The U.S. Air Force and the CIA’s famed but incredibly shy RQ-170 Sentinel has been caught on camera a few times in the U.S., including images of one supposedly forming up with an aerial tanker. It was also paraded around by Iran after its spectacular capture in 2011. Yet there are no known satellite images of it — until now.
One of the satellites that the website TerraServer sources images from snapped the bat-winged drone sitting outside of a shelter at Creech Air Force Base on February 2nd, 2012. You can see it here. Not only is it the first known occurrence of an RQ-170 being caught by a commercial imaging satellite, but it also works as a nice size comparison to the MQ-9 Reaper sitting nearby.
On a small handful of occasions the RQ-170 has been photographed flying the pattern around Creech AFB as the main runway runs parallel to the highway. A video was also shot of the Sentinel whizzing around the Nevada Test and Training Range a couple years ago. But beyond these few occasions, the Sentinel has remained an elusive aircraft, with more imagery existing from it overseas, much of it emanating from Iranian state news, than here at home. This is quite amazing, considering that it has been the better part of a decade after the Sentinel was first spotted at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, and was subsequently dubbed the ‘Beast of Kandahar’ by Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman.
While there have been some rumors that the shadowy Sentinels — and the equally as secretive 30th Reconnaissance Squadron that operates them — have slowly shifted at least some of their operations from the remote Tonopah Test Range Airpor to Creech AFB, very little official info, aside from some cursory mentions, exists about such a move and visual evidence to support it has been non-existent.
Although the RQ-170 has been splashed across the news for years, the program remains cloaked in a form of classified purgatory, where details remain illusive but the program itself has been officially disclosed by the Federal Government and detailed images of the craft exist in the public domain. This is not totally uncommon as other ‘unique’ flying machines that occasionally grace the skies over the barren deserts of the American southwest also seem to metaphorically exist in another dimension, where their they appear only briefly before disappearing again for years on end.
A slow migration of Sentinels, at least early variants of the type, from the Tonopah to Creech would make sense as the bat-winged stealth drone seems to be housed alongside its increasingly capable MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper colleagues when deployed overseas. It would also be a sign that the program is loosening up a bit when it comes to operational security. Also, we still have no clue how many RQ-170s exist, with estimates ranging from less than a dozen to many dozens being floated over the last few years, many of which could, and surely would, be deployed overseas at any given time.
Clearly the Lockheed Skunk Works built RQ-170 remains a sensitive subject for the Air Force, as this satellite photo was taken three years ago, and still we have seen little official, or even unoffical information come to light about the Sentinel program beyond scraps of information that are usually gleaned through FOIA requests.
Eventually, the historic Sentinel Program will be disclosed to a much greater degree, and when it does there is a good chance that the amazing things we already know about what is clearly a trailblazing aircraft is more interesting than we even imagined.
If anything else, we know that the Sentinel has been to some of the most dangerous places on earth on historical missions with incredibly high stakes. These include prowling the skies over Iran’s highly defended nuclear sites (and probably Pakistan’s, North Korea’s and God knows who else’s), not to mention watching Osama Bin Laden pace back and forth in his backyard for hours on end. The RQ-170 would come back weeks later to that same location to take up its perch on high to watch Bin Laden get carted off in a body bag by Navy SEAL’s and thrown onto stealth Black Hawk helicopter. And these are just the aircraft’s few feats that we know about.
If there were ever a machine that deserves some recognition, the Sentinel would be it.
A big thanks to reader Joshua Nyhus for the heads up on the satellite photo!
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.