Thursday, 29 December 2016

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!

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