Secret Warplane Appears Over Texas
Unknown to the public, shaped like a kite, sketching a contrail tens of thousands of feet in the air
•David Axe & Robert Beckhusen & Matthew Gault in War is Boring
Photographers have spotted what appears to be a previously unknown type of stealth warplane flying over Texas.
Steve Douglass and Dean Muskett, both veteran plane-spotters, snapped photos of at least one, and possibly three, examples of the new aircraft and their contrails near Amarillo on March 10. Ace reporter Bill Sweetman first posted the pics on Aviation Week’s Website—and Douglass followed up with a blog post.
The photo atop our story is a generic image of an airplane producing a contrail at high altitude.
Douglass described the circumstances on his blog. “The sky was severe-clear and the three contrails stood out like white chalked exclamation points across a deep blue sky.” He didn’t realize what he had until he got home and inspected the digital files.
That’s when he got in touch with Sweetman.
The mysterious aircraft in Douglass and Muskett’s photos appears to be large, stealthy and—if Sweetman is correct—manned. “Steve picked up some apparently related voice traffic [that] suggests that the aircraft is piloted,” Sweetman wrote.
Sweetman surmised that the plane is either a stealthy radar-jammer or an elusive precision bomber—in short, a replacement for the Air Force’s EF-111 or F-117, both long retired.
“Look at gaps in the USAF’s line-up,” Sweetman wrote. “One obvious example is high-precision stealth attack: the B-2 and F-22 have the ability to drop GPS-inertial weapons on coordinates generated or updated by radar, but that’s not the same as electro-optical targeting and laser guidance, which seemingly went away with the retirement of the F-117 six years ago.”
Likewise, the Air Force has repeatedly implied that it’s developing an aircraft able to fly close to enemy air-defense and overpower their sensors with targeted electromagnetic energy.
B-2 stealth bomber. Prayitno photo via Flickr Douglass and Muskett’s secret plane appears to have the “cranked-kite” wing shape that’s in vogue with Northrop Grumman, which built the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bombers in the 1980s and ’90s. Today Northrop is working alongside the Navy on the X-47B carrier-based attack drone demonstrator and with the Air Force on the highly-secret RQ-180 spy drone.
The B-2 has a more traditional “batwing” shape with straight leading edges. The newer X-47B has the cranked-kite form with forward-angled wingtips—as does the RQ-180, if Sweetman and colleague Amy Butler’s assessment is accurate.
The secret new warplane is large. We can assume that because it was generating a nice contrail—something possible only above 25,000 feet or so. Douglass estimated that the mystery jet was flying at 36,000 feet. And yet it was still plainly visible from the ground.
The B-2 is 172 feet from wingtip to wingtip; the RQ-180 reportedly spans 130 feet or so. The X-47B is fairly small at just 62 feet across.
X-47B drone. Navy photo We know the thing in Douglass and Muskett’s photos isn’t a B-2 because, according to Douglass, Sweetman got the Air Force to confirm that no B-2s were in the area.
We don’t think it’s an X-47B. The Navy has two of the drones, but they spend most of their time in Patuxent River, Maryland, at the sailing branch’s main aircraft test base. Besides, the mystery jet seems to be much bigger than an X-47.
Sweetman, for his part, didn’t seem to think the secret plane is an RQ-180, either—probably because the apparent shape is slightly wrong and because the RQ-180 is unmanned. Douglass overheard radio traffic between pilots in a three-ship flight—using the call sign “Sienna”—that seems to have been the mystery jets.
So why Amarillo? We have no idea. Douglass, writing on his blog, offered a tentative explanation. “It’s centrally located—everyone stops here to eat and get av-gas—and its expansive runways are used by the military for practicing touch-and-gos,” he wrote of the Texas town.
The Air Force usually tests its new toys at the secretive Area 51 test site in Groom Lake, Nevada. But Groom Lake is states away from the Texas Panhandle. Wherever this plane came from, it’s likely a long way from home.
The fact that this plane exists also means it’s important. The Air Force swears it’s running low on money. It’s retiring aircraft—like the A-10 Warthog attack plane—because they cost too much to fly. But an entirely new stealth aircraft would cost billions of dollars to produce.
This means that whatever it is, the Air Force thinks it’s worth giving up existing planes to have it.
All of that said, the Pentagon has a $59-billion annual black budget for classified projects. That money can buy a lot of secret airplanes. Or at least some secret airplanes, even with budget cuts.
A pair of intrepid photographers apparently just spotted one.
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