Thursday, 29 December 2016

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!


  1. Hi, it's great that you caught this on camera. I'm in UK and have been to Tonapah several times but not really seen anything other than the standard Nellis activities. I did however see the SU 27 on the ground once at Creech AFB. Out again in March this year (2017).
    I hear from various sources that the F117 aircraft still fly but very rarely. The last sighting was about six months ago !
    Good to make your acquaintance.

    1. Hi PJ,
      At what period in March do you plan on going there ? I'd love to spend a day or two at Coyote Summit , during a Red Flag (RF 17-2 maybe). And maybe rent a plane (I'm a private pilot) and try the overflight of R-4807A during the weekend.
      Let's keep in touch
      Vincent "Gnouze"

  2. Excellent reports ! What's your lens for this Su-27 vs F-16 pics ?
    I plan on going to the Nellis after having studying the place for 10 years (maps, forums, etc). I'd love to get more in contact with you for planning this trip. I have a Private Pilot license and may rent a plane there to get better views from above (of course, while staying outside "The Container").

  3. Nice work!, felicitaciones y un gusto sabe que el F16 se pone a prueba con un avión que en teoría es de rango superior.

  4. so who won the dogfight?