The US Air Force’s top secret stealth spy drone dubbed the ‘Great White Bat’ could have broken its cover, thanks to the quick reactions of a California man who’s believed to have snapped the first ever picture of the classified aircraft.
A craft matching the description of the bat-wing RQ-180 was pictured soaring over Edwards Air Force Base sometime in early October by photographer Rob Kolinsky, who briefly posted the image to Instagram on Saturday.
‘This thing flew over my house several weeks ago and I still have yet to identify it!’ Kolinsky said in a since-deleted post. ‘It’s shaped like a B-21 … but was painted white. Mystery!’
He added: ‘I was not going to post it but I thought that if it were really classified, they wouldn’t be flying it in broad daylight like this’.
The Air Force has never officially acknowledged the existence of the Northrop Grumman-made RQ-180, but Aviation Week reporter Guy Norris identified the aircraft in Kolinsky’s pictures as the classified drone.
An aircraft matching the description of the bat-wing RQ-180 was pictured soaring over Edwards Air Force Base sometime in early October by photographer Rob Kolinsky, who briefly posted the image to Instagram on Saturday
This thing flew over my house several weeks ago and I still have yet to identify it!’ Kolinsky said in a since-deleted post. ‘It’s shaped like a B-21 … but was painted white. Mystery!’
Norris wrote that the aircraft depicted matches the ‘understanding of the shape of what is commonly known as the RQ-180 unmanned aircraft system (UAS).’
Such features are said to include a large-span flying wing and closely paired twin turbofan engines.
‘The high-aspect-ratio wing also appears greater in span than other known large unmanned aircraft and has a relatively low sweep angle,’ Norris noted.
Further, the unusual light coloring of the aircraft is also said to be a telling link back to the RQ-180.
The drone is reportedly dubbed the ‘Great White Bat’ – or sometimes ‘Shikaka’, a reference to white bat featured in the movie Ace Ventura 2 – among Edwards AFB officials.
A ‘white bat’ symbol has also emerged as the badge for the 74th Reconnaissance Squadron, the unit thought to be training to take command of the RQ-180.
Aviation Week were the first to break the news of the drone’s alleged development in 2013. Six years later, in 2019, the magazine followed up with an in-depth feature that claimed at least seven RQ-180s had been developed.
‘There is a growing body of evidence that the stealthy vehicle is now fully operational with the U.S. Air Force in a penetrating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role,’ the article read at the time.
The aircraft shown matches the ‘understanding of the shape of what is commonly known as the RQ-180 unmanned aircraft system,’ Aviation weekly said.
Aerial view of Edwards Air Force Base, in California, is shown above. The alleged RQ-180 was pictured flying about it sometime in October
The RQ-180 is reportedly similar in shape to the Northrop-designed B-2 stealth bomber. The unmanned aircraft is, however, considerably smaller than the manned bomber.
It’s also said to feature design improvements that Northrop is including on the B-21 bomber, which the company is currently building for the Air Force, Forbes’ David Axe reported.
The RQ-180 reportedly first took flight back in 2010, and is believed to be the potential successor to the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a long-range, high-altitude manned reconnaissance craft which was retired by USAF in 1998.
Forbes reported that, with the RQ-180, the Air Force would be able to penetrate enemy air-defenses with a far-flying reconnaissance craft for the first time since the Blackbird was decommissioned.
As of 2020, the Blackbird still holds the world record it set in 1976 for being the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, where it registered speeds of 2,193 mph.
The Air Force reportedly first tested the estimated 170-feet-wingspan RQ-180 at Groom Lake, which is part of the Area 51 complex in Nevada.
A decade on, and the RQ-180 is said to be so well-established in Air Force service that the military branch has even pushed to axe the majority of its fleet of non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk drones.
The RQ-180 reportedly first took flight back in 2010, and is believed to be the potential successor to the Mach-three SR-71 Blackbird (above), a similar far-flying reconnaissance craft which was retired by USAF in 1998
A decade on, and the RQ-180 is said to be so well-established in Air Force service that the military branch has even pushed the axe the majority of its fleet of non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk drones (above)
The motion to retire 24 of its 24 RQ-4s came as part of the Air Force’s 2021 budget proposal in February, in which the service asked congress to withdraw scores of aircraft, including 17 B-1 bombers and 44 A-10 attack planes.
The Air Force claimed the retirements would save $21 billion from between now and 2026. Around 40 percent of that sum would then be spent on ‘classified projects’.
Lawmakers have so far rejected most of the cuts.
But if the Air Force were to reduce its Global Hawk patrols, they haven’t yet said what would make up for the gap in aerial surveillance resulting from such a move.
But in February, then chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein told Defense News that something is available to take the place of Global Hawk drones, should Congress approve the reduction of RQ-4s.
‘Most of what we’re giving up is unclassified,’ Goldfein said. ‘What we’re buying—not all but a lot of it—is in the classified realm.’
Kolinsky has since removed the image from social media until he says he can verify for himself that it is indeed the RQ-180.