Thursday, 29 December 2016

Su-27's in the USA

This is most definitely a work in progress!

I've been trying to identify Su-27 Flankers known to be in the USA.

So far there seem to be five, if you believe all the rumours and stories on chat forums!

1) Sukhoi Su-27P c/n 36911027918

Flown by An-124 from Belarus to Nevada on 26th November 1995.  Allegedly bought through a company named "Beltechexport"

2) Sukhoi Su-27P c/n 36911027717

Sold by Belarus to Ukraine in the late 1990's, then dismantled, sold, and shipped to the UK MoD in 19 boxes. Rumoured to be spares for the airworthy Su-27P.  May have even been rebuilt to airworthy status?

3 and 4) Sukhoi Su-27UB's c/n 96310408027 and 96310418210

Arrived in the USA from Ukraine in September 2008 and May 2009.

'08027 is ex Ukraine Bort Blue 61, and now wears Bort Blue 32 and registered N132SU

'18210 is ex Ukraine Bort Blue 66, and now wears Bort Blue 31 and registered N131SU

You can Google N131SU and N132SU for a number of photographs.

Both of these aircraft were disposed of by their owners, Pride Aircraft, and their current whereabouts is, as far as I know, unknown.  The FAA registry shows both aircrafts civil registrations to have "expired".

5) Sukhoi Su-27UBM-1 c/n 96310422054

Allegedly in 2012, Belarus sold "on the quiet" an aircraft recently upgraded at the 558 ARZ (Aircraft Repair Plant), Baranovichi.  Alleged sold to the UK MoD, then presumably on to the US Military.

Groom Lake November 2016

Several years elapsed until my most recent visit, in November 2016.  Motivated by stories of the RQ-170, RQ-180, B-21 etc, and by photos of unidentified flying triangles leaving contrails over Wichita, KS and Amarillo, TX, I knew it was time for a visit again.

I spent three days hanging out in the Tikaboo Valley, roughly 20 miles east of Groom Lake Airbase. 

Day one featured lots of dogfighting jets overhead and to the north.  Mainly Aggressor F-15s and F-16s out of Nellis, which dropped a lot of flares and also the occasional sonic boom.  Also a couple of low level C-17s flying though the eastern end of the Tikaboo Valley, and exiting over Hancock Summit.  My third day was similar, with the addition of some Draken International A-4 Skyhawks flying low level through the Valley, again out of Nellis.

F-15C manoeuvring at altitude

Nellis aggressors setting up for a dogfight
A-4 Skyhawks returning to Nellis after a sortie

Day two was the interesting day.  It was US election day, and had started strangely when I followed a convoy of trucks hauling a retired Boeing 777 fuselage sections for several miles as they passed northbound through Alamo.  I wondered if they were heading for Groom Lake, but then they headed north on the 318 towards Hiko when I turned West onto the 375.

The morning was much the same as the other days, with F-15's and 16's playing overhead.  Looking west into Groom Airspace from my location, I saw a couple of Janet 737-600's depart, and more interestingly two F-16s simultaneously operating in the circuit for runway 32 at Groom.

Aggressor F-16 formation returning to Nellis

Things went quiet around 1300.  Very quiet.  Nothing moved for two hours and I was thinking of moving to another vantage point, such as Queen City Summit, or maybe the Powerlines Overlook.

Then the sound of jet noise caught my attention and that's when I got my first sight of a Groom Lake Su-27 Flanker.  Flying NE at around 30000 feet leaving an intermittent contrail.  The time was 1500 and the sun was moving to the west as the Flanker and a F-16 gave me a private 25 minute air display.  The pair seemed to perform a series of head on intercepts at descending altitudes from 30000 feet to around 20000 feet, only a mile or two to the east of me.  This meant they were beautifully illuminated by the sun.  After the head on intercept, the pair would break into a turning dogfight, with the Flanker using it tremendous manoeuvrability to try and get behind the F-16.  I took a long series of photographs, but as the aircraft were fairly high my autofocus couldn't cope.  I had to shoot in manual mode, constantly moving the focussing ring to attempt to get some reasonable images.

The Su-27 was clearly a single seater, a Su-27P Flanker-B.  I was aware that at least two 2-seat Su-27UB Flanker-C's had been imported into America and operated with civil registrations (N131SU and N132SU).  It was not one of these.   Quite apart from the physical difference between the -P and -UB models, they both operated in a jagged blue-grey camouflage, with grey nose and fin tips, and a grey underside.  This Flanker was in the classic 1990's 2 tone blue colour scheme, with white nose and white fin tips.  A very different aeroplane. There had been rumours that the US had obtained 2 single seat Flankers from Belarus in 1996 or 1997, so I figured it should have been one of them.

