Tag Archives: radar

Let’s Talk About The Sightings Of F-117 Stealth Jets Flying Over Nevada Few Days Ago

10 years after their official retirement the “Black Jet” continues to fly. And no one seems to know what’s the purpose of their secretive missions. Here’s everything we know about their flights.

In the last few years we have documented the flights of some F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jets over Nevada, missions that have continued to be carried out well after the aircraft was officially retired from active service in 2008.

Back in 2014, after a few videos and photographs had already appeared online, the U.S. Air Force admitted that the Black Jet was kept in a “Type 1000” storage at Tonopah Test Range (TTR) which meant that the type is to be maintained until called into active service: the U.S. considered the F-117 somehow useful in a current scenario, so much so they continued to fly some of the preserved jets every now and then, in plain sight, to keep the pilots (according to most sources, not U.S. Air Force aircrews but Lockheed Martin/contractor pilots) current and the aircraft airworthy and ready. Desert conditions of Nevada are perfect for maintaining the stealth jets in pristine conditions (due to the low level of humidity and hence, lower probability of corrosion), hence the reason to operate the enigmatic aircraft from TTR.

Mystery solved? More or less.

In July 2016, we published a video showing two F-117s flying together, filmed from the distant hills east of Tonopah Test Range: in examining the photos some readers noticed that when the two F-117’s were lined up on the runway, only one of them had what looked like a comms antenna extended on the dorsal spine. The other Nighthawk behind him did not have that. A new antenna? For doing what? A remotely controlled F-117? Hard to say because of the quality of the shot.

One of the interesting photographs taken by The Aviationist’s contributor “Sammamishman” at the end of July 2016. One of the aircraft seems to show a slightly different antenna/shape: just a visual effect caused by the distance?

Then, last year the U.S. Air Force announced the decision to retire the fleet permanently, once and for all. In fact, “in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, passed Dec. 23, the Air Force will remove four F-117s every year to fully divest them — a process known as demilitarizing aircraft,” wrote Oriana Pawlyk last year. According to Pawlyk, one F-117 was scheduled to be divested this year and approximately four every year thereafter.

On Nov. 13, 2017, an F-117 was spotted on a trailer  on US-95, south of Creech AFB, in southern Nevada: the sighting was consistent with the plan of divesting one F-117 by the end of 2017; the rest to be withdrawn from use at a rate of four every year, beginning in 2018. In other words, the one under tarp on a trailer was probably being transferred to the boneyard, to be scrapped or prepared for a museum. Then, in a fantast twist, on the following day, Nov. 14, 2017, at 09.20AM LT, another F-117 was spotted flying north of Rachel,  Nevada chased by a Groom Lake’s two-seater F-16 (most probably the one that later paid visit to Star Wars Canyon).

Fast forward to Jul. 26, 2018, when Youtube user “pdgls” films two F-117 flying again at Tonopah Test Range. Here’s the footage:

The video shows two F-117s taking off in sequence as Night (or Knight – 9th FS callsign) 17 and 19. The shape of the Black Jet can be clearly identified as it maneuvers over TTR.

To me, the audio is actually even more interesting than the footage. Here it is (the Nighthawk stuff begins around 04:30 hours into the recording – for what’s before, read here):

Unlike all the previous sightings, this time the visual and audio documents (along with some ADS-B stuff) provide some additional, really interesting details. After departure, the two F-117 tanked with Siera 98 (not Sierra, at least according to the Mode-S transponder), a KC-135 from Fairchild Air Force Base. The type of activity the two jets carry out with the Stratotanker is not only routine: along with the standard “plugs” they also perform an emergency disconnect from the tanker. Then, the formation splits: Night 17 flies a test mission while Night 19 returns to the Tonopah Test area to perform pattern activity. Noteworthy, the 17 changes its callsign: no longer Night (or, as mentioned, Knight) but Dagger 17. Interestingly, Dagger is a very well known callsign in the Stealth Jet community: it was used by the 410th Flight Test Squadron, the joint test force of Lockheed and Air Force personnel at Groom Lake, Nevada (Det. 3, AFTFC).

