We can’t say whether it happened by accident or on purpose, but a U.S. unmanned spy aircraft broadcast its position for everyone to see while flying a long mission over northern Libya.
It’s not a secret that U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella, Italy, from Beale Air Force Base, California, have been flying ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions in support of EUCOM, AFRICOM and CENTCOM theater mission tasking since 2011.
The Global Hawks of the flying branch had their baptism of fire on Mar. 1, 2011, and were the first to fly over Libya to perform high altitude Battle Damage Assessment sorties on targets located in regions with a residual SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) and MANPADS threat after Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched on Mar. 19, 2011.
From their deployment bases in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and from Al Dhafra, UAE, the HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) drones are regularly tasked with intelligence gathering missions over North Africa, East Europe and Middle East: in March 2015, the U.S. Air Force acknowledged the involvement of the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft in the air war on ISIS not only as an IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) platform but also as Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) platform, that replaces the imagery sensor package normally installed in the aircraft, to support ground ops by relaying communications between people and aircraft as well as enabling airstrikes on the Islamic State militants.
Like all the other spyplanes, during their (long) sorties, these strategic ISR drones typically tend to keep a low-profile: they operate in “due regard” with transponder off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid” where the pilot flying is responsible for avoiding all traffic conflicts, much like a VFR flight plan without flight following. For this reason it should not be possible to detect RQ-4s on clandestine missions using “simple” commercial receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange.
But Global Hawks could be tracked online over Ukraine beginning on October 2016 and, for the very fist time, while conducting a 21-hour mission over northwestern Libya on Feb. 4, 2017.
Indeed, yesterday an RQ-4 could be tracked on FR24.com taking off from Sigonella airbase around 1.30AM UTC, climb to 46,000 feet over the sea then head towards Libya where it circled for several hours.
Tracking while heading southbound (screenshot from FR 24.com)
Flying over northwestern Libya (screenshot from FR 24.com)
Skirting Tripoli southeast bound (screenshot from FR 24.com)
We have informed the U.S. Air Force and other air forces that their planes could be tracked online, live, several times, but our Tweets (and those of our Tweeps who retweeted us) or emails have not had any effect as little has changed even though this author has received several emails from USAF pilots and aircrew members who wanted to say thank you for raising the issue.
Sometimes the reason for making an aircraft visible on FR24 can be deterrence: they purposely broadcast their position to let “the others” know a spyplane hunting terrorists is there. Was this the case? Hard to say.
H/T to the always alert @CivMilAir for the heads-up!
Flightradar24 lets you track ATAC’s fleet of private contractor aggressors that fly out of NAS Point Mugu and NAS Fallon.
Whilst most of the interesting aircraft (namely fighters and attack planes as Special Ops platforms are still there) are hidden on Flightradar24.com, the popular online tracking system still provides the opportunity to follow ATAC (Airborne Tactical Advantage Company) aggressors flying tactical flight training missions for U.S. Navy, Air Force and Air National Guard assets.
Indeed, as pointed out by Bob Cheatham, one of our avid followers from California, most of ATAC’s jets can be tracked as they practice dogfights almost daily off San Diego, inside the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division-managed Point Mugu Sea Range that features 36,000 square miles of controlled sea and airspace, and allows for testing in a real-world environment.
ATAC’s Hawker Hunter flying a mission off San Diego. (FR24 screenshot courtesy of Bob Cheatham)
“Growing up in the 70s & 80s, I was a huge fan of Pt. Mugu’s VX-4 Evaluators (F-4 & F-14s), so now I find it interesting to see most of these maneuvers passed on to a civilian contractor that actually shows up in the clear on ADS-B!” Cheatham explained in an email to The Aviationist.
N328AX is an ATAC’s Hawker Hunter F.58 formerly belonging to the Swiss Air Force (FR24 screenshot courtesy of Bob Cheatham).
“Using the N-registration alerts on FR24, I track practice dogfights almost daily off San Diego between ATAC‘s Hunters & Kfirs (and who knows who else that isn’t on ADS-B?!) Now that I’ve programmed alerts tracking most of their fleet, I’m also seeing missions in the Atlantic off South Carolina & Florida too.”
IAI Kfir mission (FR24 screenshot courtesy of Bob Cheatham)
ATAC, acquired in July 2016 by Textron Inc.’s new Textron Airborne Solutions company, has been performing air-to-ship, air-to-air and research & development missions in support of DoD for the last 20 years using a fleet of fast jets that includes 6x IAI Kfir C2, 2x L-39ZA Albatros and several Hawker Hunters.
