EXCLUSIVE: DID AN RQ-170 SENTINEL CRASH IN 2008 NEAR NEEDLES, CA RESULT IN THE DRONE’S SELF DESTRUCT SYSTEM BEING REMOVED?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh boy, here we go…

I have to state that this information has come to me from a very good source and from another I blew off a year ago, so much so that I cannot even remember who it was. Maybe it was in the comments area here on the site after RQ-170 incident or from someone at an air show or something. What struck me is that the same exact information that came to me from a very reliable source, a year later no doubt, and the information from the one that was totally forgettable was oddly identical in every way, including a detail that is not necessarily a major part of the greater story- that what crashed in Needles CA on May 14 2008 was an RQ-170 Sentinel conducting a test mission out of the Nellis Range Complex. What was the strangely common and unique detail from both sources you ask? That this event resulted in the self destruct mechanism, designed into the RQ-170 from day one, to be removed indefinitely from the clandestine robotic spy on high…

Basically, on the night of May 14th, 2008 an object literally fell out of the sky over a small town in South East California, about 100 miles directly south Las Vegas, called Needles. Apparently the object went down in an area densely covered in brush, about 100 yards off of the Colorado River that runs through the community. After the object “hit with a thud” helicopters and government vehicles swarmed the town. Even EG&G operated “Janet” aircraft were allegedly seen at the local airport. Some claim there was also a bit of “passive intimidation” used by the recovery teams towards certain folks in town. None-the-less, a  well-trained and very well equipped group of crash recovery people who did not seem to want their affiliation known did what they were logically sent to do, recover the mysterious craft, and they did it fast. “Men in Black” conspiracy theorists ran wild with the story for years as you could imagine.

Multiple witnesses supposedly saw this thing crash. It was obviously burning as it went down. During the craft’s hustled recovery eye witnesses said the object was light turquoise in color, others said it had a large lump on the top of a fairly flat shape. Meanwhile, others said that the helicopters that responded to the crash, four regular sized (probably H-60/S-70s) and one large helicopter, potentially a Skycrane, showed up very fast, within a half hour of the sudden decent and impact. Soon after their thunderous nighttime arrival the big helicopter was seen by multiple people lugging the object, or at least a large part of it, north via under-slung load.

So what do we have here. Well, the timeline looks just about perfect, we know Sentinels have been flying in some form at least since 2007, and most likely in test flight far before that (make sure you read my widely circulated two-part expose on the RQ-170’s origins: Part1 & Part 2!). As far as the location goes, Needles in about 125 miles south of the Nevada Test Site and the Nellis Range Complex and a couple hundred miles east of Edwards, so there is plenty for a RQ-170 to do in that general area, MOAs everywhere with advanced training and testing taking place. Additionally, a couple hundred miles is not far for such an aircraft to stray from a testing area if a major malfunction took place, as we know now this can happen with the Sentinel because it did.

What about the sightings? Well folks said the craft was light in color and almost burning in a bluish flames as it went down. We know the RQ-170 Sentinel originally was painted a light color, cream to be exact. Even today it seems like a light grey and cream are still the preferred schemes for at least some of the Sentinels in operation. Under various lighting conditions, such as with a bright moon above, a blue tint is not only possible but probable. Additionally, pastels have been used for decades on secret aircraft operating under different conditions such as at certain altitudes or during the day. In fact the first YF-117A was painted in a wild pastel desert scheme to test for potential operations during both night and day. As to the color of the blaze as it went down, an incendiary charge, or specially placed “cord” detonated at night may burn very hot, especially considering the idea is to destroy the aircraft secrets as fast and as thoughtfully as possible, not necessarily just its shape. In other words you need to destroy the components not just the greater airframe. Lots and lots of heat really would be the best way of doing this. Blowing it up may demolish it as a whole, but certain sensitive subsystems and materials could survive unmolested. An RQ-170 lit aflame by specially designed internal charges would probably look very similar to what people saw, literally a chariot of white hot fire flying through the sky. The fact that people even say it dive, stall and dive again lend itself to an aerodynamic airframe out of control.

Then we have the reports of the helicopters showing up quickly. Surely the testers at Groom have fantastic contingency plans for events like this. Most likely the second there was a malfunction detected crews were launched by air and ground in the direction of the sickened machine to retrieve it immediately if possible and cordon the area if not. Part of such aggressive procedures would be for the public’s own safety as radar absorbent materials and other advanced construction materials can be incredibly carcinogenic if inhaled or touched during or after being burnt. I can imagine such precautions are probably even more intense when and if the aircraft was operating outside of the Nellis Range Complex, which by 2008 we know was happening with the Sentinel even overseas.

