In the 2004 and 2005 time frame, the Global War On Terrorism was in full swing with a high ops tempo. The United States Air Force’s Air Combat Command made a routine out of keeping a bomber rotation at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and that’s how the author found his way there. B-1s, B-52s, and the occasional B-2 regularly made deployments there to stage for combat missions over Afghanistan.
Actually a United States Naval Support Facility with a deep water port and runway capable of receiving the Space Shuttle, Diego Garcia is a part of the British Indian Ocean Territories comprising the greater Chagos Archipelago. Its extreme isolation has made it a hotbed for unsubstantiated accusations of classified and even nefarious activity. I never observed anything nefarious, but it was entertaining reading about how the tent I lived in was supposedly part of a CIA “black site” for terrorist detainees. If the Air Force’s rowdy flightline maintainers and their tent city could be considered detainees in the Global War On Terror, then an ounce of truth could be credited towards the metric ton of false information that could be found on the internet about the remote Indian Ocean outpost.
If nothing else, the 2004-2005 deployment was eventful. From the outset, we experienced a tsunami that spared the flightline and tent city, but caused damage to the eastern side of the atoll. Just like in Forrest Gump, we discovered that tropical storms can actually cause rain that seemingly comes sideways from every angle and even straight up from the ground.
During one week in 2005, we were advised that the Navy was conducting sensitive operations out of a large, red, dilapidated hangar at the Northern end of the airfield near the passenger terminal and base operations building. Air Force personnel were advised to stay away. For the entirety of the week, the hangar appeared unused and empty.
One night during that week, the flightline was evacuated. The base was locked down and Air Force personnel were advised to stay inside and away from windows to protect an incoming classified aircraft.
Everyone complied without protest or hesitation.
There’s no quiet like the silence of a shutdown airfield on an atoll more than 2,000 miles away from the nearest sign of civilization. In the absence of takeoffs, landings, and idling F-101-GE-102 turbofans and auxiliary power units (APUs) on B-1 bombers, you begin to hear waves on the beach and wind in the trees through open windows.
We anticipated hearing some sign of an arrival. The bark of high-pressure tires touching pavement, the clattering of segmented disc brake rotors, or the throb of those brakes being applied heavily as a large jet slowed itself after touching down. Maybe even an idling jet engine or humming turboprop propeller could have been harbingers of us soon being allowed back outside.
Around a half-hour came and went and we were cleared to get back to our wartime operations tempo. We never heard or saw a sign that anything happened at all. No sleek black spy plane parked by the Navy ramp and no activity by the mysterious hangar. As a lifelong fan of all things aviation and defense, a side of me positively hoped to catch a glimpse of some rare, glamorous jet. As with most things for active-duty military, all hope of glamour was swiftly replaced with the mundane and routine.
Years later at my home station of Dyess Air Force Base, an operational readiness exercise was interrupted by a similar call from the command post. Evacuate the flightline and evacuate it now. An aircraft no one can lay eyes on was diverting to Dyess Air Force Base. Why? Because it is. Go inside and stay away from the windows.
It may not be as isolated as Diego Garcia, but Dyess is to the West of Abilene, Texas. It’s situated just outside of town and the flightline lies in the country. On the rare occasions that the flightline has no running engines or APUs, it gets very quiet.
My curiosity was piqued, but it unfolded much in the way the Diego Garcia incident did and without incident. I personally didn’t hear or otherwise detect any sign of an arrival or departure. It must be noted that in nearly a decade at Dyess and to the best of my knowledge and memory, there was never a single hangar, ops building or section of the flightline deemed off-limits for a sensitive, let alone classified project.
The Dyess flightline is like that of many Cold War B-52 bases. Long and straight, sitting parallel to a long runway suitable for heavyweight bomber takeoffs on their way to training, or potentially the Soviet Union.
Nothing unusual was to be seen for miles in each direction upon our return to the flightline.
What were these mystery aircraft?
What’s hiding behind the military’s technological curtain is certainly fascinating to ponder. The War Zone has extensively documented what is publicly known about the United States Air Force and Navy’s pursuit of secretive unmanned aerial systems and other projects, such as the long-running goal of retaining a low observable special forces transport and the operations of the shadowy RQ-170 Sentinel. Still, I have no idea what aircraft paid me and my squadron mates a visit on those two occasions.
By the time the SR-71 made it out of Area 51, it was a glittering jewel in our nation’s aerospace crown. That is just the type of aircraft a lifelong aviation fanatic hopes they’ve been privy to in any mysterious aircraft encounter. Though I remain hopeful for a public release one day that fits my timeframe and locations, as time passes it becomes exceedingly unlikely I will be so lucky.
Other military personnel share similar experiences that are seemingly brushes with black projects; some seemingly factual, but many bordering on myth, and in some cases, utter absurdity. In the complete and absolute vacuum of anything seen or heard on either occasion, personal to myself I can’t even speculate as to what happened or what the aircraft involved was. That much is agreed upon by those I shared the experiences with.
Looking back, I’ve had to relegate those two experiences to the unknown with diminished expectations they will ever come back to me in a new light.
What conclusion is to be drawn?
One’s own military experiences become mundane in their day-to-day execution and every job has it’s annoyances, no matter how glamorous seeming they may be from the outside. Combat aircraft, for example, are notoriously high maintenance. Conceivably, somewhere out there is an F-22 Raptor pilot who is frustrated to taxi five minutes late because a nagging problem on startup required that he call maintenance. It’s those moments in which the greater privilege of being part of our nation’s legacy and heritage of aerial achievement and advanced technology is lost on the individual.
The break in what becomes a mundane routine comes in experiences like the two I shared in this article. They serve as a powerful reminder that our nation has the most advanced fighting force ever seen in all of human history and that force appears to have some wondrous capabilities that lay tucked away out of sight. Some of which we may never truly understand.
I am just glad I got to at least be in close proximity to such a thing, not one, but two times in my military career.
Stephen Walker is a United States Air Force veteran and 5,000 hour Airline Transport Pilot and Commercial Helicopter Pilot, type rated in private jets and with over a decade’s experience managing and flying private aircraft. He has a wide breadth of experience in aviation, having flown people from all backgrounds into and out of everything from small mountain airstrips to large international airports.