Photos: Top Secret: New Stealth Drone: This Unidentified Plane Flew Over California. The Air Force Won’t Admit It Exists


  • A photograph appears to show a plane flying over Edwards Air Force base that’s unlike any aircraft publicly acknowledged by the U.S. Air Force.
  • The aircraft appears similar to the RQ-180, a high-altitude spy drone.
  • The RQ-180’s existence has never been confirmed by the U.S. Air Force.
  • A photo of what could very well be the Air Force’s shadowy RQ-180 spy drone recently appeared—and disappeared—from Instagram.

The image (above) depicts a flying wing-shaped aircraft leaving a contrail in its wake. An observer reportedly took the photo while the aircraft was over the Military Operating Area at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

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According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, the aircraft “was flying in a racetrack pattern at an estimated altitude of 20,000 [feet].”

The photo, along with a magnified version of the image, appeared on Instagram. The post was later taken down, but archived and reposted on Twitter, as seen above. “Until I dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s!!”, Rob Kolinsky (@sundownerstudios) wrote, “then the picture will return!”

The mystery aircraft, as Kolinsky points out, does indeed look like the new B-21 Raider bomber. The B-21 Raider is a new strategic bomber under development by Northrop Grumman.

The B-21 will eventually replace the B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit stealth bombers (but not the B-52) in Air Force service. The first aircraft is reportedly under construction and won’t fly until 2022.

So, what is this thing? Aviation Week & Space Technology believes the aircraft looks like the RQ-180, a high-altitude, stealthy, uncrewed aerial vehicle operated by the Air Force. The RQ-180 is reportedly a long-endurance drone designed to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against targets guarded by modern air defense forces. The drone is thought to be a twin-engine, unarmed, uncrewed aircraft that utilizes a flying wing design to minimize radar return.

The U.S. Military currently operates the RQ-4 Global Hawk for high-altitude reconnaissance missions, but the plane lacks the stealth to allow it to operate near modern air defenses. In June 2019, Iran—not exactly a giant in the world of air defense—shot down an RQ-4 in the Strait of Hormuz. It was a wakeup call for a Pentagon that relies on persistent surveillance of adversaries as an early warning system.

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The Air Force has never publicly acknowledged the RQ-180’s existence. In early 2020, the service sought early retirement for more than two thirds of the 35-strong RQ-4 Global Hawk fleet. This is a curious decision considering the platform is relatively young, with the average age being less than 10 years. It’s not so curious, however, if there’s a newer, stealthier replacement for the giant drone already flying.

In 2019, AW&ST reported the RQ-180 was operational at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California. Beale, home to the 9th Reconnaissance Wing and its RQ-4 Global Hawks and U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy planes, is a logical place to base the RQ-180. The drone is described as having a wingspan of 172 feet, much larger than a Boeing 737’s wingspan of 117 feet, with antennas built into the wings.

AW&ST says the RQ-180’s nickname at Edwards is the Great White Bat, owing to its batlike wings and white painted appearance. Another, more whimsical nickname is “Shikaka,” a white bat with unusual guano from Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls.


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