Black Aircraft Tour 2009, November 2009
by DiCanio

After arriving at SFO, I spent the next day, monday, photographing U-2's and T-38 Talons at Beale AFB, and also observed two 9 Reconnaissance Wing RQ-4 Global Hawks in their hangars. That evening I set course for Tonopah on the scenic route with a night stop at Lake Tahoe and then into Nevada via Mono Lake. Amazing scenery.

I arrived at the town of Tonopah mid afternoon on the tuesday, and headed straight up the road to the FAA radar facility. This elevated position has a distant view of the TTR airfield, which is about 30 miles away across the desert, beyond the little used Tonopah civilian airfield.

For the next 2 hours I watched the base, and listened on my VHF scanner. It was kinda bizarre sitting there in my 4x4 watching the base through my 60x scope, while reminiscing about the MiG-21, MiG-23 and F-117 ops which had gone on at the base in the past. During this time I watched two Janet 737-600's arrive and depart on runway 32. They then headed south presumably back to Vegas or maybe Groom.

As dusk approached, a pair of gray painted fighters recovered to the base. They approached from the North, and flew a run and break approach to runway 14. Although they were at long range, I'm very proud of my recognition skills, and they were definitely not F-15 or F-18's as they has a single tail fin, and seemed bigger than an F-16 (I thought they were possibly delta winged too). I knew that the RAF had a pair of Typhoons at China Lake in the recent past, and there were IAI Kfirs at Fallon, so one of these seemed possible candidates. There was nothing on the scanner, so they were using UHF frequencies. The pair then parked up on the ramp by the northernmost hangars. A combination of wind, head haze and rapidly dwindling light stopped me from positively ID'ing the types once they were parked up. Darkness fell quickly and I headed to the Best Western slightly frustrated by this, but excited about the forthcoming day.

I was up before dawn the next day to make my journey to Brainwash Butte, the well known viewpoint to the west of TTR airfield. After the obligatory stop by the roadside TTR missile, I went off road onto the dirt roads that crisscross the desert to the east of the TTR base.

The scanner crackled into life around 8 am as a Janet 737 landed on runway 14 and taxied to the ramp at the south end of the airfield. Having located and climbed Brainwash Butte, I squatted on the very windy peak with my scanner and telescope at the ready. Another Janet 737 arrived, and a Janet Beech 1900 departed. A couple of the Canyons were partly open, but I was too far away to see inside.

An hour or so passed with no activity before the scanner came to life with the callsign 'Rat 55' inbound. Out to the north I spied the unmistakable shape of the radar testbed NT-43A 73-1155 descending out of about 20k feet towards the airfield. The plane flew downwind then turned onto a visual final for runway 32 and parked facing west on the ramp. This is a very rare plane, which has previously been pictured in formation with B-2's over Death Valley. What a great catch!

As the wind increased during the day I decided it was time to head back to SUV and drive to a place I could watch the base in relative comfort. Nothing else arrived or departed (by this stage I was looking southwest into the sun), but I did notice another unidentified aircraft parked outside a canyon around lunchtime. The plane was at long range and semi head on to me (and the heat haze was causing havoc with my optics), but I could see it wasn't a familiar shape. I thought at first it could be an F-117 but it seemed to be parked with a much more nose up attitude. It was a mystery. By this time my eyes were aching with all the squinting, and the sun was making things very difficult, so I decided it was time to head to Groom Lake and on to my night stop in Alamo. Interestingly the USAF publicly acknowledged the RQ-170 Sentinel was based at TTR only 4 weeks after my trip, so maybe I had seen one at its home base?

After a quick look at the deserted 'Base Camp' strip near Warm Springs, I headed south onto Highway 375 and arrived at Queen City Summit around 4.45pm, where I planned to park up and listen to the scanner. This location is roughly on the extended centreline (albeit 35 miles out) for the main runway at Groom, and is high up for good radio reception, so I figured it was a good place to stop.

Well today must have been my lucky day. Within 10 minutes of stopping the vehicle, I heard fast jet activity. Looking up, I was gobsmacked to see a single seat MiG-29 headed southeast towards the base at 15,000 feet or so. I just had time to swap my scope for my telephoto lens and I got 3 shots of her as she recovered towards Groom. Within an hour it was dark and I drove to my lodgings with a massive smile on my face. Mission accomplished, MiG spotted, and I'd only just arrived!

