Tag Archives: U.S. Air Force

Two Edwards-based F-16s Spotted In Star Wars Canyon With Mysterious New Pod

Are you able to ID the pod carried by these two “Vipers” flying at low altitude through the Jedi Transition recently?

Few days ago we have published the photographs of an Area 51-based F-16D (86-0052) flying through the famous Star Wars canyon on Nov. 14 carrying a 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). Two things made the sighting particularly interesting: first of all, the two-seater “Viper” (as the F-16 is dubbed in the fighter pilots community) flew in the Jedi Transition hours after another F-16D (or possibly the very same one) had chased an F-117 near Rachel, Nevada. Second, the photographs of the F-16D 86-0052 clearly proved that both pilots of the aircraft wore a Red Hats patch (for more details I suggest you reading our story here).

However, some other interesting aircraft had flown over the Death Valley few days earlier.

The images in this post were taken by photographer Neil Dunridge taken on Nov. 8. They show two Edwards Air Force Base F-16 jets belonging to the 412th Test Wing, with a pretty interesting loadout: both aircraft carried one blue AN/ALQ-167, a very well-known electronic countermeasures threat simulation pod used by several aircraft (including aggressors) for training purposes, along with an unidentified grey with a black nose pod.

AF85-1560/ED with the AN/ALQ-167 pod under the left wing and the “mysterious” pod under the right one (All images credit: Neil Dunridge)

Noteworthy, as the photographs by Dunridge show, the configuration of the two aircraft is different: one (AF85-1560/ED) carried the AN/ALQ-167 pod under the left wing and the “mysterious” pod under the right one; the other one had the unidentified pod on the left and the AN/ALQ-167 on the right.

Two aircraft flew through the Jedi Transition on Nov. 8. This one had the unidentified pod under the left wing.

We haven’t been able to ID the new pod so far so, at least to us, it remains mysterious. It features a small air intake and a black dielectric blister fairing (that must be there to cover an antenna) reminds some data links pod (such as the AN/ASW-55 associated with the AGM-142 Popeye long-range missile).

Actually, the F-16 is already integrated with Lockheed Martin Legion Pod, that includes an IRST21 sensor as well as datalink to build up a “networked” battlespace where the aircraft can share a common “picture” without even turning the radar on (thus remaining “silent” from an electromagnetical point of view).

The pod shown in the photos from Neil Dunridge is quite different from the LM Legion Pod that includes IRST and data-link capabilities. (Image: Lockheed Martin).

The Legion Pod flew with the F-16 in Fort Worth, Texas, in June 2015. The aircraft carries the pod on the right hand side of the air intake (Photo by Randy Crites/LM)

Is Edwards testing some new DLP? Maybe. Or the pod can be something completely different (such a test bed for laser weapons, EW pod, etc.). If you can identify the pod, let us know. Meanwhile we can’t but notice how the Star Wars canyon continues to provide some great opportunities to see and shoot rarely seen aircraft with rarely seen payloads!

Update: it looks like the same pod, carried by an Edwards F-16, was spotted before Nov. 8. Here you can find a photo of the pod under the left wing on Oct. 29, 2017: https://www.flickr.com/photos/habujet/37946803206/in/photostream/

Update II: Our friend Tyler Rogoway from The War Zone has found what indeed seems to be the very same pod carried by a VAQ-34 EA-7L in a photo dating back to 1987!!

Here it is:

A view of two Vought EA-7L Corsair II aircraft of electronic warfare squadron VAQ-34 on the ramp during the U.S. 3rd Fleet North Pacific Exercise (NORPACEX) at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska (USA) on 8 Nov 1987. VAQ-34 operated as a adversary squadron, hence the Soviet star and the red numbers on the planes. (Camera Operator: Sgt. W. Thornton via Wiki)

Indeed, in the early 1980s, eight U.S. Navy TA-7C two-seater Corsair jets were turned into electronic aggressor aircraft, under the designation EA-7L. These “electronic Corsairs”, operated by VAQ-34 out of NAS (Naval Air Station) Point Mugu, California, could carry electronic jamming pods on their underwing pylons to simulate Soviet weapons and tactics. Now, it looks like some of the pods used 30 years ago are being used again to test some new (EW/threat emitter) sensor using an existing form factor.

A big thank you to Neil Dunridge for allowing us to use his photographs. Make sure to follow him on Twitter here: @Chiv63

The Story Of The MiG-31 “Firefox”: All You Need To Know About The Most Awesome (Fictional) Advanced High-Speed Interceptor Ever

If you thought you knew everything about the MiG-31, you were wrong!