After the final dogfight, when I was lucky enough to catch on camera the F-16 flashing directly in front of the Flanker, the pair climbed back to 30000 feet or so, and headed SW back into Groom Lake restricted airspace.  Interestingly the Flanker left a solid contrail, while the F-16 left none despite being at a similar altitude.

The Su-27 leaving a contrail, with F-16 just behind not trailing.

Absolutely thrilled by what I had witnessed, I wasn't bothered by the fact that nothing else flew that day.  I had finally caught on camera for the first time the Su-27 that the Americans had supposedly been flying secretly from Groom Lake for the last 20 years. 
Job done!

Groom Lake November 2009

I had spent the morning watching the equally mysterious Tonopah Test Range Airport from Brainwash Butte, about 50 miles northwest of Groom Lake.  I got bored by lunchtime and headed to Groom. I was passing Queen City Summit heading south when I heard jet noise.  I exited my car to see a single MiG-29 transiting towards Groom Lake at around 15000 feet.  I just had time to catch 3 photos with my 210mm lens.  It appeared to be a hump-backed MiG-29 Fulcrum C, a 9.13 version similar to those 21 airframes that the US had bought from Moldova in 1997.

Taken at Queen City Summit on Nov 4 2009, an ex- Moldovan MiG-29 Fulcrum C returns to Groom Lake

The next morning I had planned to do the famous Tikaboo Peak climb, and felt particularly motivated after my encounter with the MiG-29.

I got up at 4.30 am to drive to the start of the hike, and annoyingly I got a blow out about 20 miles off road, a mile short of the start of the hiking trail.  On reflection doing 40mph on a rough gravel road was not wise! Not wanting to be beaten, I parked the car and pressed on with the hike, with the intention of changing the tire later.

Don't think I can patch that

After the 90 minute climb, some of which is pretty strenuous, I got my first view of the Groom Lake base. What a moment of elation!  The base is illumated by the morning sun, so arriving on Tikaboo Peak by 7 am maximised my viewing time.  The base is roughly 26 miles away across the desert, so you need good optics to see anything.  It seemed to be a quiet morning, just a couple of Janets and a F-16 landed.

Groom Lake Airbase, early in the morning

A Janet 737 lands on runway 32 at Groom, seen from Tikaboo Peak
USGS summit marker on Tikaboo Peak

As the sun came round into the south my view was deteriorating, so I called it a day at 11am and descended the mountain to fix my tire.  I finally limped back onto the tarmac at the Pahranagat Lakes at lunchtime, after a very nervous 10 - 15 mph drive out of the desert.  The spare tire was only a thin temporary and flimsy looking thing, and I was relying on it to get me over 20 miles of dirt road!

Having fitted a replacement tire in Alamo, I returned to the Extraterrestrial Highway 90 minutes before dusk and parked up a couple of miles south east of the Mailbox.

I soon became aware of 2 aircraft dogfighting to the east of the Powerlines Overlook, probably somewhere close to Hiko or Crystal Springs.  It quickly became obvious that one of the planes was a MiG-29, thanks to the dirty engine smoke it left behind, a trademark of 1980s Russian engines.  I watched for 20 minutes as the MiG and an F-16 performed a number of head on intercepts in the distance.

When they had finished playing I was lucky enough to have them both transit almost directly overhead me back to the base, at around 20000 feet.  I took a series of photographs, with the planes backlit by the setting sun as they headed West back towards Groom Lake Base.  The MiG flew straight and level, while the F-16 manoeuvred around it, checking it out from all angles.

To give you an idea of how difficult it can be to spot and identify these planes, here is a regular 50mm shot of the F-16 / MiG-29 formation as it passed over:

F-16 / MiG-29 formation at dusk on Nov 5 2009

So that was that! Mission accomplished.  MiG's photographed, Tikaboo climbed, Aliens evaded. Now back to Vegas for some fun!

Groom Lake November 2007

On my first visit in November 2007 I did all the 'touristy' things.  I drove the length of Groom Lake Road, from the Extraterrestrial Highway to the famous warning signs, advising of the use of lethal force, should you cross the boundary.  I waved to the Cammo's.  I visited the Black Mailbox (by that time is was painted white!) and I stayed in a trailer at the Little A'Le'Inn, having eaten one of their 'Alien Burgers' for dinner.  I also drove on dirt tracks to what is known as the Power Lines Overlook, where you can see the airspace directly over Groom Lake Airbase down to about 1000 feet.  The only planes I saw were Janet 737s and Beech 1900s, both using tactical "Rattler" callsigns, before reverting back to Janets in non-restricted airspace.

Groom Lake Road, with distant vehicle

Do not pass this point!

Cammo's keeping an eye on me

Little A'Le'Inn trailer accomodation

Highway 375 by night