This picture was taken from a pilot passing through Palmdale about a 16 months ago. What appears is a large flying wing type unmanned aircraft with a dorsal intake. The wingspan appears to be right around seventy feet. The aircraft appears here in the smaller of two wide and low slung aircraft shelters, built around 2010, located by the engine test cells, just north of the Northrop Grumman installation at Plant 42.
Although the aircraft bears a resemblance to the now famous RQ-170 Sentinel, its dimensions are quite larger. It is widely reported that the RQ-170, as we know it at least, has a wingspan of about 75 feet, the reality is that it is actually much smaller. Somewhere between 38 and 50 feet is much more accurate. There have been growing rumors of a larger “Super Sentinel,” one that may even pack a decent attack capability, as well as upgraded stealth, payload, communications, and other survivability features, not to mention greater persistence. Although this is still rumor supported by scant facts at this point, this aircraft would certainly fit that bill.
The mystery drone could also be the partial replacement for the Global Hawk (which could even be the Above “Super Sentinel”), giving the aircraft low observability for closer proximity monitoring and even allowing for penetration into enemy airspace (see this article for more on this concept and its relation to the RQ-170 family). This supposed stealthy Global Hawk successor, more of a survivable sensor platform than anything else, has been all but admitted to by USAF brass and industry leaders. An aircraft of the dimensions shown in the photo would fill the MALE (Mid-Altitude-Long-Endurance) surveillance role, trading altitude for a lower radar signature when compared to the HALE (High Altitude Long-Endurance) Global Hawk.
This aircraft could also be an un-disclosed UAV/UAS/UCAV test article and/or part of a black, spiral development program. The two side-by-side shelters, of different scales and clearly made for low slung, wide wing-span aircraft, are also interesting to say the least. We know a large facility with a 175 foot door was built-in the mid 2000’s at Groom Lake, maybe this shelter services that same machine from time to time. Notably, both are too small to fit the B-2 bomber, America’s only known large-scale flying wing aircraft. It is also rumored that there is at least one, but possibly multiple, half built technology demonstrators that have been recently finished, updated and flown to support the next generation bomber and other black-world developmental programs. This machine could also be one of those unique airframes.
Some may also say that this is the General Atomics Avenger, I highly doubt it as it does not quite match the Avenger’s long fuselage and the large tail structures would be more prominent due to their size and outward cant angle. On the other hand it could be an X-47B, although does this image show a cranked kite design? I will let you be the judge.
Above is a Google Earth screen shot of the area around the hangar in question. The shelter measures 80 feet, the larger one adjacent to it is almost identical in design and measures some 150 feet. The large one is now sealable, while the smaller one may be as well. In the shot above you can see some distortion that looks almost like a quad platypus tail on the aircraft in question. I doubt this is actually the case. Most likely it is an optical illusion or that effect is caused by objects similar to the structures labeled “clutter” in the image. If anyone knows what those objects are please shoot me an email or comment below.
Some may ask what an aircraft like this is doing in an unsealed structure. You have to test an aircraft’s power plant somewhere and/or prepare it for flight, and this area of Plant 42 is not visible from the outside world, making it an ideal place for clandestine open air testing, while still being shielded form satellite flyovers. Additionally, every program’s level of classification and maturity is different. If this aircraft is an outgrowth of known technology than its technological risk would be much lower than an airframe that highly exotic in nature. In other words, they have not built these fairly secluded and covered engine test cells, which are clearly tailored to flying wing type aircraft, for nothing. They were built to be used, and this is the type of customer that would use them at Plant 42, leading edge technology demonstrators and other classified platforms in development or in limited clandestine operation.
Also of worthwhile note is a piece posted by Defense Writer David Axe (if you do not follow David’s website you should!) in July which also sites some of Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman’s work as well. You can find the entire piece here, below is an excerpt that is of great relevance to the picture of the mystery aircraft posted at the top of this article.
“In December 2012 Aviation Week journalist Sweetman concluded that Northrop Grumman had been working on a large, armed UAV for the Pentagon and CIA — one with greater speed, payload, range and stealth than the current drones.
Development began in 2008, Sweetman surmised, based on his analysis of company documents and interviews with industry insiders. “It is, by now, probably being test-flown at Groom Lake,” Sweetman wrote of the new drone.