Based upon a 1977 novel of the same name by Craig Thomas, “Firefox” is a techno-thriller action film produced, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, released in 1982.

Most (if not all) the aviation geeks have probably seen the movie at least once.

The movie focuses on a plot to steal a Soviet MiG-31 (МиГ-31 in Cyrillic script), NATO reporting name “Firefox”, a stealth interceptor aircraft, capable of Mach 6 and bring it back to a friendly base where it can be analysed.

The shape of the Firefox differs a lot between the first novel and film. The version in the novel resembles a MiG-25 “Foxbat”, much like the real Mikoyan MiG-31 “Foxhound”. The movie version is a more futuristic design, unlike any other planes of the 1970s or 1980s. Indeed, the aircraft seems to have been influenced by the speculation about what the soon-to-be-revealed “stealth fighter” might have looked like.

Although the whole story is hardly plausible, what’s really interesting about the movie is the MiG-31 and some of its capabilities (some of those were not available at the time the novel was written or the movie released, but became available in the following decades): along with its ability to evade enemy radars and fly at hypersonic speeds, the Firefox featured a Thought-Controlled Weapons System, uses signals from the pilot’s brain to target enemies and fire weapons; however, it only responds to commands thought in Russian. The aircraft was fitted with a camera system that allowed the pilot to see images from his “6 o’clock”.

Two prototypes of the MiG-31 were built (according to the fictional story). The first prototype was stolen by Major Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood) who evades the Soviets’ attempts to stop him, reaches the Arctic ice pack where it lands to be refueled and rearmed by the crew of a submarine. The second prototype is launched to intercept the stolen Firefox. The subsequent, long dogfight is (needless to say) won by Gant.

A second novel was written by Craig Thomas in 1983. “Firefox Down” did not become a feature film even though the cover of book depicts the MiG-31 as it was in the movie.

The MiG-31s involved in the dogfight. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Graphic designer Kurt Beswick (who has also illustrated the Northrop Low Altitude Penetrator concept for our site) has been researching and studying the aircraft featured in the 1982. He has also launched a website that acts as an online resource of information about the Firefox and its special effects.

Kurt has also produced a technical “whitepaper” to accompany the illustration that you can find at the top of this article. “Note that it’s all pulled from the movie and/or made-up by me and not meant to be taken seriously, it’s just for fun. Obviously a plane of this design and configuration wouldn’t be hypersonic, but for the sake of the film (and book) I keep it accurate to the details,” he wrote in an email.

Here below you can find some of the most interesting parts of the whitepaper.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The fundamental purpose behind the MiG-31 Firefox program was to develop an aircraft capable of intercepting anything the West currently had, which at that time were Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird, U-2B, TR-1, and the D-21 drone.  The cold war was still at its peak and the need to “keep the other guy honest” led the United States to begin overflights of Russia with spyplanes.  Thus, the Mach 3.5 Lockheed D-21 drone that launched from a “mothership” SR-71 was the only real concern Russia had in 1982.  The Americans already had several successful launches and recoveries of the unmanned aircraft above 100,000 feet, Mikoyan-Gurevich needed to make this their primary target.  Much of what they had learned from the MiG-25 Foxbat programme was applied to create one of the most advanced aircraft to ever take to the skies.  The Firefox was at the forefront of aviation technology and the United States recognized this.

The MiG-31 budget kept getting larger and the hopes of building more than two prototypes quickly began to diminish.  The titanium manufacturing process alone was already far beyond the initial budget for the program, but officials pushed forward regardless. They were not to be outdone by anyone, and they most certainly would not allow the American’s to overfly their aispace unchallenged any longer. Firefox was designed to be the ultimate high-speed, high-altitude interceptor.

POWERPLANT

The Firefox used a pair of Tumansky RJ-15BD-600 high-bypass afterburning turbojets capable of producing 50,000 lbs. thrust each.  These were heavily modified, uprated turbojets based upon the engines from the MiG-25 Foxbat programme.  Russian engineers took what they learned from high-mach turbojet engine technology and applied acquired US engine manufacturing technology to the Tumansky 600 series engines, built within the same footprint of the current R-15BD-300 design.  The introduction of high-bypass air intake systems helped produce the most powerful conventional turbojet engine of its day, surpassing even the US built 32,000lb P&W J58, used in the much revered SR-71 Blackbird.