Next morning I was up pre-dawn to do the Tikaboo climb. I took an hour and 25 minutes to climb to the peak after parking at the trailhead, and it was indeed a very strenuous climb! A GPS with pre-programed route was priceless, as were the ribbon trail markers on the bushes.

For those of you who haven't done the climb, your first view of Area 51 will take your breath away, and stay etched in your memory for ever. It's a great feeling, a real personal achievement, especially if you've travelled over 5000 miles to be there.

After reaching the peak I hung around for 3 hours or so, just taking in the amazing scenery and watching a couple of Janets come and go, and an F-16 arrive and taxi to the north ramp. I also noticed a tripod on the peak half mile to the east of me and wondered if it was some kind of remote camera aimed at the Tikaboo to monitor visitors. I guess it may have been a weather station or abandoned USGS tripod.

After descending Tikaboo Peak (and repairing a puncture - be careful on that dirt road!), I decided to head to stake out Tikaboo Valley for the afternoon, and parked a couple of miles from the Mailbox. It was a quiet afternoon until I noticed jet noise coming from east of the powerlines overlook. Far in the distance a MiG-29 was very clearly doing head on intercepts with an F-16. The smokey engines of the MiG-29 were unmistakable. I took some shots with my 200mm lens, but all you can see is a speck with a trail of smoke behind it. This continued for half an hour or so, until I struck gold again when the MiG and the F-16 recovered to Groom directly over my head (east - west over the mailbox and Highway 375) at around 20k feet. This time I got multiple shots of the pair headed into the setting sun, which silhouetted them nicely and highlighted the MiG's smokey engine again. The F-16 maneouvered around the MiG, as if the pilot was having a close look from all angles. The pair eventually broke left into a visual RH circuit for runway 32R at Groom.

I spent my final day, Friday, near Groom Lake in this same location. I saw no unusual activity that day, but enjoyed watching F-15's and F-22's from Nellis AFB dogfighting overhead, just east of 'The Box', with occasional sonic booms and flares being dispensed. There was also a C-130E and C-17 flying at low level, possibly preparing for a MAFEX exercise scheduled for a couple of weeks later. After my last Groom sunset I headed south to Vegas.

After the weekend, I spent Monday at Nellis, which was great fun and all-action. It got even better when the guy I was chatting to spied a B-2 orbiting in the distance, waiting for the Thunderbirds to complete their practise display. About 20 minutes later, the B-2 was visible on a long straight in approach, and was joined by two further examples within 30 minutes. Superb! After a great day I quit Nevada and headed west for the next part of my trip - UAV hunting in the Antelope Valley.

After a night stop in Barstow, I headed to El Mirage airfield where General Atomics builds the MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAV for the US Army. There were 3 on the ground, one of which was doing engine runs. During my visit I noticed a MQ-9 Reaper UAV overhead, being shadowed by a civilian Cessna light aircraft (a 177 I think). They were headed in the direction of Gray Butte airfield, where they are produced for the USAF. I jumped in my car and followed the pair to Gray Butte, a few miles to the west of El Mirage. After parking on the extended centreline for an hour, about a mile west of the field, it seemed there was no more activity, so I quit and headed north to Edwards AFB.

Edwards is a huge base and hard to get close to, so I figured I would park on the extended centreline to runway 22 and see what I could see from my north side vantage point. This was when I got to see my last UAV of the trip - a dark green RQ-4 Global Hawk flying race track patterns to the north of Edwards. Each orbit took 20 minutes or so, and was at 15-20k feet. Apart from this, traffic was just regular F-16s, T-38's, a C-12 and a C-17. Night was falling so I hit the freeway south to Palmdale for my hotel. A quick nocturnal look at the Skunk Works factory revealed a USMC C-130 parked outside the hangar doors, presumably waiting for some classified cargo.

My final morning was spent at Palmdale. It was great to see the Blackbird Airpark still going strong, with it's A-12, SR-71 and F-117 among others, plus a further composite F-117 preserved on a pole outside the Skunkworks. A trawl around the perimeter revealed nothing of interest, the place is very secure, so I headed to LAX then home to the UK. Great trip!


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U-2 80-066 at Beale AFB
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U-2 80-068 at Beale AFB
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NT-43 at TTR
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F-117 Canyons at TTR
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MiG-29 near Groom Lake, Nov 4
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Tikaboo Peak
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Groom Lake
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MiG-29 and F-16 near Groom Lake, Nov 5
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MiG-29 and F-16 near Groom Lake, Nov 5
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MQ-1C Gray Eagle at El Mirage
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RQ-4 Global Hawk at Edwards AFB

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