The purported location, at least, made total sense. The Air Force’s secret facility in Groom Lake, Nevada, is part of the so-called “Area 51” complex and previously was the test site for the U-2 and SR-71 reconnaissance planes and the F-117 stealth fighter.
If real, the in-development drone could help explain some peculiar moves by the Air Force in 2012 and 2013. The flying branch proposed to abandon almost all of its essentially brand-new Global Hawk UAVs while also cutting production of the smaller Reaper drones.
Congress ultimately nixed both proposals, but the Air Force’s willingness to part with its some of its publicly acknowledged drones was possibly indicative of a brand-new ‘bot preparing to enter service and take over from the older models.
There was plenty of precedent for covert drone development. The Sentinel, of course, was developed in total secrecy by Lockheed Martin and flew combat missions for around five years before breaking cover.
Likewise, Lockheed and rival Boeing both secretly designed and built large, stealthy, jet-powered UAV demonstrators for a Navy effort to add drones to aircraft carrier decks — an initiative Northrop was also openly supporting with a drone prototype of its own.
The new Boeing and Lockheed naval drones, which both bore a superficial resemblance to the Sentinel (as did Northrop’s less secretive naval UAV prototype), were unknown to the outside world except as rumors until the companies unveiled them as part of their sales efforts. Northrop’s purported new UAV was probably meant to build on the concepts explored by the fast, radar-evading Sentinel.
Sweetman estimated only around 20 Sentinels were built in the early 2000s as a stopgap measure pending the introduction of Northrop’s more high-tech robot sometime in the mid-2010s. In 2008, the company’s financial documents listed a $2-billion “restricted programs” contract that Sweetman believed was the development deal for the new drone.
Around the same time, Northrop Grumman hired as a consultant John Cashen, the man most responsible for designing the radar-defeating shape of Northrop’s older B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
Not coincidentally, in 2009 Northrop filed patents for two variants of a new manned stealth bomber design, both sharing the same tailless flying-wing shape as the company’s B-2 and Pegasus naval drone prototype.
Northrop’s other efforts apparently influenced the secret drone design. “It is believed to be a single-engine aircraft with a wingspan similar to a Global Hawk,” Sweetman wrote of the new UAV. A Global Hawk spans 116 feet, making roughly as big across as a 737 airliner.
Consistent with the three-year-old patents, Sweetman contended that the secret UAV likely included radar, electronic surveillance systems and radar jammers and, quite possibly, a bomb bay for carrying guided bombs.
Sweetman’s conclusions were just speculation, albeit highly informed speculation. But with a classified budget of no less than $30 billion a year, the Pentagon — to say nothing of the even more opaque CIA — was undoubtedly working on a host of advanced drone designs.
Northrop’s new ‘bot just had the most detectable paper trail. Whether and when this and other secret drones would be revealed to the public was, according to Sweetman, “anyone’s guess.”
Possibly the first member of the public to glimpse Northrop’s new robot, or something similar, did not realize what he was looking at.
In mid-2011 a freelance photographer — I agreed to withhold his name — was visiting the Air Force’s Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, a somewhat less secretive adjunct to Groom Lake.
While walking along the tarmac with an officer guide, the photographer spotted, some 150 yards away, what appeared at first to be a Sentinel drone parked in an open hangar. But upon closer inspection, the photog noticed details inconsistent with the recently-revealed Sentinel.
The engine air intake was different. The skin material seemed less metallic. And the craft was apparently much bigger than the Sentinel, which by then had appeared only in grainy photos taken in Afghanistan. (Tehran’s capture of a crashed Sentinel was still a few months off, but the photographer later said that the details revealed by Iranian footage of the wrecked UAV only confirmed his earlier impressions.)
It was clear the Air Force had not intended the photographer to see the new ‘bot, whatever it was. The colonel leading the tour grew uncomfortable. “I was specifically asked not to photograph it and I complied,” the photog said of the mystery drone.
Recalling the encounter, the photographer concluded he had seen a new variant of the Sentinel. He was not aware at that time that Northrop was developing, and the Air Force and CIA were testing in and around Area 51, a brand-new, larger and better UAV.
It’s possible that’s what he saw. The secret future of drone warfare.”
Is it possible that this aircraft is what the photographer saw at Tonopah and what almost certainly flying over the Nevada ranges and beyond? The timeline seems to fit as this photograph was taken back in mid 2011, as well as the vehicle’s description…
A huge thanks to “SFH” for sharing this unique and intriguing image with all of us!