In addition to these massive engines, the Firefox had six Soyuz/Komarov solid rocket boosters, using a solid-propellant with a proprietary ignition/shutoff system.  These rockets could be used to augment the main engines, providing an additional 15,900 pounds of thrust.  These were normally used during take-off under full load or high-speed dash acceleration. In some rare cases, test pilots were known to engage these rockets at extreme altitudes where thin air produced flame-outs on the main engines.  The first flying prototype was taken to 131,079 feet setting a new world record, breaking the previous record of 123,492 ft. held by a Ye-266M.

The compressor blade components were manufactured of pure titanium, a first for Russian aircraft manufacturing.  Fuel was cooled via the centerline ventral air intake and then pumped through a complex series of conduits around the giant Tumansky engines to keep them cool, as well as throughout much of the airframe.  Much of this technology and ideology was gleaned from information obtained by Russian agents on the production of the SR-71 Blackbird, which used similar cooling principles.

By alternating wastegate control between the dorsal and ventral air intakes using ramps, thereby more accurately controlling the engine-breathing, the RJ-15BD-600 could achieve incredible thrust to weight ratio and excellent high-altitude air-breathing qualities. Achieving Mach 6 was possible, although this was considered ‘maximum’ speed which was ineffecient to maintain for any period of time due to the MiG’s massive fuel consumption.  Cruise speeds were more in the range of Mach 3.8 to 4.8, and operational altitudes under normal conditions were considered to be in the range of 95,000 to 105,000 feet.

The Firefox at the rendezvous with a submarine in the arctic (Warner Bros).

AIRFRAME

The airframe was composed mostly of titanium and SS-118, a stainless steel/nickel alloy that was used extensively in the later model Foxbats.  The MiG-31 was the first Soviet aircraft to extensively use titanium in the structure, it wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that Russian manufacturing technology reached a point where working extensively with titanium was actually realistic.  However, with the addition of a radar absorbent material coating the aircraft, surface heating became a major problem.

To partially combat this issue the plane was designed with a very thin aspect-ratio to the leading/trailing edges of the wings, much like the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.  The nose and engine nacelles were designed based upon seamless flat-angles to minimize air friction and reduce overall drag.  All rivets were countersunk, unlike most Russian aircraft preceding it, and there were virtually no exposed protuberances, sensors or seams anywhere on the craft.  Expansion joints were built into the wings of the aircraft to allow for expansion/contraction of the skin due to this surface heating.  The weapons bays were internal and missiles were carried on retractable launching racks behind flush-mounted doors on the port and starboard sides of the plane.  Many different methods of heat-reduction were tested, but in the end the airframe was still a giant heatsink, not unlike its MiG-25 forefather.

The airframe had “stealth” characteristics, however there was much debate over the need for this considering the speed and altitude capabilities of the aircraft.  It used a three-fold combination of countermeasures to make itself virtually undetectable to enemy radar systems.  The design of the aircraft was angular enough to deflect much of the incoming radar away from its point of origin, the most basic form of “stealth” technology.  In addition to this, the skin of the craft was coated with a radar absorbent material (RAM) very similar to American Stealth technology at the time.  Finally, the MiG had electronic countermeasures (ECM) that could jam enemy early-warning systems.  However, there was no way to effectively cool the exhaust of the giant Tumansky engines which gave the MiG-31 a massive heat signature for heatseeking missiles, which was considered one of the aircraft’s only major weaknesses.

AVIONICS SYSTEMS

The Firefox was the first aircraft to effectively use an operational thought-controlled weapons management system.  Not only was it a fully operational and working system, it was also rather simple and unobtrusive from a mechanical standpoint.  The receptors were mounted inside the specially designed helmet and linked to the aircraft’s central computer system via a fiber datalink.  The pilot simply had to think (in Russian) about what weapon he wanted selected and could execute the command to launch the missile mentally.  This is what is known as an EEG Feedback system.  The pilot did not fly the aircraft via thought, he only controlled the weapons systems by thought.  Most of the fly-by-wire systems in the aircraft were considered new technology at the time, but the Thought Controlled Weapons Management System was truly revolutionary.  Mikoyan-Gurevich also managed to develop a synthetic aperture radar system for the plane which gave it even more mission flexibility, including being well suited for recon missions.

The MiG-31 Firefox had a range of 3,000 miles. (Warner Bros).

