In a highly unusual move, one of the U.S. Air Force’s E-4B Nightwatch aircraft, also known as National Airborne Operations Centers, or NAOCs, touched down today at Tonopah Test Range Airport (TTR), one of the most famous secretive aircraft operating locations in the United States, only surpassed by nearby Area 51. What might have triggered this highly unusual visit is puzzling, to say the least, but it seems it could (me must stress could)have been related to a possible visit to the facility by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
Confirmation of the E-4B’s arrival into TTR was provided using data available from open-source flight data website ADS-B Exchange, with the jet, serial number 74-0787, using the TITAN25 callsign usually assigned when the Secretary of Defense is onboard.
Widely referred to as “Doomsday Planes,” the Air Force’s four existing E-4Bs are based on Boeing 747 airframes and are most famous for providing a robust and survivable airborne command post that offers a platform for the President of the United States, under a framework known as the National Command Authority (NCA), to initiate a nuclear strike. The planes have other functions, too, including directing large-scale military operations or a response to other major contingencies, such as major natural disasters. Also among their roles, the Nightwatch jets are often employed as a means of transporting the Secretary of Defense to foreign countries. You can read more about the E-4Bs and their missions, which are an essential component of overarching continuity of government plans, in this past War Zone piece.
A C-37A — a Gulfstream V used as a VIP transport by the Air Force — appears to have possibly landed at TTR about an hour before the E-4, although it appears to have turned off its transponder before touching down there, so the final part of its flight cannot be conclusively determined.
The Secretary of Defense had been expected to leave for a three-country tour of Asia sometime this week, but his exact departure date was not formally confirmed. With that in mind, it’s possible that Austin was making a visit to TTR ahead of leaving for Singapore, his first destination in Asia.
It’s notable that the Air Force’s latest Red Flag large-force combat exercise is now underway at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, which might have prompted a visit by the Secretary of Defense to the nearby TTR. Red Flag 21-3, which is making use of the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), is a U.S. forces-centric version of the exercise and is employing F-117 Nighthawks in an aggressor role.
Usually, a press team will be is onboard the E-4B if it’s taking the Secretary of Defense on an overseas tour, and the arrival of such an entourage at the notoriously secretive TTR would be a significant event in itself. If press were onboard, they could have been told to wait on the aircraft with shades drawn or, possibly, they were included whatever went on there. But considering the extreme security at TTR, that would be really a major shift in access.
After all, the wider Nevada Test and Training Range area includes the Department of Energy’s legendary nuclear test site, Area 51, and other normally off-limits areas. Of these, TTR is where the F-117 Nighthawk program was run in secret in the 1980s, and where the stealth jet still flies today, while during the Cold War the base also hosted Soviet fighters that were flown clandestinely for testing and as adversaries against American and allied fighters. Today the base is known to support ongoing Foreign Materiel Exploitation (FME) programs, as well as far more clandestine operations, including those surrounding advanced unmanned aircraft and special operations capabilities. It is the top site in the country where a highly classified program would move from a developmental role at Area 51 into a semi-operational one, while still maintaining secrecy.
This would not be the first time a Secretary of Defense has quietly visited components of the NTTR to look at what is waiting in the shadows in terms of next-generation air combat capabilities, but we have never known of a visit to Tonopah and especially aboard an E-4B.
Another option is that the E-4B flew into TTR without the Secretary of Defense on board. Either way, we now also have an indication that the aircraft departed the Nevada base after only a few hours, taking off at around 3:00 PM local time, according to online flight-tracking sources. The aircraft is now heading toward Alaska, which would be indicative of a trip to Asia.
Once again, an E-4B visiting Tonopah is weird enough, but going there with the SecDef aboard before a major international tour is even weirder. If this is the case, it could be interpreted that a major program has hit a certain milestone that would prompt such a visit, and maybe, just maybe, disclosure of the system in question is on the horizon.
It's also possible that another VIP was onboard or that there was another reason for the E-4B and C-37 to visit the base. We will continue to look into the background of this highly unusual visit and update this story as we find out more about the aircraft’s next destination.
Confirmed, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was onboard:
Also, it is quite possible that the C-37 was there to take the SecDef to Area 51. Six hours at TTR is a long time. The C-37 would have been able to make the hop 60 miles to Area 51 without drawing much attention so that he could check out what was going on there, as well. Plenty of time to do it. Could have snuck in there before the Red Flag launch and left after the action died down.
I mean, wouldn't you if you were him?
Images via Planet Labs show the E-4B and C-37 on the ground at TTR on July 23rd, 2021:
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