Mystery Aircraft Over Texas

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As far as I know, this sort of thing has happened only once since 1956. 
 
That was when British magazines started getting eyewitness accounts and grainy photos of the Lockheed U-2, then operating out of RAF Lakenheath on its first spy flights over the Soviet Union. Classified programs have been exposed in all sorts of ways since then - for example, the A-12 Blackbird was disclosed under a degree of pressure - but until the RQ-170 Sentinel was seen at Kandahar in 2007-09 there has been no such aircraft photographed before it was declassified. (And in the case of the RQ-170, the operational security people were not trying too hard.)
 
With that in mind, let's look at the photos taken by Steve Douglass and Dean Muskett of an aircraft seen over Amarillo on March 10. 

blog post photo
STEVE DOUGLASS
 

blog post photo
DEAN MUSKETT
 
Three of us here - myself, Graham Warwick and Guy Norris - concur that the photos show something real. Guy and I have known Steve Douglass for a long time, and know that the reason that he sees (and monitors by radio) unusual things is that he spends time looking for them. Here is Steve's account of one of his better radio intercepts.  This is more than a random image. 
 
The photos tell us more about what the mysterious stranger isn't than what it is. The size is very hard to determine, for example, although the image size at contrailing height suggests that it is bigger than an X-47B. However, the basic shape - while it resembles Boeing's Blended Wing Body studies or the Swift Killer Bee/Northrop Grumman Bat unmanned air system - is different from anything known to have flown at full size, lacking the notched trailing edge of Northrop Grumman's full-size designs. 
 
The aircraft seen here was accompanied by two others. This and the fact that Steve picked up some apparently related voice traffic suggests that the aircraft is piloted: I doubt that you'd dispatch three large, classified unmanned aircraft anywhere in formation. The risk of a midair would be present, and such an event would be non-career-optimal. 
 
It's not merely logical to expect that numerous classified aircraft programs exist: it's almost a necessity under the principle of Occam's Razor, because if they don't, you have to contrive some sort of explanation for what Area 51 has been up to all these years. (Related comment here.) 
 
One avenue of speculation is to look at gaps in the USAF's line-up. 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: that technology gives you strike damage assessment as well as greater accuracy. The USAF has also talked about "penetrating, stand-in electronic attack" as an enabler for other strike systems - and talked in the same way about penetrating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, even when the Northrop Grumman RQ-180 was under development to perform that mission. 
 
 

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

Phil van Leeuwen (not verified)
on Apr 26, 2014

I agree that there must be a follow-on manned aircraft to the SR-71 Blackbird or the "black" program budget is suspect. Ben Rich was quoted as saying that there was technology 50 years beyond Buck Rogers going on at Area 71 when interviewed several years ago. The technical intelligentsia of the USA would certainly like to think that that is the case. It is likewise my hope that we are not disappointed in this regard.

on Nov 24, 2014

Fifty years beyond Buck Rodgers would be fusion powered with gravitic lift using field mechanics of some sort. Ben Rich was selling a lie to make the U.S. aerospace industry look more advanced than it is as a function of being thoroughly rutted in turbine+airfoil era of reaction mass + lift flight.

Have said that, the future to stealth detection is not RF but EO with multi and hyperspectral systems both cheaper and able to be packaged in much smaller packages.

Consider an adaptive optics package the size of a small astronomical mirror telescope that crosses the majority of a flying wing's inner wing panels and yet focusses laterally out to a set of radial detectors, each with a 2500X2500 equivalent array size with multi-doped detector elements.

You will look up into the clear high nothing and you will see, not just very cool contrasts of ultrahigh mixing ratio engine exhausts but also the wake patterns of the tips, drawing slightly differentiated Mach shocks as vortices invisible to the human eye but not to a hyperspectral sensor.

Any jet large enough to fly at 40K or higher without active EO-LO as Peltier tiles or the like (Black Fox/Adaptiv etc.) will draw a unique blackbody radiometric contrast visible to both IR and MMW sensors as different from the sky temp. with a 'shadow' as big as a B-2 will be especially hard to blend.

IMO, the future doesn't lie with ninja sneak thief tactics (which focus too much on tactical objectives and thus are predictable) but on the blatant roar of hypersonic SPEED which can sling retrobraked or EML decelerated projectiles out of a tunnel carriage mode before slinging them like flat stones over smooth water, half a time zone or more.

With systems like this, the coming of age in SSLs and hunting weapons (autonomous SAMs powered by multi-cycle turbines instead of rockets) will not be as compromising as it will be if we remain locked in the present obsession with subsonic airframes.

If you want to deter someone from doing something naughty like invade Taiwan or 'assist' a revolution in Iraq, consider the reality of hitting those HIGH VALUE targets which are most difficult and costly to replace: factories and civil infrastructure.

A poor man has no need of conquest if he struggles to feed what he has and fixed structural targets don't move about and thus don't have to be DF-21D TEL tracked down within a given mission window of an LRSB or whatever.

Hypersonics will take us out of theater, making A2AD hard to achieve. Hypersonics can be 'technology tuned' so that espionage, reverse engineering or simple emulation does not grant a threat state the same degree of capability for the simple reason that 6,000 miles of Pacific and 3,000 miles of Atlantic still stand in the way (a 5,000nm flight range HSP or Hypersonic Strike Platform could still hit targets from Shanghai to Hong Kong before deck recovering out in the SCS without ever exposing the carrier which launched it 'somewhere east of the Aleutians').

Again, we are in a situation where, the more we focus on solutions to tactical in-theater problem solving on ICD and BASM and the like, the more predictable and prolonged we become in responding to a threat which we must roll back before committing to a regional conflict already in progress when we arrived.

Avoiding that 'find'em and shoot'em!' rollback/suppression phase (lest our boats get blown out from under us) is thus key to both Allied security in the face of rising nuclear and Near Pear technical threats and avoiding the cost writeoffs of a full blown buildup to liberation effort like Desert Storm.

However quaint the taking of photos over North Texas may seem (and I'm sure there is a waypoint location in the USAF digital terrain database marked 'Steve's Place') what they are showing us is not a radical step forward in the art of warfighting and would not have been considered such, even in the 1960s.

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