FATE OF THE FOX

I didn’t really follow the timeline of the Firefox novel according to Craig Thomas, because quite frankly I thought it was ridiculous to go through all of that effort to steal the plane only to crash it into the ground (as in “Firefox Down”). I instead took a few liberties with it, but still kept in line with the known facts.  IE: The full-scale mockup of the Firefox really was filmed in and around a hangar at Edwards Air Force Base.  So what I did was create a bit of a “history” for the aircraft.  I thought to myself; ‘If this were an actual stolen Soviet fighter, where would the US military brass go with it?’  The first logical choice, since the plane was headed toward Alaska at the end of the movie, would be a secure facility in Northern California, probably Beale AFB since it has vast support capabilities and it’s fairly remote (they operated SR-71 and TR-1 spyplanes out of the base for years).  Here, the majority of the initial inspection and study of the aircraft would be done.  From there they would probably take it to Groom Lake to join the “Red Hat” squadron that consists of other acquired Russian military hardware.

Once the majority of the plane had been disassembled and reverse engineered over a period of several years, it would eventually find its way to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB in southern California. There, it would spend the rest of its life undergoing high-speed flight testing and metallurgy research in conjunction with their already-existing SR-71 testbed programme, not to mention study of the thought controlled weapons system. The possibilities are endless from there, perhaps the F-22 Raptor program would have had quite a different outcome had any of this actually been real.

CONCLUSION

The Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau succeeded in creating an aircraft with capabilities far beyond anything the west currently had by using the proven “brute force” design tactic so typical of Russian military aircraft.  The creative minds at the Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau learned as much about what was being done at the time as they could, then improved upon the concepts in many ways.  The west recognized this as an opportunity to even the table and consequently made the radical decision to steal the aircraft from Russia. They succeeded in doing so, succeeding also in destroying the only other prototype example of the MiG-31.

With both aircraft gone, all of the program funding used to build the first two prototypes gone, and several of their lead engineers killed in the process, Mikoyan-Gurevich decided not to reinstate the Firefox program.  This effectively ended the legacy of one of the greatest, most powerful and technologically advanced aircraft of our time.  There have been many stories about how the Firefox was never spoken of again within the corridors at Mikoyan-Gurevich.  All records of it, along with the tooling, were destroyed shortly after it was stolen and there exists no mention of the programme in any Russian aviation literature.  It was viewed by many top Russian officials as an embarrassing end to such an incredible machine.

Illustration by Kurt Beswick. Be sure to visit his website for tons of details about the MiG-31

What We’ve Learned About North Korea’s New Hwasong-15 Long Range ICBM.

This Week’s DPRK Launch Test Opens New Tensions with Sophisticated Missile.

On Nov. 29, 2017, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) tested a new, claimed-longer range ICBM called the Hwasong-15. It was launched from a ballistic missile test facility in South Pyongan Province, North Korea.

The launch test was significant for two reasons.

This Wednesday’s test followed over two months without any North Korean ICBM launch tests and was punctuated by a U.S. Presidential visit to neighboring China and Asia. Some analysts suggested the two events may have signaled the beginning of moderation in the ongoing North Korean crisis.

In opposition to the theory of impending détente, this week’s North Korean missile test proved to be a continued escalation of tensions. The missile launched for the first time this week was an ICBM not previously reported by the U.S. The new missile, the Hwasong-15, has longer claimed range than any prior North Korean ICBM. Hours after the test North Korea’s official news agency claimed the Hwasong-15, “could strike anywhere in the U.S.”

Official North Korean news sources claimed the Hwasong-15 reached an altitude of approximately 2,700 miles – well above the orbital altitude for the International Space Station – and covered nearly 600 miles in horizontal distance moving east toward Japan during its 53-minute flight. This launch test was predominantly vertical in trajectory. North Korea claimed the missile, “hit its intended target” in the Pacific near Japan. If the trajectory of the Hwasong-15 were altered to a more horizontal geometry the missile could theoretically cover substantial distance. In a statement following the launch test the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit think tank headquartered in Massachusetts, voiced concern that the missile’s range was, “more than enough to reach Washington D.C., albeit with a reduced payload.”

In typically theatric tone, a North Korean newscaster proclaimed, “After watching the successful launch of the new type ICBM Hwasong-15, Kim Jong Un declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power!”

In what appears to be a staged photo (there is no missile track on the monitors) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reacts to eat Hwasong-15 missile test. (Photo: North Korean Media)

This Wednesday’s North Korean missile launch test of the new Hwasong-15 was first detected by one of only four South Korean Air Force 737 AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning & Control) aircraft, called “Peace Eye”. The surveillance aircraft (based on the Boeing 737 airliner) were delivered to South Korea between May and October of 2012. They are based at Gimhae Air Base. South Korea claims the missile was detected, “within one minute of launch”. The missile was soon also observed on radar by at least one South Korean Navy Sejong-the-Great class destroyer at sea using their AN/SPY-1D antennae and Aegis Combat System.