What about the sighting of the big helicopter, potentially a Skycrane, plucking the body of wreckage and flying it away. Well this makes sense too. I do not trust that this aircraft was a Skycrane, even some serious aviation “experts” just have a terrible aircraft spotter’s eye, but utilizing a big chopper such as a Chinook, Stallion or whatever would be adequate to do the job. As for those who saw the load saying it was like a wingless craft with a hump on top, well take a look at the pictures I just posted out of Iran of the RQ-170 after it crashed there, even one with a heavy lift helicopter sling loading it away, pretty accurate description. During the Iranian Sentinel incident, the aircraft’s wings broke cleanly off and what was left was a flattened wedge with a big hump on top. That hump being the dorsally mounted air intake and motor cowling. Also, it may be that the RQ-170, although light, is extremely stout and durable, especially its center fuselage section which appears to be made out of very few pieces and is basically designed like a pair of arches set back to back. When paired with the latest in large scope composite manufacturing techniques and materials I can only imagine how tough this center section is.

Finally, we have the “Men In Black” reports of highly modified government trucks with satellite dishes on top and blacked out windows rolling around tiny Needles, as well as EG&G craft landing at the local uncontrolled airport that night. Well all this make total sense, as I stated above when a secret aircraft like this goes missing it is somewhat of akin to a “broken arrow” (loose nuke) event, although much less volatile physically, the intellectual property loss potential is massive. As intrepid Las Vegas UFO reporter and local TV news icon George Knapp scoured the area for information after the event, he actually ran into a team from the Department Of Energy rolling around in the exact vehicles as described by witnesses. These belonged to the DoE’s nuclear transportation group “Office Of Secure Transportation” who are given the job to see that America’s nuclear anything get’s to where it needs to go safely. They are trained in rapid response, working within our society as a para-military unit, and they just so happen to have a huge presence at the Nevada Test Site. This does not mean that these guys were part of the crash cleanup, nuclear weapon assembly happens deep in the NTS and many nukes are said to be stored throughout Nevada at fairly well-known locations which I would rather not mention here. They were probably just operating as they do in the area, but they sure have great skills for the job of recovering an errant drone. Considering that the RQ-170 Sentinel specifically, not the “Tier 3 Minus” concept in general, was probably born out of a need to watch Iran and Pakistan’s (and possibly North Korea’s) nuclear programs and arsenals (in the case of Pakistan) one would believe that the DoE has an interest in the Sentinel program. Additionally, the DoE “runs” the NTS, and they also have a hangar and operating location at Nellis AFB with their nuke sniffing choppers based there. In other words the “cross-pollination” between the DoE and the DoD is a very, very normal thing in Nevada. On the other hand could the response team that arrived after the crash just have had similar trucks as their mission is similarly critical, although for much different reasons? Sure. Either way their involvement, if any, changes this story very little but it is a worthwhile footnote.

As a little diversion now that we are talking about the expertise of the DoE and its relation to the US military, I have always thought that both the RQ-170 and the Stealth Helicopters used in the Bin Laden raid were tied together to some degree for a common mission. That mission being the tracking, surveillance, and potential recovery or demolition of Pakistani nuclear warheads. Both assets I believe use a very similar level of sophistication, advanced enough to get the job done but not so much so that losing one would totally bankrupt America’s aerospace and low observable technological edge. In the case of the helicopters used on the Bin Laden raid, I now believe that these machines were doing what their pilots trained to do, penetrate Pakistani airspace, simply their objective was different. Same with the Sentinel’s use of watching a house instead of a high security weapons depot. In fact I would go as far to suggest that BOTH assets were staged close to Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan for just this particular reason long before the Bin Laden op materialized. Over the last decade, when asked by reporters about what the US could do about nuclear warheads if an extremist coup happened in Pakistan, everyone from the Secretary of Defense to the President has said that the US has “unique capabilities” in place to deal with this contingency. Well, I believe these two machines are a large part of what these officials were talking about.

Back to our main story here, I followed the Needles crash pretty closely after it happened, it seemed like a secret UAV crash to me, everything just added up. But what I did not expect regarding this event was that almost half a decade later, two separate sources say that it was not just any test drone, but the then semi-operational RQ-170 Sentinel that went down and that the crash was either caused by, or ended in destruction of the aircraft via a faulty self destruct system that was designed directly into the aircraft from day one due to its highly sensitive mission set. That is right, both random sources had this exact same, seemingly unrelated, information, that the Sentinel did have a potent self destruct system but that it was removed after this event and operations continued without it. Losing an craft like this “off the reservation” could have ended very badly, so you can see why the system would have been at least disabled till it was fixed, or removed entirely and never replaced for various reasons. Could a “best guess auto land” program also been available to testers so that the test article could be recovered and examined relatively intact if controllers lost control and fuel ran low? Seeing as I pitched this idea over a year ago I would assume so. Such a mode could explain how intact the RQ-170 was after making a belly landing right into Iran’s hands. By the new images we have from the Iranians, that was almost certainly no crash, and if it was it was one in a million. If the RQ-170 malfunctioned over enemy territory there is a chance, depending on the programing of the craft, that operators may have attempted to put it in “safe mode” or even “testing mode” where such a default program may have been activated. Once contact was lost completely the mode would have never reverted back to operational status, thus when gas ran low it did what it was supposed to, fly its radar altimeter down to the ground as softly as possible. Just one theory but some evidence supports this, especially highly publicized chatter out of the CIA after the crash.

