Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Closer Look at the Mystery Aircraft Over Amarillo

Wow! It's not very often someone manages to catch a classified aircraft 'in the wild' but it appears that's exactly what happened to veteran interceptors Steve Douglass and Dean Muskett in Amarillo on March 10th. Their story has made headlines in Aviation Week and The Aviationist blog among other news outlets. So what exactly have Steve and Dean snapped a photo of here? There are several theories being floated at the moment, so let's take a look at each one.

Amarillo Texas classified aircraft Dean Muskett Object Report
Photo by Dean Muskett - Note the 'cranked arrow' wing planform.


Amarillo Texas classified aircraft Steve Douglass The Object Report
Photo by Steve Douglass - Note it's general resemblance to a B-2.

First off, we have two different photographers using different 300mm lenses to snap these. I have a 55-300mm VR2 Nikon lens that I use for long range spotting and photography, so I am keenly familiar with the results from using these lenses hand-held at maximum zoom - it is exceedingly difficult to get a clear shot even with vibration reduction and digital stabilization turned on, so I commend both of these guys on what they did manage to capture. 

Amarillo black budget aircraft Steve Douglass The Object Report
Three aircraft in formation - were they different types?
Additionally, when you are positioned at any angle other than directly beneath the target you end up getting a bit of a parallax effect which can exaggerate the natural shape of something. A sphere can turn into a football just as a right angle can turn into a boomerang shape, optics are very tricky. At first I thought that might explain the difference in shape between the objects in the two different photos, but as I dug deeper into Steve's postings about this I realized that this was a 3 ship formation of aircraft and we could be dealing with different types of aircraft, not just one.

B-2's Bombers from Whiteman AFB?


Classified black budget aircraft B-2 The Object Report
Nope! Steve quickly ruled that out, detailed in his blog post, with a call to Whiteman's public affairs office and they confirmed there were no B-2 flights on that day, anywhere in the country. Could they have lied about this to protect flight plans? Sure. In fact, it's quite possible that two of these aircraft were in fact B-2's and only one was an unidentified.

I am immediately reminded of the sighting of the fabled "Aurora" hypersonic aircraft in 1989. Chris Gibson, an oil engineer and trained aircraft observer, was stationed on a rig in the north sea and reported sighting a mysterious wedge-shaped aircraft flying in tight formation with two FB-111's and a KC-135 tanker. The 75 degree sweep of the unidentified delta shaped aircraft closely matched that of the FB-111's swept wing configuration suggesting that the military used the 111's as visual cover for the classified plane. Could this sighting over Amarillo be a similar maneuver on the part of the Air Force? It seems very likely and logical to me that if you are planning a daylight flight of a classified flying-wing it would make sense to use B-2's as cover for something similar in configuration to a B-2.

Flight Tracking Data


Like any true Interceptor, Steve immediately consulted FlightRadar24.com which provides almost realtime tracking of commercial and civil aircraft using MODE-A, C and S transponders, it's a great resource for those interested in aviation and tracking flights. One of the features of this site is a playback mode where you can roll the tracking back and see what was flying in the sky at any given time. In Steve's own words:
"I know what you are thinking - it's highly doubtful the mystery planes were squawking Mode S, but that's not what I was hoping for.

What I hoped to see is if any commercial or civil aircraft were in the vicinity (or more importantly) being routed away from the mystery flight as it flew east.

Watching the playback it became very obvious that was exactly what happened. During the time in question, there was a fifty mile-wide gap of airspace, a clear corridor in the area that the mystery 3 ship formation had flown though."
This is beginning to look really good! Having an empty flight corridor that wide is not normal, clearly someone didn't want other aircraft in the vicinity to see this formation. But it gets even better because just a few weeks earlier Steve managed to catch some radio chatter between a refueling tanker and another aircraft detailing (with colorful adjectives) the bizarre appearance of this aircraft.

So What Could it Be?

The Object Report Classified drones X-47B

The first theories to surface were the quickest to shoot down. It is not an X-47B or a Boeing Phantom Ray unmanned drone for one simple reason--both of these drones are single-engined and this mystery aircraft is clearly a dual (or possibly quad) engined aircraft based upon the appearance of the contrails. This also points to the fact that whatever this aircraft is utilizes conventional turbine combustion jet engines suggesting that it could be anything from a bomber to a transport aircraft, either way it's utilizing conventional propulsion.

