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But now the secret is out and the speculation is running rampant on the Internet, so it's time to tell the story behind Aviation Week & Space Technology's Bill Sweetman's story:
As aircraft bums are want to do in their spare time, on March 10th I found myself at Amarillo International Airport with my grandson and three other "Interceptors" enjoying a a nice spring-like afternoon photographing military jets doing practice approaches and sipping ice tea at our hangout the Old English Field House restaurant located at Rick Husband International Airport on the far east side of Amarillo.
It had been a fun day. I had taken my grandson to the nearby Texas Air & Space Museum and we had toured their newest acquisition a beautiful DC-3 and then had lunch in full view of two beautiful black Beal AFB T-38s (call sign Roper) that had stopped for lunch and fuel.
Amarillo is a great place for airplane spotters because it's centrally located (everyone stops here to eat and get av-gas) and it's expansive runways are used by the military for practicing "touch and gos" and on a daily basis we have everything from Air Force Trainers to B-1Bs in the pattern.
It's safe to say over 50 percent of Amarillo's traffic is military.
So there we were - chatting having just watched as the two Beal T-38s executed an excellent tandem take-off, when my cell phone rang.
I recognized the voice immediately whom (because of his government job) I will refer to as "Tom."
"What's up Tom?" I answer.
"Hey - Steve are you still out at the airport?" he asks.
"Yes - I was just about to head home." I replied.
"Look out to the southwest - there are three planes flying in formation - you can see their contrails."
I told the rest of the gang and we headed to the front of Old English to (as we say in Texas) take a gander.
They weren't hard to spot. The sky was severe-clear and the three contrails stood out like white chalked exclamation points across a deep blue sky.
The three aircraft were approaching from the southwest and they weren't in a hurry. They seemed to be heading right for the airport.
We readied the lenses on our cameras and hoped to get a clear shot of them coming overhead.
Since we are all aircraft spotters - we knew they most likely weren't commercial aircraft and had to be military, hoping maybe they were something cool like an F-22 or F-15s that we often see flying over the Amarillo VOR but have yet been able to coax down for some gas and grub.
Both Dean Muskett and myself were shooting with similar lenses - a 70 to 300mm zoom, I with my Nikon and he with his Canon.
There were four witnesses to this formation (five if you count my grandson) myself, Ken Hanson, Dean Muskett and "Tom."
|Steve Douglass Dean Muskett Ken Hanson|
We (Dean and I) watched through our cameras as they approached and then turned parallel to the airport, staying south of us and turning due east.
At their closest approach (guesstimating twenty miles) we began taking photos.
Although it was easy to see the contrails, it was not so easy to see the aircraft leaving them; their coloring and shading pretty much matching the sky.
But one of the three then did something either unusual or on purpose that made it's planform visible for a brief few seconds. It maneuvered in and out of the lead aircraft's contrail, kind of playfully.
Both Dean and I snapped away shooting multiple frames.
In another ten minutes the flight could still be seen but receded to a contrail and a dot on the eastern horizon.
Dean and I reviewed our photos on our cameras to try and identify the aircraft type.
"That's a B-2" Dean said excited. "It's a flight of three B-2s."
I looked at mine, zoomed in, but I wasn't so sure. Something about it looked odd. The shape wasn't quite right but on my tiny LCD frame in bright daylight I couldn't really see it well.
I rushed home and imported the photos into my computer. I then looked at the frames where the aircraft was flying in and out of the lead contrail and zoomed in using Photoshop.
My grandson (who was leaning over my shoulder watching me work) jumped when I shouted. "The trailing edge is wrong!" I must have said it three times.
He looked at me odd. "What?"
"This one here - isn't a B-2. See that edge on the backside?"
I grabbed a model of a B-2 that I have on my desk - "If it was a B-2 it would be jagged like this." I explained.
I smiled. "I think we have discovered a new black aircraft!"
I then called Dean and reported to him what I think I had found and asked him to send me his frames.
Typically British he said, "I don't think mine are very good. My lens isn't as sharp as yours. I can't tell what it is."
"Send them anyway." I replied.
Once downloaded, I examined his frames - they weren't as sharp but they did reveal something mine hadn't. At one point the aircraft had banked and the trailing edge was quite clear. It wasn't straight but had a slight curve, the aircraft was almost boomerang shaped.