In his interesting post on the sighting at The War Zone, our friend Tyler Rogoway also notices:

“before [changing callsign] we hear BLUE BIRD and BLONDE GIRL mentioned, which are likely controllers of some type. Then the F-117 checks in with ‘RAMROD’ and begins the testing. RAMROD tells the F-117 to ‘spin’ which usually means begin an orbit, and then we hear commands to execute a series of coded test cards.

RAMROD sounds like a sensor system of some type. Most likely it is the DYCOMS radar cross-section measurement facility at Area 51, which can surveil and validate the radar signature of an aircraft while in flight and at different angles in relation to the sensors on the ground. It’s also possible that RAMROD could be an airborne platform that offers similar signature diagnostic capabilities using an array of sensors.”

Whilst Dagger/Night 17 works with some sort of ground/radar facility, Night 19 continues its local sortie, made of a long series of low approaches, ILS localizer approach with circling, touch and gos, etc: the kind of pattern activity you would expect from an aircraft not involved in any operational work.

Full Scale Development Aircraft Five (FSD-5), Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk 79-7084. being refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker, July 1983. (USAF via Wiki)

ADS-B logs provide some details about the support mission flown by the KC-135, a Stratotanker, #58-0086, that had flown the previous day (Jul. 25) at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. The tanker flew from Fairchild AFB, Washington, flying a +6 hour mission. We don’t know whether Siera 98 also refueled other aircraft during that time: if not, it’s a considerable effort for just a routine mission of a pair of preserved aircraft.

The KC-135 supported Night 17 and 18. It did not broadcast its GPS position and was not geolocated via MLAT. The only detail gathered from its transponder is the serial 58-0086  (Credit: @CivMilAir)

Needless to say, the reason for the F-117 flights remains a mystery. Whilst the pretty basic pattern activity carried out by Night 19 is coherent with a periodic flight required to maintain currencies and airworthiness certificates, the seemingly more complex stuff conducted by Night 17 after it changed callsign to Dagger 17 seems to suggest there is some more interesting work for Black Jet. Indeed, as often explained here at The Aviationist, although it is a “legacy” radar-evading aircraft, the F-117 can still be used to support a wide variety of tests and developments: new radar or Infra Red Search and Track systems, new SAM (surface to air missiles) batteries, new RAM (Radar Absorbent Material) and coatings; or even 6th generation combat planes and next generation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platforms. They might be supporting stealth UCAVs (unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) research and, as explained above, someone has also speculated some have been converted into drones. Moreover, we can’t completely rule out the possibility Nighthawk are used as adversaries/aggressors against real or simulated systems, if not within the context of a Red Flag (the audio you can hear above, from the beginning to 04:30 hours, was recorded during Red Flag on Jul. 25, although the activity is probably completely unrelated to the F-117 sorties) as part of complex LVC (Live Virtual Constructive) scenarios, where actual assets are mixed up with virtual ones.

What do you think? Any idea?

New Photos of the F-117 Black Jet flying over Tonopah Test Range in 2014

Some new photos, taken few months ago, show the F-117 stealth fighter jet flying over Tonopah Test Range.

As explained in a previous post, the F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack plane, officially retired in 2008, is still flying at Tonopah Test Range, in Nevada, 6 years after the aircraft made its last flight with the U.S. Air Force.

At least a couple of “Black Jets” were sighted and photographed by local aviation enthusiasts and spotters during flights conducted over the TTR.


The reason for these flights is unknown: it may be used to support test and development of new radar or Infra Red Search and Track systems, SAM (surface to air missiles) batteries, 6th generation combat planes, next generation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platforms or UAVs (unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

There is someone who speculate they are part of a secret USAF’s strike force reserve.

Anyway, the images in this post, taken mid-April 2014 from atop Brainwash Butte near TTR by Foster VS (who has explored Area 51 and its surroundings several times) prove that someone (not sure whether Lockheed Martin, another company, or the Air Force) has not only preserved the F-117, but it is still flying the first and most famous American stealth aircraft.

Click on the images to open the hi-rez version. EXIF data is available.


