On Wednesday, April 3, 2002, Bill Whiffen and I were lucky enough to observe and record the radio traffic of a very interesting test flight out of Area 51 from a view spot known as the Powerlines Overlook. There is no direct view of Area 51 from there, but you can see the Groom airspace down to about 1000 ft. above ground. And the scanner easily picks up Groom radio traffic, even of aircraft on the Groom runway. The distance to the base is about the same as from Tikaboo Peak, 26 miles.
Around 7.10pm, we saw an aircraft with a bright white strobe appear above Freedom Ridge and climb very fast and at a much steeper angle than the Janet 737's. Although we could not see it take off, there was no doubt that it came out of Groom, taking off on Runway 14.
It was a moonless night, and at a distance of 26 miles we could only see the white strobe, and what appeared to be several dim red lights, even with our binoculars. At about 10,000 ft. it made a sharp turn and flew north or northwest at high speed. There we watched it fly racetrack patterns, possibly over Kawich Valley, Railroad Valley or the Cactus Flat/TTR/S-4 area. These areas are littered with radar sites of all sorts, so it is possible that the aircraft was doing some kind of test involving radar. Sometimes we lost sight of the aircraft, but because of its bright strobe it was easy to identify when it re-appeared. The aircraft appeared to be able to maneuver very easily, and sometimes flew at high speeds. We never heard a sonic boom, but it was certainly going at high subsonic speeds.
At about 7.45pm we heard Maple 25, the last Janet shuttle for the day, request clearance for the flight back to Las Vegas. At about the same time we saw our fast moving friend return from the north. A few minutes later he requested clearance to land at Groom, and the Janet, which was just taxiing to the runway for the takeoff back to Las Vegas, was ordered to hold until the "fastmover" had landed. Yes, in our recording Groom tower can clearly be heard referring to the test flight as a fastmover!
They then decided to make a low approach pass over the base, to give the Janet a chance to take off before they landed. It is interesting that, although it was a clear night, they mentioned the use of the Groom ILS (Instrument Landing System), which is not normally used by Janets. The ILS allows a plane on final approach to land fully automated in poor visibility conditions. They also mentioned "going out to the arc", which refers to the DME arc, a procedure used to set up the ILS approach pattern.
It is also interesting that the taxiing Janet was advised that "the fire department does not have anyone there because they are waiting for the fastmover to land". To which the Janet pilot replied: "Ok... Oh, we'll start without". They were probably referring to a routine runway sweep for debris. The reference to the fastmover could indicate that the fire department was on alert for a possible fire during the landing of the fastmover. Or that the fastmover was so secret that even Area 51 fire department personnel was not allowed near the runway while it landed.
We saw the fastmover make several low passes over the base, disappearing and reappearing behind Freedom Ridge. Then around 8.10pm, after the Janet had taken off to Las Vegas, it landed on runway 32 and was advised to taxi to its parking position.
Click on the speaker to hear the audio clip. The most interesting part is towards the end of the recording. Or click here for a transcript.
I am not sure what type of aircraft it was, but it is very likely that what we saw and recorded was the test flight of a Black Project currently under development at Area 51. They like to fly on moonless nights like this, when it is impossible to make out the silhouette of an aircraft against the sky. The fact that it was flying over the radar sites and ECR ranges may indicate that the stealth capabilities of the test aircraft were tested against the various radar systems.
All I can say for sure is that it was fast, able to maneuver very easily, manned (likely by more than one pilot), and equipped with an ILS system. The following night I looked for it from a location with a good view of the airspace that it was maneuvering in, but of course it never showed up.
Joerg H Arnu, April 2002