A South Korean Air Force 737 AEWC “Peace Eye” surveillance aircraft detected the missile launch. (Photo: Boeing)

Along with the E7, several other aircraft were monitoring the launch, including a U.S. Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, deployed to Kadena, Okinawa, Japan, able to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight; and a USAF E-8C JSTARS.

According to media reports in Asia, “Two minutes after the North Korean missile launch at 3:17 AM local time Wednesday morning, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was briefed about the provocation by his top security adviser. Six minutes after the launch, the South Korean military staged a live-fire missile exercise, in an apparent display of its response capabilities to strike the North Korean origin of provocations. At 6 a.m., the South Korean president held a meeting with the National Security Council at the Blue House bunker.”

Noteworthy observations about the newly observed Hwasong-15 include a new mobile launch platform. The wheeled platform shown in a photo released by North Korean media is larger than previously observed versions. Launching the missile from a mobile platform makes locating it prior to launch more difficult, a problem that was underscored during the first U.S./Iraq war when a significant amount of resources were devoted to finding the mobile Scud missile launchers in the Iraqi desert that were targeting Israel and Saudi Arabia.

North Korean Hwasong-15 in launch position of mobile launcher. (Photo: North Korean Media)

Military intelligence source Global Security.org reported that South Korean military officials said the maximum range projections for the Hwasong-15 could only be achieved if two key technologies of a nuclear-armed ICBM have been secured: the technology for the warhead and guidance system to survive an atmospheric re-entry and the technology to miniaturize the warhead and guidance payload. It has not been confirmed if North Korea has achieved those technological milestones.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Zhao Tong, an expert in the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie’s Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, China, told Global Security.org that this latest successful launch test of North Korea’s Hwasong-15, “could mean that the DPRK thinks it has achieved all the basic technical capabilities of a credible nuclear force and therefore no major missile tests are needed anymore. If this is the case, this could potentially open a window to de-escalate tension in the near-term future and may increase the chances of diplomatic engagement with North Korea.”

Claimed range of the new North Korean Hwasong-15 ICBM. (Photo: Union of Concerned Scientists)

 

U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Commanding Officer Relieved of Duty Due to “Loss of Confidence”

Lt. Col. Jason Heard, Thunderbird #1, Relieved Due to “Loss of Confidence”

Lt. Col. Jason Heard of the U.S. Air Force Flight Demonstration Squadron, The Thunderbirds, has been relieved of command, the USAF Air Combat Command said today in a news release. The official reason cited for his removal from the position was a “loss of confidence’.

According to most definitions, military “loss of confidence” is when a party is, “inadequate in some respect, are failing to carry out obligations, or are making decisions that other members feel are detrimental.”

Lt. Col. Heard was relieved by USAF Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, 57th Wing commander at Nellis AFB. In a statement released by the U.S. Air Force, Brig. Gen Leavitt was quoted as saying, “This was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one that is ultimately in the best interests of the Thunderbird team.” Brig. Gen. Leavitt went on to say in the release. “I am personally grateful for Jason’s dedication to the 2017 season.”

The official statement said, “Lt. Col. Heard led the team through a highly successful show season,” but that Brig. Gen. Leavitt, “lost confidence in his leadership and risk management style.”

The Thunderbirds experienced one accident under the command of Lt. Col. Heard. On June 23, 2017, during an orientation flight for an enlisted maintenance team member, Thunderbird #8, piloted by Capt. Erik “Speedy” Gonsalves, slid off a runway the day before the Vectren Dayton Airshow in Dayton, Ohio. It was raining at the time. The Thunderbird F-16 rolled during the accident and came to rest upside down. An official accident report later read, “Upon landing, the pilot was unable to stop the aircraft on the prepared surface. As a result, the aircraft departed the runway and overturned in the grass,” The F-16 involved in the accident was written-off.

In part of an e-mail sent to Aviation Week’s Lara Seligman, a spokesperson for the Thunderbirds, said the leadership change was, “unrelated to the Dayton incident.”

“This decision was based on Brig. Gen. Leavitt having lost confidence in Lt. Col. Heard’s leadership in risk management style. While he led a highly successful 2017 show season featuring 72 demonstrations over 39 show sites, concerns arose that his approach to leading the team was resulting in increased risk within the demonstration which eroded the team dynamic, ” Thunderbird spokesperson wrote in the email.

The Thunderbirds’ operations officer, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, has  assumed interim command of the team until a new commander is selected, according to Air Combat Command.

Top image: The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds taxi to their parking area During Aviation Nation 2017 Air Show at Nellis AFB while one pilot shoots a photo from his cockpit. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

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.