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Convinced we had captured a new black aircraft, I began looking closer at the other 20-odd frames and doing some enhancing - bringing out the planform, applying filters and discarding the color. At the same time I knew I had another source I needed to check.
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I own a Uniden BCT15x scanning receiver dedicated to receiving and recording communications in the military-aviation UHF band (225 to 399 MHz) which when connected to a PC records everything and saves them as a time-stamped file. It was a simple thing to go into those recordings and search them for any communications possibly related to the sighting.
I found two. One with a three-ship-formation of aircraft checking in with Albuquerque Center on 251.100 MHz and another with the same aircraft checking in with Fort Worth Center on 316.100 MHz.
Call sign: "SIENNA"
SIENNA FLIGHT CHECK IN ON ZAB
SIENNA FLIGHT CHECK IN ON ZFW
So I began to think about what we had, which was three unidentified aircraft (with the same call sign) flying in a non-standard formation with three mile separation.
This indicated to me they were fairly big, hence the need for spacing due to wake turbulence.
The flight checked in with two ATC Centers - Albuquerque and Fort Worth and came from the Southwest. The unknown aircraft were flying between 36 and 37,000 feet and avoided flying over the Amarillo VOR staying south of it, heading almost due east.
|my monitoring post|
Now with that data, I decided to check another site FLIGHTRADAR24.COM which provides almost realtime tracking of commercial and civil aircraft using MODE-A, C and S transponders.
It's basically like having your own air traffic control radar scope. I use it a lot when monitoring and tracking aircraft flying in the Amarillo vicinity. It's a great site for those interested in aviation.
FLIGHTRADAR24.COM has a very cool feature which is a playback mode. One can type in the time parameters and basically roll the tracking back and see what was flying in the sky at any given time.
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.
Once I had finished with the photos I contacted editors and former editors at Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine and showed them what we had. I posted the enhanced and the raw images in a Dropbox folder so the could do their own analysis.
This wasn't a single image of a blurry UFO thrown together in Photoshop. We had over two dozen good frames (including EXIF DATA) taken by two photographers, and (for the sake of argument) that would be something pretty hard to fake, but not impossible.
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So not content with having just photographic evidence, I needed verification knowing if I published the photos would undoubtedly cause a sensation.
So there was also one thing I had to do - which was find out if there were any B-2s flying in the area at the time. I had to be sure that what we had captured wasn't just B-2s photographed at a weird angle. I contacted the Public Affairs Office at Whiteman AFB (where B-2s are based) but they never replied back.
Weeks later this reply was passed on to me by Aviation Week Editor Bill Sweetman, concerning his query to Whiteman about any B-2 traffic over Texas on that date.
From: GREENE, JENNIFER D GS-07 USAF AFGSC 509 BW/PA
Sent: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 2:00 PM
To: Sweetman, Bill
Cc: COOPER, JOHN M 1st Lt USAF AFGSC 509 BW/PA; GREENE, JENNIFER D GS-07 USAF AFGSC 509 BW/PA
Subject: Aircraft sighting
I have spoken with our schedulers and the aircraft you saw was not a B-2 on the date and time in question.
Director of Community Relations
509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
509 Spirit Blvd. Suite 112
Whiteman AFB, MO 65
So there it was - the confirmation I sought. The aircraft in question were not Whiteman's B-2s.
Then what were they?
We know they were manned, we know they were big and we know they were and unlike anything that anyone has yet to admit are currently in our military inventory.
We know they flew - in broad daylight- over at least three states and maybe more. I heard them checking in over New Mexico, Texas and watched as they flew toward Oklahoma.
Where they went from there is anybody's guess.
So where did they come from? Where are they based?
Since they came from the southwest it's logical to conclude they could have come from Holloman, AFB, Cannon AFB, or maybe even Edwards AFB.
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They also may have flown from Nellis or Area 51 - possibly for some work or testing over the White Sands Missle Range or Melrose Bombing Range or any number of ranges located in the south western US. Maybe TTR? These are all questions that remain open.
But I did have one additional piece of information that I had collected a few weeks earlier that now that I look back at it, might have been related.
