan of more than 116 feet, a height of 15 feet, and a gross takeoff weight of 26,750 pounds, including a 1,500-pound payload capability. It is powered by a single Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine and features a distinctive V-tail.

NASA GH 4

The engine cover, aft fuselage and wings are constructed primarily of graphite composite materials; the center fuselage is made of aluminum, whereas various fairings and radomes feature fiberglass composite construction.

NASA’s Global Hawks made the headlines last week, after a hacker under the name of @CthulhuSec and the hacking group AnonSec started posting massive data belonging to NASA on Pastebin: such leaked data included around 150 GB of drone logs as well as 631 aircraft and radar videos along with 2,143 email address of NASA employees.

NASA GH 7

Interestingly, not only did the hacking group exfiltrate data from NASA’s network, but they also claim to have achieved “semi-partial control” of one of the agency’s Global Hawk drones by replacing the original .gpx file (containing the aircraft’s pre-planned route) with one crafted to direct it along a different route; a claim that has been denied by NASA.

NASA GH 8

This is not the first time civil or military drones are hacked.

The Intercept has recently reported that GCHQ and NSA compromised video feeds from Israeli drones from a base in Cyprus.

Previously, Iran claimed to have captured a CIA’s RQ-170 Sentinel drone by hijacking it.

U.S. Air Force Predator drones were reportedly infected by a malware that captured all the operator’s keystrokes in 2011.

NASA GH 10

All images: Matt Hartman

Whilst everyone watched the F-22s arriving in Germany, U.S. Predator drones deployed to Latvia

“This is not a one-time operating zone. We created an airspace arrangement that is enduring, so when we need to go back, it will be available.”

Whilst the majority of aviation enthusiasts and media watched four F-22s deploy to Europe for the first time, another quite interesting and significant deployment took place in a Baltic State.

In fact, according to the U.S. Air Force, two MQ-1 Predator drones and approximately 70 Airmen deployed to Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia beginning on Aug. 24 for a temporary deployment that will continue through mid-September.

The deployment aims to test the ability of 147th Reconnaissance Wing of the Texas Air National Guard based in Ellington Field in Houston, Texas to forward deploy, and to conduct air operations with the RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) “while [as usual] assuring NATO allies of our commitment to regional security and stability.”

As for the F-22s, that deployed in accordance with the Rapid Raptor Package concept, the deployment had to prove the unit’s ability to prepare, deploy, setup shop, fly and exercise all of the agreements, arrangements and relationships required to make this happen: key words are responsive and flexible operations.

“It validates basing and airspace arrangements, operations and host-nation agreements in a very real way,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Recker from the operations directorate at U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Headquarters in a release.

“This will test mobility, maintenance and logisticians arranging airlift,” he said. “Personnel have to make decisions about bandwidth, satellite communication, frequency allocation and frequency clearing.”

Interestingly, “This is not a one-time operating zone. We created an airspace arrangement that is enduring, so when we need to go back, it will be available,” said Recker.

During the deployment, Predators will not be involved in intelligence gathering missions, but will test ability to collect and share intelligence with other NATO allies.

But plans are to do something more, like Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) training: MQ-1 drones will collect intelligence that will be distributed to NATO JTACs so that they will be able to call in airstrikes of A-10 Thunderbolt II attack planes.

So, the military build-up in Europe continues with F-22s and MQ-1s performing brief deployments to test and validate their ability to reach the Old Continent in timely fashion, and to lay the foundations of longer presence of stealth jets and drones around eastern European nations threatened by Russia.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force