Image credit: Foster VS


These Photos Prove F-117 Stealth Jets Still Fly at Tonopah 6 years After Retirement

The news that F-117s were flying somewhere in Nevada was known. Here’s the evidence.

The images in this post were shot on Sept. 30, at around 11.00AM, from Brainwash Butte. Although much distorted by the high temperature and distance, they clearly show an F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jet operating at the Tonopah Test Range, in Nevada.

The aircraft reportedly flew on both Sept. 29 and 30.


Even though flights of the Black Jets have been documented a few times on video past its official retirement in 2008, these are the first images that prove the stealth plane, most probably two of them, since, according to the contributor who sent us the blurry images he shot from the hills east of TTR, the plane that flew on the 29th was in a different barn than the one flew on the 30th.


Interestingly, the aircraft flew on Sept. 29 using radio callsign “Knight 12”.

Why some F-117s were kept in flying conditions and still operate in secrecy (although during daylight…) more than 6 years after their official retirement remains a mystery.


There are several possibilities, among them, the most plausible, is that the aircraft is used to test some other technology: radar or Infra Red Search and Track systems, SAM (surface to air missiles) batteries, 6th generation fighter planes, next generation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platforms or UAVs (unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

There is someone who speculates the aircraft may be actually “unmanned” and used as fast, combat capable, stealth UCAVs.

Image credit: lazygranch.com


Second China’s J-20 stealth fighter prototype's new radome: a sign of an installed AESA radar set?

New images published on the Chinese Internet (and in particular those available on the HobbyShangai.net site) showing China’s J-20 “Mighty Dragon” new prototype clearly show an interesting detail: the aircraft coded “2002” has a slightly different nose section than the first prototype, coded “2001”.

In particular, instead of being installed on the right hand side of the radome, the pitot static boom of the new prototype (whose first test flight is imminent) sticks out of the radome’s point.

Image credit: HobbyShangai.net

The pitot tube, used to determine the aircraft’s airspeed, is usually put on the nose of the plane or the wing: anywhere as long as it is always pointed in the direction of the flow. However, its position on series production planes does not always match the one on prototypes: the latter often carry simplified wirings or lack complete (radar) systems, hence they sport different radome shapes.

Although the change in the pitot position and the new radome can be related to many technical reasons, they could also be a sign of a different kind of radar fitted inside the new radome.

An active electronically scanned array (AESA) set?

The second prototype of the Chengdu J-20 fifth generation stealth fighter, coded 2002, could soon fly along the first one, coded 2001, that has been involved in the testing activities since Jan. 11, 2011.

NASA's Ikhana MQ-9 drone flies with ADS-B equipment for the first time

On Mar. 15, for the first time ever at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center a Ikhana MQ-9 unmanned aircraft (modified Reaper) flew with an Automated Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B transponder.

It was the first time that an unmanned aircraft the size of the Ikhana with its 66 foot wingspan and 10,000 pounds take off weight has flown using the aircraft tracking device that all aircraft operating in certain U.S. airspace will have to adopt by 2020 to comply with New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules.

The tests were part of a project named UAS in the NAS which is shortened for the full name of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System.

NASA launched the Ikhana from Dryden and flew it over the Western Aeronautical Test Range, which forms part of Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center. This first flight took some three hours and the new equipment was found to have performed well: the ADS-B enabled NASA the ability to gain much more detailed information which would in theory be given to Air Traffic Controllers and airborne pilots in other aircraft equipped with ADS-B flying with the vicinity of the UAV (even if, currently, only air traffic controllers can see all the aircraft broadcasting ADS-B data in a given part of the sky).

Indeed, the ADS-B system uses a special transponder that autonomously broadcasts data from the aircraft’s on-board navigation systems about its GPS-calculated position, altitude and flight path. This information can be received by ground stations, by other nearby aircraft  enhancing situational awareness.

This first flight of the ADS-B equipped Ikhana is the first in many planned flights to gain data whilst doing simulated real world tasks. During this first flight and as part of a collaborative effort, FAA’s William J Hughes Technical Centre in Atlantic City, N.J recorded the ADS-B data and will help NASA analyse the performance and accuracy of the system fitted in the aircraft.

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