The U.S. Air Force’s RQ-170 stealth drone squadron has been quiet—real quiet—ever since one of the unit’s batwing robots crash-landed in Iran in late 2011, gifting Tehran with one of America’s most secretive warplanes.
But after some light Googling, we can verify that the Sentinel drones are still out there, still flying top-secret spy missions … somewhere.
For starters, an Air Force publication recently highlighted a close call with one of the flying branch’s roughly 20 surviving RQ-170s. According to Combat Edge, Air Combat Command’s official safety magazine, one RQ-170 operator at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada narrowly saved his drone from crashing back in April.
The Lockheed Martin-made RQ-170s, which entered service some time before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, all belong to the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, which recently moved from an airfield in Tonopah, Nevada to the less secretive Creech.
From Creech, groups of Sentinels—also known by their nickname “Wraith”—deploy all over the world. A civilian photographer caught the first public glimpse of an RQ-170 at Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan in 2007. Sentinels later deployed to South Korea—presumably in order to spy on North Korea—and to the United Arab Emirates, a good location for surveilling Iran.
The Air Force copped to the unarmed, radar-evading Sentinel’s existence in 2009. One of the satellite-controlled ’bots was overhead, peering down with its cameras when Navy SEALs raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011, killing the terrorist leader. After capturing the crashed RQ-170 on its border the following December, Iran reverse-engineered the drone—and is now trying to manufacture copies.
And that’s the last we heard of the RQ-170 from official sources until Combat Edge’s summer issue, which detailed O’Brien’s near-accident. “O’Brien demonstrated astute airmanship … and attention to detail while recovering a stricken RQ-170 aircraft that departed controlled flight in a near unrecoverable flight configuration,” the magazine reported.
The incident began when a Sentinel O’Brien was controlling began pitching and oscillating in flight—in other words, wobbling front to back and side to side.
O’Brien figured out that the RQ-170’s air-data sensor was malfunctioning. Steering the drone remotely, he guided it to a safe landing—“even after experiencing a rapid nose pitch-down and departure from controlled flight for 10 seconds.”
O’Brien’s save isn’t the only proof that Sentinel ops have continued even after the Iran fiasco. In late December 2013, artist Trevor Paglen gave a presentation about his work that included a remarkable video—the only one in public circulation—of an RQ-170 in flight. Paglen said in his presentation that he had shot the video “a few months ago” outside Creech.
Howling off-pitch, the Sentinel in Paglen’s video sounds like no other jet aircraft—“like a TIE Fighter,” Paglen said, referrring to the fictional Star Wars spacecraft and its distinctive roar. Go to the 23-minute mark in the video above.
Beyond that, a quick search of the resume-sharing Website LinkedIn turns up dozens of current and former airmen and contractors with RQ-170 experience—and at least one company looking to hire people to help fly the stealthy drone.
LinkedIn user Patrick Connellan describes himself as the “RQ-170 branch chief” for the 732nd Operations Group as late as August 2013. The 732nd, located at Creech, oversees four drone squadrons—two with MQ-9 Reapers and one each with MQ-1 Predators and Sentinels—and is rumored to have close ties to the CIA.
Likewise, Air Force pilot Tim Houston claims on his own LinkedIn profile that he flew RQ-170s from Creech until May last year.
Blue Force LLC, a company based in Virginia, wants to hire people like Connellan and Houston who are familiar with the RQ-170. Blue Force is one of several companies that help to reinforce Air Force drone squadrons with extra personnel.
“RQ-170 experience?” reads one Blue Force ad on LinkedIn. The company is “looking for the right candidates” with a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of two years under their belts operating Sentinels. In a pinch, a candidate can replace RQ-170 experience with flight time in B-2 or F-117 stealth warplanes.
The almost-accident, the presentation, the recent job experience and current hiring all point to a stealth drone force that’s still going strong, despite surrendering one of its robots—and perhaps most of its secrets—to Iran three years ago.
Does that mean RQ-170s might be flying over Syria right now?