That Jet That Orbited Over Denver Actually Isn’t Much of a Mystery

Sorry to break it to you, folks, but the local story that went national about a mysterious plane over Denver really wasn’t much of a story at all.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


Yesterday morning, Denverites looked up into the bright blue sky and saw something totally normal, a jet, although this jet hung around doing large orbits over the city for a stretch of time. This apparently caused enough commotion that Denver’s local TV news stations ran with the story, with local ABC affiliate Channel 7 especially hot on the case. Later, the story would make national news.

The station posited that the aircraft was a big mystery, even though they had pulled up the track on the aircraft on Flightradar24, where they also discovered its callsign “IRON99.” Clearly, the aircraft was US military, and pictures and video show a white four-engined airliner derivative flying around at 35,000. Not only that, but the station had the flightpath of where the jet had been, and where it eventually went after cruising in circles over the Mile High City.

The jet originated its flight from just northeast of the Bay Area, headed out past the California coastline for some orbits, then headed across the country before setting up station over Denver. After it finished its business there, the jet headed to nearby Oklahoma.

Simply put, even if there weren’t imagery of the aircraft itself that gives away its type and mission (which there is) the data above pretty much tells us what it was—a US Navy E-6B Mercury. Even the callsign has been used by these aircraft, something that can be found with a quick Google search.

The E-6B is also known by the acronym TACAMO (Take Charge And Move Out) and executes the “Looking Glass” mission, which has to do with facilitating the release of nuclear weapons during a time of war. The aircraft can also work as a command post for the National Command Authority and as a major network relay and communications node in the aftermath of a national disaster. 

An E-6B is captured in Stuttgart, Germany. The aircraft operate all around the world, just as the Navy's boomers do, and they also support missions where independent high-end secure communications are needed. , Julian Herzog/wikicommons

The fleet of 16 E-6Bs are the last 707s to roll off the production line, and are loaded with all types of communications capabilities. These include multiple secure satellite links (one of which is facilitated by the large “hump” on the jet’s spine) and a very low frequency antenna that is reeled out behind the aircraft. This system allows the E-6B to transmit to submerged submarines. A tight pylon turn is used to get the trailing wire antenna as close to vertical as possible for the best transmission quality.

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A handful of E-6Bs sit high alert under heavy guard, or are airborne at all times. 60 Minutes even got to see inside one recently, which is a rare occasion to say the least. Travis AFB, located north of San Francisco, is one of the E-6Bs forward-alert sites and the type’s home base s located at Tinker AFB, in none other than Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In between the two locations is Buckley AFB just outside of Denver, where some of the Pentagon’s most capable communication systems are based, many of which support US Strategic Command. So the route that this “mysterious” jet flew is in fact quite logical and mundane.

The reason why the military didn’t come forward yesterday when asked with a description of what the aircraft was doing (and what type of aircraft it was, for that matter), is that the Mercury’s mission is considered sensitive, and they don’t usually comment on its operational patterns, or even on its forward operating locations.

The unique lines of the E-6B as it Takes Charge And Moves Out. , Tyler Rogoway

So in the end, the Mercury was just doing what it does over Denver—training for the end of the world as we know it by flying to and from its normal bases of operation, and linking up with key sites that allow it to communicate with the powers that be and the world’s most deadly weapons scattered around the globe.

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