Back to the self destruct feature, if the craft did have one specifically designed for it, this would give us a bit of an insight into how advanced the RQ-170 may be. You don’t put self destruct systems in Predators or Reapers, but this craft apparently had one from the beginning. Also the response to the crash, without even a coverup saying that it was a Predator or something that had crashed, also lends to the fact that this aircraft was still very deep in the black world even over a year after the first grainy photos of it had emerged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is this the answer to a question that so many of us have had for over a year- why didn’t the RQ-170 just automatically commit suicide when it went astray instead of landing softly into Iranian hands? I don’t know, but I would guess it could very well be. I did not move on this story till a second totally random and reliable source came forward. Does this mean its 100% true, no, but it sure is intriguing given all the circumstances. The crash and response of to possible RQ-170 crash in Needles would also point to a program that has had its fair share of issues even a year after it was confirmed deployed by the DoD, and then again some four plus years after its first sighting in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This explanation would also answer the question as to what exactly went down in Needles that night, as something definitely did crash and it was of great interest to the US Government and they seemed very prepared to retrieve it. Regardless of whether this claim it is true or not it does lend just another intriguing facet to the colorful and mysterious pop culture and aerospace mosaics that both these stories have become…

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7 Responses to EXCLUSIVE: DID AN RQ-170 SENTINEL CRASH IN 2008 NEAR NEEDLES, CA RESULT IN THE DRONE’S SELF DESTRUCT SYSTEM BEING REMOVED?

  1. Sanem says:

    excellent article as always

    removing the self-destruct system would have its merits, especially if the system is very reliable it would be preferable for the aircraft to autonomously regain contact or even fly home over self-destructing over enemy territory at the first sign of trouble

    as I’ve said before, no degree of self-destruct will guarantee total destruction of the aircraft, so retrieval and expendable technology would be much preferred

    I’d also like to add how shocked I am at the whole ego and prestige fanboy thing from some people, be it over UAVs lost to Iran or new stealth jets, pride has never been a good advisor

  2. Mathew Parry says:

    Good stuff!

    Regarding the diversion into Pak. I have my doubts that a fleet of stealthy helicopters large enough (in numbers) to compete the nuclear snatch mission is (or was) stationed within striking distance of their nuclear stockpiles.

    There are other ways to penetrate hostile airspace, as recent Israeli adventures in Sudan & Syria demonstrate. Using this model of entry, An RQ-170 as a SUTER node would make sense.

    As for operation neptune Spear, the current narrative involves the use of Chinooks (both for setting up a FARP and for extracting troops after one of the stealthy helicopters was lost). Personaly I find the idea of a stealth Chinook improbable… Running with the idea of SUTER electronic tomfoolery to spoof air defense networks, the obvious question is why bother with stealth helicopters at all? A possible answer is that they were acoustically quiet, thereby increasing the advantage of surprise. Once breaching charges and automatic weapons were in action the noisey chinooks swept in.

    Potentially an opportunity was lost here, as an unexpected benefit of crashing a stealthy helicopter could have been played out to the tune of “PAK didn’t detect us coming because of our stealthy helicopter fleet”. Apparent admissions of the use of standard chinooks makes you question how those beasts snuck in and out, spoofing being the obvious answer?

  3. Steve says:

    From what I read from another source, some of them may still have some sort of system installed. The Sentinel program is a joint CIA/USAF program, designed to fill a niche until something else comes online. A comment was made to someone by a USAF operator that “If we had been operating it, it wouldn’t have come down in one piece.” According to the source, LM was operating it for the CIA on that particular mission.

    Not sure how reliable that is, but if true it would kind of make sense, with some of the other odd things the CIA has done in the past.

  4. Collin says:

    I like your hypothesis that Stealth Hawks/Silent Hawks (whatever we’re calling them) were designed to work in conjunction with Sentinels, that seems to make a lot of sense. I was previously unaware of the 2008 Needles crash and would love to see some pictures of the DoE satellite trucks you mentioned! Does EG&G operate any kind of “Janet” aircraft other than the 737s seen at McCarran?

  5. Steve says:

    @Colin Yes they do. They have 6 737-600 aircraft they got from China Southwest and Air China, two Beech 1900C aircraft, and three B200C King Airs. One Beech 1900 was lost in 2004 when the pilot (flying despite medication that should have grounded him, and flying without a copilot) suffered sudden cardiac death and crashed on approach to TTR, killing everyone on board.

  6. Andy says:

    Yeah, I could definitely see a troubleshooting mode that might disable the self-destruct and attempt a soft landing. How many of these things are there? I could definitely see a need for a mode that would allow some chance for recovery and repair.

  7. Sanem says:

    if the CIA was involved, maybe it was done on purpose? a move to have an excuse to remove someone from power (like booting those USAF generals for loosing nukes and what not), or some other power play (maybe to argument that you don’t risk such a thing with satellites). or maybe it was a USAF ploy to wrestle control from the drones away from the CIA (“told you they don’t know what they’re doing, they left out the fail safe”)

    stuff like that

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