There is always the possibility that it could be the recently revealed RQ-180 stealth drone jet which is rumored to have a 130' wingspan compared to the B-2's 172' wingspan. However, it seems unlikely that is the case either because flying an ultra classified drone in formation with two other multi-billion dollar bombers cross-country is incredibly risky to say the least. This aircraft was most likely piloted by a real human for the sake of safety and operational security.

The Object Report Classified aircraft cancelled program A-12
Others have speculated that it may be a resurrected version of the A-12 Avenger II project which was cancelled in 1991. This too is doubtful since our stealth aerospace programs have evolved greatly since back in the early 1980's when the A-12 was initially designed and developed. However, even the technology from cancelled aerospace projects often goes on to be used in future operational programs, as evidenced by the revelation of a stealth helicopter in operation today. Did the RAH-66 Commanche stealth helicopter prototype (also cancelled) contribute to that program? It most certainly did.

A Quiet, Stealthy Transonic Transport Aircraft?


Steve posited the theory that this aircraft might actually be a new type of aircraft in the stealth family: a covert transport plane. He clarified this theory with an update to his blog post:
Since the news has broke I've been contacted by reporters from many media outlets asking me the same question over and over again, "What do you think it was?" Here's my educated guess: Since the discovery of low observable (stealth) technology was quantified, it has been implemented across the board. First there were stealth bombers, followed by stealth fighters and spy-planes, drones, stealth ships and because of the bin Laden raid we now know stealth helicopters exist. But if you look at the list of stealth applications, there's one military mission that stealth has supposedly never been applied to; a covert way to quickly airlift a large number of troops and equipment into a battle zone or unfriendly country without the enemy ever being the wiser. The answer to the question "What's missing from this picture?" is a stealth transport.
He makes a very valid point, the only area of military aviation that has NOT had stealth technology applied to it is covert transport, as far as we can tell. So this prompted me to do a quick search of USAF patent submissions of "cranked arrow" wing configurations, and low and behold...

Classified aircraft sonic footprint design Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
Aircraft design patent submitted by Yoshikazu Makino of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency


The Object Report speculation Amarillo mystery aircraft cranked arrow wing
Fuselage removed, could this be
a blended-wing-body aircraft?

I find this patent - Method for determination of fuselage shape of supersonic aircraft and fuselage front section shape - submitted by Yoshikazu Makino of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, to be quite interesting for several reasons. I'm sure you can see where I'm headed with this, if you remove the conventional fuselage and replace that with a blended-wing-body layout you get something surprisingly similar to Dean Muskett's photo. Secondly, part of this aircraft design was conceived of to reduce it's sonic footprint when traveling above mach 1 which would make logical sense for a high speed, covert aircraft which wouldn't want to give away it's presence via a sonic boom.

Cranked Arrow Configuration Key


The Object Report Hypermach aerospace LTD UK supersonic
So it's entirely possible that the cranked-arrow wing configuration has a direct link to a reduction in sonic footprint. This is nothing new, the concept has been around for years and even commercial aircraft manufacturers have toyed with the idea of creating a business jet that can fly faster than the speed of sound without any audible impact on the ground. Hypermach Aerospace LTD in the UK designed an aircraft back in 2011 that was theoretically capable of mach 3+ using a mid-wing supersonic monoplane highly swept hybrid parabolic delta wing with a parabolic leading edge. In other words, a modified cranked-arrow wing configuration which was actually pioneered by the General Dynamics F-16XL, a derivative of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, back in 1982.

Another possibility is a blended wing body (BWB or Hybrid Wing Body, HWB) aircraft which Boeing has been working on since 2007. A BWB aircraft has a flattened airfoil shaped body which produces most of the lift, the wings contributing the balance. The body form is composed of distinct and separate wing structures, though the wings are smoothly blended into the body. The unmanned Boeing X-48C prototype was just such an aircraft. It was flight tested from August 2012 to April 2013. Boeing and NASA have plans to develop a larger BWB demonstrator. Could this potentially be a product of that flight test program? It would certainly fit with Steve's theory of some type of stealthy transport.

Conclusion


This was an extremely rare event, one that only a very small handful of people in the world get to experience - the revelation that these classified aircraft are indeed flying above us, even during daylight hours. Much like the F-117 Nighthawk program and the B-2 Spirit bomber, these black-world aircraft are eventually forced into the white world through operational necessity. Was this one of those cases? It's a very distinct possibility, and with photographic evidence from two separate sources I can rule out any hoaxing with a great deal of confidence. Thanks to diligent observers like Steve Douglass and Dean Muskett we are afforded the rare opportunity to get a glimpse of something truly special. Let's hope this is a precursor to the revelation of a new as-yet-unknown classified aircraft program.

Agent K