On February 21, I posted this radio intercept to my Facebook group of aviation photographers:
"It's frustrating when you monitor something very interesting in your vehicle - but the scanner at home didn't catch it or record it. At approximately 2:39 PM, as I was driving down to pick my grandkids up from school (down in Canyon,Texas ) I heard this conversation on 321.100 MHz on the scanner in my vehicle.
BTW - pardon the language. I'm quoting.
"That's what I'd call an oh-ficial UFO. Unusual-Fucking Object. What's it's designation?"
"Can't say over the radio."
"Weirdest fucking airplane I've ever seen."
"Hey - who's the boomer?"
"Mike Sinclair. Why?"
"I thought I recognized that ugly mug. Is he on the frequency?"
"Should be- if he ain't we are in big trouble."
"Hey Mike - what do you think of this fucking thing - ain't it the fugliest thing yet?"
"How'd you rate that? Who's in the back seat?"
"I'd rather not say ... SIGNAL Begins to fade ..... UNINTELLIGIBLE."
"No, we will be your tanker all week ..."
Could this have been our mystery aircraft on their way west?
Other questions remain.
Some may ask why they would fly it in broad daylight over Texas? Why wouldn't they use encrypted radio frequencies?
I've always been of the opinion, if they don't want you to see something, you won't.
But let me digress a bit in search of a better answer.
Look at the history of black aircraft and in particular the F-117.
During initial tests it flew only at night, but a number of crashes, one caused by pilot fatigue necessitated the move to daytime test flights. The USAF knew that soon it would be spotted and the cat would be out of the proverbial bag.
But they also knew a aircraft that can't be seen on radar could make a hell of a dent on the USSR's military budget as they struggled to find ways to counter stealth.
Billions of rubles were spent and (as history has proven) the Soviet Union went bankrupt.
It's only recently that other countries have cracked the code for stealth and are building their own stealthy aircraft.
But consider this - there's could also be another reason.
A weapons system isn't a threat to an enemy unless they know it exists.
Ask yourself an important question - what's going on in the world right now?
Who (has of late) has decided to roll back the clock to the good old days of the Cold War and MAD?
Question: How do you make your adversary take a moment of pause and rethink his military doctrine based on Cold War technology?
Answer: You give him a glimpse, a hint that we haven't just been sitting on our hands all these years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The point I'm trying to make - is - to make your adversary lose sleep at night wondering what super weapons the USA has in their arsenal that are far advanced than their own.
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You don't trot the show pony out for all the world to see - you don't tip your entire hand because that smacks of propaganda.
Remember when world laughed at Iran's supposed stealth fighter?
But like the shark in Jaws, it was scarier when you couldn't see it - when you just caught a glimpse of a fin slicing through the water.
I rather like the thought of current leaders of Al-Qaeda tossing and turning at night, listening for the sound of stealth helicopters approaching, helicopters they now know exist.
The best weapon IS the one you never have to use.
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UPDATE: 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.
"I sincerely apologize for the delay in responding to you. We received Bill Sweetman's query last week, but we never saw this one come through our organizational box; otherwise we would have responded right away. In short, we spoke with our scheduling office, and the aircraft you saw was not a B-2 on the date and time in question.
To better ensure that we receive any future queries in a timely manner, I would recommend calling 509th BW/Public Affairs at 660-687-6126/5727, and we will strive to get you an answer promptly. Thanks.
John M. Cooper
1st Lt, United States Air Force
Chief, Public Affairs, 509th Bomb Wing
Whiteman AFB, MO
PS: What's very telling to me (other than the confirmation there were no B-2s flying that day) is that the aircraft wouldn't have been notice if they were flying separately.
Contrails crossing the Panhandle skies are as common as cows here - but three flying together is not. I've seen posts that I heard the aircraft on my radio and then ran out and saw them - which was not the truth - I only discovered the communications when I got home and went digging through my time-stamped recordings after I realized they weren't B-2s.
Some people are also citing the lack of encryption and say it's rare that the military talks on an open frequency so they must be faked to support the photos.
They couldn't be more wrong - plus they HAVE to talk to ATC centers - which is done in the clear.
I also hear them a lot - chatting on back channels conversing freely. I imagined them thinking "How many times do we have to fly over Amarillo before Douglass notices?"
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