The company provides advanced Adversary support at all levels of the US Navy’s air-to-air training programs, from Fleet Replacement Squadrons to the Navy’s graduate level “TOPGUN” program.
Indeed, the ATAC’s Kfir can be often spotted at NAS Fallon (where the top shot was taken by aviation photographer Kedar Karmarkar): if you look for one of the Israeli jet’s serial numbers (for instance, N402AX) in FR24’s database, you’ll find several flights of the supersonic fighter at the Naval Fighter Weapons School in Nevada.
A Kfir from NAS Fallon. Note that part of the track is outside of FR24 coverage.
But adversary training at Point Mugu and the Top Gun school at NAS Fallon are not the only activities ATAC jets carry out.
According to the company’s website “ATAC also trains the U.S. Air Force, specifically in the European theater supporting the United States Air Forces, Europe (USAFE) with JTAC Training, as well as CONUS F-15 Operational Readiness Evaluations, “Red Flag/Northern Edge” exercises, and has been entrusted to provide support for Air Force F-22 Raptor crews.”
ATAC is not the only company to provide live Red Air aggressor training services for the U.S Air Force and U.S. Navy: Draken International; and Discovery Air Defence Services, a subsidiary of Discovery Air, are also regularly awarded contracts to perform such services.
Noteworthy, the aircraft operated by Pantelleria airport, a little Italian island off Tunisia: most probably, deploying the plane to a Tunisian airport was not safe, Sigonella airbase, in Sicily, from where U.S. Global Hawk and Predator and Reaper drone operate, was too far and Pantelleria was chosen as the closest base for the clandestine task.
The plane is the civil version of the MC-12W, an ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) platform operated by the U.S. Air Force and equipped with a full array of sensors, a ground exploitation cell, line-of-sight and satellite communications datalinks, a robust voice communications suite as well as an electro-optical infrared sensor with a laser illuminator and designator.
The Air Force MC-12W, Army King Airs as well as several civil-registered King Airs (which appear similar to general aviation aircraft during their covert missions), are actually spyplanes used for several Special Operations and particularly capable to “find, fix, and finish” bad guys.
Here below is the track the plane flew on Mar. 22. On top of the article you find the route of Mar. 26’s mission, the last that could be tracked on FR24.
According to an esteem by Flightradar24.com, around 60% of the civil airliners and only a small amount of business jets and military aircraft have an ADS-B transponder. This means that, although you will never spot a Stealth Helicopter nor Air Force One broadcasting its position, speed, altitude and route on the Web, you can still catch some extremely interesting planes. As the evasive US Air Force C-32Bs (a military version of the Boeing 757), operated by the Department of Homeland Security and US Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), used to deploy US teams and special forces in response to terrorist attacks.
I was wrong.
Although even the Flightradar24 FAQs confirmed that the Air Force One, the world’s most famous and important aircraft, should NOT be visible on their website, for a few seconds around 19.40UTC, the U.S. Air Force’s VC-25 (mil version of the B747), with registration 82-8000, transponder code 3614, advertised its position in the public domain while over Baltimore, descending through FL120 at 310 kts, heading towards Washington D.C. (for landing at Andrews AFB).
I don’t really know the reason for this quick appearance of the AF1 on FR24. A human error? A quick test? Hard to say. I’d expect the IFF Mode 5 with encrypted Mode-S and ADS-B to be paramount on the aircraft carrying the POTUS.
Once again a Foreign Emergency Support Team C-32 (B757) with registration 02-4452, belonging to the 227 SOF (Special Operations Flight) based at McGuire AFB, NJ, appeared on both FlightRadar24 and PlaneFinder on arrival to Andrews AFB just before 08.38UTC on May 15. Noteworthy, using LiveATC radio stream on KDCA approach I’ve heard it using an unusual callsign “Jenna 71” being vectored for an ILS approach for RWY 19L at Andrews AFB. The aircraft hasn’t used one of the callsigns used by the 227 SOF (the most usual of which is “Terra”) but “Jenna” or “Jena” that according to some websites should be used by non-FBI aircraft and non-FBI flight crews involved in FBI operations. For instance, another FBI callsign reported to be use by FBI flights is “Ross”.
Here’s a part of the radio comms of Jenna 71 with KDCA Approach from LiveATC.net archive: