This article originally appeared in Popular Communications Magazine August 2004. (C) 2004 Steve Douglass. Reproduction here with friendly permission by the author.
If the winds were kind and the technical problems were ironed-out, by the time you read this you may have already heard about the strange "flying V-shaped" UFO that has been seen by citizens over far west Texas and southeastern New Mexico.
Although the event hasn't happened as of this writing, it is likely this huge flying object will be seen at sunset and is flying so high it probably glows bright for maybe more than an hour after dusk and will undoubtedly prompt uninformed citizens to call local authorities and report a unidentified flying object in the area.
In reality the UFO is a prototype of a new lighter-than-air sky spy and might give utility monitors in the area a rare opportunity to intercept some unique communications.
Scheduled for late June and lasting throughout the summer and fall a V-shaped airship bigger than a baseball diamond is due to rise from the West Texas desert to an altitude of 100,000 feet (30.5 kilometers), navigate by remote control, linger above the clouds and drift back to earth.
This joint JP Aerospace/U.S. Air Force project to build a new kind of reconnaissance and battlefield communications platform that some day might lead to even bigger lighter-than-air, gas filled floating platforms that gossamer spaceships could use as high-altitude way stations.
"The full-size station in our grand vision is 2 miles across," says John Powell, the company's founder. "But that's down the road a bit. We take baby steps." You can learn more about this project by pointing your browser to: http://www.jpaerospace.com/
Known as the "Ascender" the unique shaped aerostat is slated to be (as of press-time) launched from the Pecos County/West Texas Spaceport at Fort Stockton, TX, but the liftoff is dependent on the weather and has been delayed several times. According to Powell, "We actually had the first flight window in February, but we sat there and stared at 30-knot West Texas winds for two weeks, so we're going back in June,"
If tests are successful, the Ascender could lead to a much larger military airship being developed as a separate project.
In 2001, the Missile Defense Agency awarded Lockheed Martin a $40 million contract to work on the High Altitude Airship, a 500-foot-long (152-meter-long) blimp, 25 times larger than the Goodyear blimp and much more capable than the Ascender and could loiter at altitudes above 65,000 feet for as long as a year.
One reason airships are becoming more and more attractive to the Pentagon is the cost. The roughly $500,000 cost of building the 175-foot-long (53-meter-long) Ascender airship is far less than the price tag for any piloted airplane or robotic drone.
But the Pentagon's primary motivation is strategic rather than financial. The altitudes best suited for the helium-filled Ascender are virgin territory for the military. It could take a payload higher than any spy plane, above the weather and well beyond the reach of virtually any attack from the ground or the air.
Although the Ascender is considered to be a prototype of a future system there are some who speculate the NRO has been flying top-secret airships for years which have been responsible for may "slow moving" UFO sightings.
A few years ago an American Air West 727 was flying in an air corridor just north of the restricted military airspace known as Area 51, when lightning from a nearby thunderstorm illuminated a huge motionless cigar-shaped object hovering silently over the Nevada Desert. The pilot startled by the sudden appearance of the eerie craft radioed air traffic controllers to report the encounter as a UFO sighting.
Controllers on the ground responded that it was probably a classified aircraft operating out of the restricted Nellis Range. The pilot described the craft as looking something like an elongated big black blimp, invisible except when illuminated by lightning flashes.
What the commercial pilot saw was most likely one of the best kept black world secrets, the stealth airship, a flying Big Brother, prowling the upper reaches of the atmosphere capable of collecting enormous amounts of intelligence for its spy masters on the ground.
These rumored "stealth-ships" are capable of eavesdropping on military, government and civilian radio communications, photographing the world below in amazing detail, and even listen with sensitive electronic ears for the telltale sounds of war.
Possibly equipped with state of the art imaging devices, ground scanning radars and sonic detection equipment, unmanned sky spies could go completely unnoticed until something goes wrong.
They are only spotted when, as fate would have it, a kink in the jet stream forces these goliaths down into civil airspace where they can become a hazard to commercial aircraft traffic and visible to us groundlings below. On many occasions unidentified "airships" have been spotted by airline pilots and civilians who report them as UFOs.
Could it be that the famous Belgian, Mexico City and Hudson Valley UFO sightings of a huge, slow moving aircraft, accompanied by large formations of military helicopters, are in reality stealth-ships accidentally brought down to low altitude by freakish winds?
Although eye-witness reports by qualified observers point to the possible existence of stealth air ships, new documentation almost goes as far as proving it.
Lockheed-Martin (the same company that designed the SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 stealth fighter) recently secured patents on advanced airship designs with the U.S. Patent Office.
The concept for a high altitude reconnaissance airship is not new and has its roots in the U.S. Navy's HI-SPOT program of the late 1970s. HI-SPOT (High Surveillance Platform for Over-the Horizon Targeting) addressed the Navy's stated needs for a lighter-than air reconnaissance platform.
Visualized missions for the airship included air and sea surveillance, communications interception as well as a communications relaying platform.
An airship was also seen as the ideal heavy-lift platform for a Navy Bi-Static (OTH-B) radar receiver.
By its very nature, a low frequency OTH-B reception, system requires a very long antenna to work. A large airship would be ideal for lifting up to high altitude such a massive antenna. The Navy foresaw HI-SPOT's OTH-B radar capabilities as very useful for detecting submarine-launched cruise missiles.
An OTH-B radar designed to track low-altitude aircraft and stealthy cruise missiles would also have bonus applications in an anti-drug role making it easier to intercept drug running aircraft flying low over the open ocean.
In 1981,the NADC (Naval Air Development Center) selected the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company to develop HI-SPOT. According to information Lockheed released to the press in that same year, the Lockheed HI-SPOT design would be that of an unmanned blimp-like airship 500 feet long.
Shortly after the press release the HI-SPOT program was classified as top secret with no announcements ever coming from the Pentagon that the system was cancelled or fielded, however multiple sightings of slow-moving rigid airships reported by many observers in Nevada and California began surfacing in the mid to late 1980s.
In 1990, a major sighting of a slow-moving black airship occurred in California's Antelope Valley not very far from one of Lockheed's secret radar cross section testing ranges. The airship was described as being 500 to 600 feet long, blotting out the night sky while moving slower than four miles per-hour. Artist depictions of a huge pumpkin seed shaped airship were published in Aviation Week Magazine (AWST 10-1-90) and other aviation technology publications.
Such a huge airship would need to be based in huge hangars. Just such a large hangar has been photographed at the secret Area 51 base in Nevada.
Recently this author also spotted very large hangars capable of housing airships on the Fort Bliss Range in southern New Mexico. These hangars may account for the 1995 sighting of a large black airship by an airline crew flying near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Las Cruces sits on the west side of the Ft. Bliss Range.
A high altitude floating reconnaissance platform has many technical advantages over conventional satellite and aircraft platforms. An unmanned airship can stay over an area of military interest for days or even months at a time.
A stealthy airship could loiter undetected while gathering all types of reconnaissance data. Long term, real-time photographic data could be relayed direct or via satellite to a command center providing an ever changing and always accurate tactical picture of the battlefield.
Due to a natural atmospheric phenomenon known as sonic ducting, the sounds of battle and in particular the loud booms caused by missile launches and nuclear explosions can be detected by sensitive microphones lifted aloft by an airship up into the proper sound ducting atmospheric layer.
Conventional jets are too loud and their engine noise would overload any audio system, but an airship is virtually silent and becomes the ideal listening platform. These airships could also be fitted with radiation sampling systems capable of detecting the telltale signs of nuclear testing or a Chernobyl-type nuclear accident.
Airborne electronic eavesdropping gear could intercept civilian, military, commercial and government radio communications which can only be done for short periods by ELINT platforms such as the U.S. Air Force's RC-135 Cobra Ball aircraft.
Generally only communications that take place above 30 MHz have a chance of radiating into space without being reflected back down by the electrically charged ionosphere. An ELINT airship has an advantage over reconnaissance satellite systems in that it can intercept low powered, low frequency radio communications that satellites are blocked by the ionosphere from receiving.
Many important military communications take place on the VLF and ELF frequency bands including those concerning the command and control of deep diving nuclear submarines.
Any unmanned long-duration reconnaissance airship would have to be self-sufficient. Electricity for the reconnaissance, maneuvering systems and communications systems could be continually provided by solar cells (charging batteries by day) mounted outside the airship's gas filled envelope.
Advanced radar absorbing composites and special shaping could make a reconnaissance airship very hard to spot on radar and at the altitude they hover (above 100,000 feet) these stealthships (camouflaged to match the sky) would be very hard to detected visually.
Recon-Airships could also be protected from detection by hiding in magnetically charged layers of the ionosphere that naturally deflect probing radar beams.
These ships are not designed to float aimlessly at the high altitude. While most of the deployment into a target area could be accomplished by taking advantage of high-altitude winds an airship could stay on station by employing efficient and silent electronic motors spinning propellers at very-low speed. Operated autonomously from the ground, stealthships may be the ultimate spy platform.
It may take days, weeks or months to position an airship but once in place an airship could loiter for an extended time while collecting very valuable strategic and tactical information.
If the winds are unkind, dozens of airships could be placed into a high atmospheric fast lane, cruising on the trade-winds in an endless chain, relaying a constant stream of gleaned information back to an intelligence agency's command center.
As for monitoring Ascender, keep a close ear to civilian and military aviation channels. No doubt monitors in a few hundred miles of the launch area will be able to hear air traffic control advisories as well as pilot-to-pilot chatter concerning the aerostat.
Since a major part of the experiment is to see if Ascender can serve as a military communications relay station, it might do good to give a listen to narrow and wide-band military SATCOM frequencies in the 240 MHz to 370 MHz range. If Ascender works as advertised it might be possible for you to hear military ground stations and units from well beyond your listening horizon. Who knows, the military might also experiment with relaying HF communications. Whatever you intercept, make sure you pass on your logs to this author!
So why try and reinvent the wheel? Why would the Air Force fund a study for a recon system that may already be in use?
For one thing, they may not know about the secret NRO projects. They may be out of the loop when it comes to matters of intelligence (no pun intended) or the white-world Ascender project could be a cover for the black-world counterpart project. Let's theorize that maybe the black airship project is entering a new phase where daylight operations may become the norm. Couldn't any new sightings be explained away as Ascender?
In any event it will be interesting to see what UTE and MILCOM monitors intercept as the project matures.