US civilian pilot Gabriel Zeifman recently flew his Cessna aircraft over Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, home of the U-2 Dragon Lady and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, along with the T-38 Talon trainers and a squadron of KC-135R tankers, and took a series of photos of the installation. The images provide a fascinating view of the top secret spy plane base, and reveal one area where it appears that a major new project has been undertaken over the last year.
The images show the infamous base, which hosts the 9th Reconnaissance Wing of the US Air Force, in its latest configuration. It is a relatively basic airfield given its huge strategic importance, with just one runway. It once hosted SR-71 Blackbirds, and now has a large contingent of RQ-4 Global Hawk drones. The U-2, which has been based at the airfield for the better part of a century, is slated to continue flying into the foreseeable future, while a substantial portion of the RQ-4 Global Hawks—the Block 30 model—that were originally intended to replace them, may meet an early retirement. Still, the most advanced Block 40 Global Hawks will continue on.
Zeifman’s flight, which was done legally through civilian airspace with the permission of air traffic control, captured images of five Global Hawks and two U-2s, two high-flying intelligence aircraft.
He also spotted a contingent of KC-135 Stratotankers, which are Boeing 707 airliners modified to carry fuel for mid-air refuelling. The planes enable the spy planes to stay aloft for many hours and to cover thousands of miles.
One major change on the base in recent months, according to satellite imagery, is the relocation of the T-38s from the northern part of the ramp with their own independent hangar, down to the central part of the ramp, where large sunshades have been erected to keep the black jets out of the baking sun. The hangar that once supported them has also been modified over the winter, with a new roof and structural modifications, the addition of heavy environmental systems, and what looks like a large fuel tank has been constructed. A fence now surrounds the entire facility, including its access to the general apron area. It isn’t clear if parts of this fence are temporary, although a more permanent security fence could easily be installed to enclose the facility and its own apron area.
Last year Aviation Week posted its latest report on the so-called RQ-180, a very stealthy, deep-penetrating, high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft that could take on a similar role as a Global Hawk, and possibly other tasks, but it can do so in highly challenging environments. At the time Aviation Week published its report, its author Guy Norris claimed that the operational unit that could be flying the secret aircraft is now based out of Beale Air Force base, as well as possibly a number of RQ-180s. This would make sense, but at the time, as we pointed out, there was nowhere highly secure and modified to a low observable (stealthy) aircraft’s special needs to put such an aircraft on the base. This may be the purpose of the modifications to the hangar mentioned above.
The hangar’s location is in a relatively remote part of the base and in a higher-security area of the installation that has easy access to the end of the runway. Having its own fuel supply would also be very convenient for operating a sensitive platform independently and under tight security restrictions at an active base with less sensitive operations ongoing daily.
It is possible that this facility will be used for something else. Maybe the T-38s will return to this ramp in the near future or the facility will be used for another purpose. But the evidence now suggests otherwise and the size of the hangar, roughly 200 feet (about 60 metres) wide, would probably allow for at least a couple of the secretive RQ-180 drones to be housed there. These aircraft would still exist in very limited numbers, so it wouldn’t be surprising for two of them to be based at Beale at this stage of the program, with more being deployed there over time as more units are built and deployed. LINK