Secretive Tonopah Test Range Airport Had A Mysteriously Busy Week In September

The remote and highly secure facility hosted a group of peculiar visitors late last September.

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The secretive Tonopah Test Range Airport, located in the northwestern reaches of the Nevada Test and Training Range, the sprawling amalgam of restricted airspace that makes up much of Southern Nevada, usually appears to be a very quiet place in daytime satellite images, but once in a while that calm is broken. This was the case during the week of September 19th. The highly secure installation hosted a number of uncommon aircraft throughout the week in what appeared to be some sort of large test or training event. 

Satellite imagery dated September 23rd, 2020 that The War Zone obtained from Planet Labs offers a peek into just how busy the remote installation was during this time period. What are usually empty ramps, aside from a couple 'Janet' 737 airliners that shuttle workers to and from the installation and Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport daily, became far more cluttered on that week. A number of uncommon visitors dotted the ramp, as well as a more common one—the base's resident F-117 Nighthawks. The F-117s spent their formative, classified, years at Tonopah and were retired there in 2008, cocooned five to a hangar. Over the last decade, a handful of them have become remarkably active in the test and aggressor role

Below is the wide-angle view of the activity last month. You will also notice that the long-running repairs to the southern portion of the base's runway are nearly complete, but the displaced threshold is still in place. The south ramp and terminal used by the Janet jets is also still in the process being refurbished, with two of the private airline's 737s parking in their temporary staging location towards the northern end of the ramp, the same area where the still-flying F-117s live.

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To the south, a 757, likely a C-32B, sits parked between the runway and the high-security double-row fencing that leads to the main apron. Unlike its high-profile cousin, the C-32A that serves as an executive transport, including as Air Force One and Two depending on who is on board, the C-32B is all about keeping a low profile. Those that work out of McGuire AFB in New Jersey are used primarily as shuttles for special operations and intelligence teams, while the one based at Eglin AFB in Florida is thought to be used as an on-call transport for State Department-led Foreign Emergency Support Teams. The aircraft have an advanced communications suite and, unlike the C-32As, are capable of aerial refueling via a conformal refueling slipway that is unmarked.  

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The center of the action lies near the central 'canyon' of hangars, all of which were originally built for, at the time, the very secretive F-117 Nighthawk program. A very large number of vehicles have congregated in the canyon, most near the westernmost row of hangars. These hangars seem to have some association with the special operations community and often have transport aircraft, Black Hawk helicopters, CN-235s, and other airframes associated with that community parked nearby. 

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This is not necessarily the case in this instance. Instead, we see a Gulfstream V parked at the top of the hangar row. It is unclear who the aircraft belongs to, but it does have a distinctive black tail. This is not a totally unique feature, but one government contractor aircraft that has secure communications that are installed to be sufficient for continuity of government operations for a cabinet member or other top official does have a similar paint job. 

A 767, which most likely belongs to Omni Air International, a private charter company that is notorious for its willingness to haul nearly anything or anyone anywhere for the U.S. government, is also seen nearby. The paint scheme matches and the fact that it is at this highly secure locale at all is further evidence of its ownership. A C-17 is also seen parked on the taxiway outside of the main ramp's double fencing that leads to taxiways and runway. 

To the north, we see Tonopah Test Range Airport's most famous tenant, an F-117 Nighthawk. It's rare to see the stealth jets in high-resolution satellite imagery at all, even though they are now very active. But in this case, we don't only get to see one of them, it appears that a photoshoot was underway when the satellite was passing over. It looks like people are aligned in rows in a delta formation in front of the jet for the picture, with an elevated platform capturing it the front of the formation. The lighting would have been absolutely perfect for this shot and the positioning keeps the lens away from the base's sensitive operating areas. 

PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

These aircraft were not transient in nature. Aside from the F-117, they were all present throughout the week, with just the C-17 moving around to a different parking space behind the C-32. As to what they were doing there? We have no idea. The small amount of evidence we have points to something special operations related. As we noted earlier, the base is a hub for some special operations training and aircraft testing, including the additions of new subsystems on existing types. For instance, Air Force Special Operations Command tested its defensive countermeasures systems aboard its then-new CV-22 Ospreys at Tonopah back in the late 2000s. The base would be the logical home of some clandestine tactical aerial assets as well, either developmental in nature or very low-density types, like say a pocket force of low observable (stealth) helicopters

Beyond that, the NTTR has been extremely busy as of late. Some publicized tests, such as those related to the Air Force's Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) have used the range and surrounding installations. In August, the 53rd Wing at nearby Nellis Air Force Base also notably revealed that its 53rd Test and Evaluation Group had led a massive stealth-focused Large Force Test Event involving various Air Force and Navy combat aircraft and drones, including at least one secretive RQ-170 Sentinel from the top-secret 44th Reconnaissance Squadron.

But far more is going on that is not publicized. Aircraft radio interceptors have noted just how much action has been ongoing out on the ranges just in the last few weeks, which matches a huge uptick in aerial testing in other areas, namely over the Mojave Desert and off the coast of Southern California, as of late. 

Radio interceptor Bryan Herbet, who goes by the handle @KE6ZGP on Twitter, noted the following to The War Zone:

Since the end of September, the radio traffic from NTTR went from amazing to insane. There was one night where radio traffic was non-stop until just after 3 AM. The increase in activity isn't just limited to aircraft from Nellis. Known and unknown Groom Lake freqs have also been very active. Not just at night. They've been doing more flight tests during the day. My Nellis-Creech-NTTR freq list has over 100 freqs in it and in these last two weeks, I've found freqs in use that weren't already in my list. Its not often you hear ZLA [Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center] working multiple aircraft above FL600, especially above NTTR, but they've been doing it.

You can hear a couple of Herbet's most recent radio recordings from around the NTTR below:

Another recording from October 7th comes from our friends over at Dreamlandresort.com. It is of a multi-aircraft test, including the ultra-shy RAT55 signature measurement aircraft, over Area 51. You can listen to this intriguing recording here. 

The bottom line is that with a huge push in research and development and readiness over the last few years, places like Tonopah Test Range Airport, Area 51, and the greater NTTR, are busier than ever. Whatever was going on at the remote installation over that week in late September was unique, but as to what exactly it was remains anyone's guess.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com