Journalists Had A Surprise Close Encounter With An RQ-170 Sentinel At Vandenberg AFB

Reporters and photographers were invited out to Vandenberg AFB on Monday to take a closer look at the ICON spacecraft installed aboard a Pegasus rocket, which itself was mounted on Orbital ATK’s L1011 launch aircraft Stargazer. After completing their task they headed back toward the base’s main hangar and were surprised to see something of an almost mythical mechanical creature sitting on the ramp—an RQ-170 Sentinel. 

The base, which is perched along the Southern California coast, was once set to host a second Space Shuttle launch site, but today it usually sends reconnaissance payloads into high-inclination orbits and conducts ICBM test launches. But the facility has other uses as well, and its long runway is an attractive training feature for California-based military aircraft. 

Although no squadron of aircraft officially calls the base home, a detachment of secretive RQ-170 Sentinels from the shadowy 30th Reconnaissance Squadron uses the base for testing. This little-known fact was first discovered by our own Joseph Trevithick and it became big news when our contributor Matt Hartman photographed a specially configured Sentinel landing at the base in 2017—a rare encounter that The War Zone was the first to report.

Hartman’s image of an RQ-170 specially configured for testing making its approach to Vandenberg AFB back in March of 2017.

Hartman had yet another close encounter of the RQ-170 kind on Monday as he was one of the journalists in the van that got what has to be the closest view of a Sentinel by the press—a seemingly unplanned encounter that ended up being the highlight of the visit. 

Matt describes the experience as such:

“Yesterday was supposed to be a standard day. Show up, check in, get a pass, and load into the van, but it ended with a fantastic surprise. My mission was photographing Orbital ATK’s Lockheed L-1011 ‘Stargazer’ aircraft which was configured to launch NASA’s ICON satellite into space. Our USAF escorts issued the standard rules about no photography or videography while in transit to the media area for our shoot. 

After an hour of shooting the jet and its space-faring payload out of the base’s expansive apron, we pack up into our media van for the trip back to the public parking area. Under USAF escort we departed the flight line and head to the gate. Upon turning eastbound on the flight line along the main taxiway, sitting in front of the southern side of the main hangar was something spectacular, it was as if I was seeing a ghost. 

I said nothing, my colleague in the van also saw it and jabbed me trying to figure out if what we were seeing was indeed really what we both thought it appeared to be. We kept driving towards it. By then every journalist in the van was seeing what lay ahead and we all knew we were about to get a very special, albeit seemingly unplanned look at the Skunk Works’ history-making stealth drone. 

As we rolled by just dozens of feet away, the RQ-170 was sitting there on the flight line with a power cart next to it and a few people milling around it. Its jet inlet looked to have almost a brass or gold-like finish under direct overhead sunlight. Unlike the patch-work cream and black toned Sentinel I had photographed on approach to the base the year before, this one was wearing a dark grey low-visibility scheme on top with lighter gray on the bottom. It also lacked the big flight test data boom that the other one had installed. Overall it looked like a far more operationally relevant configuration of the famed “Beast of Kandahar.”

We just silently starred in awe as we rolled past it and continued on to the main gate where we were sent on our way. The cameo appearance of the Sentinel was never even addressed.”

The only known official image released of the RQ-170 obtained by our own Joseph Trevithick via FOIA. It shows a uniquely configured RQ-170 on the apron at Andersen AFB in Guam. TO BE CLEAR, this was NOT taken at Vandenberg AFB on June 4th, 2018, but years ago and obtained via FOIA. 

So there you have it, even after a decade in the public domain, the RQ-170 remains an elusive flying machine indeed. But a lucky few reporters and photographers got the closest look yet of one on Monday. Seeing as at least one of the Sentinel’s evolutionary forebearers has recently been declassified, maybe the RQ-170 will emerge from the ‘gray world’ and into the light in the not so distant future. And who knows what other derivatives of the Sentinel may exist by now. 

Until then, we will just have to keep our eyes peeled. 

A big thanks to our good friend and contributor Matt Hartman for sharing his story with us. Make sure to check out Matt’s work on Flickr and learn more about what he does at his company website.

Contact the author: [email protected]

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