A U.S. Air Force Drone Just Flew a Marathon Mission Over Libya
And you could watch it all online
by DAVID CENCIOTTI
It’s not a secret that U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk from the 9th Operations Group, headquartered at Beale Air Force Base in California are flying from Sigonella, Italy. Since 2001, the drones have flown intelligence missions in Europe, Africa and the Middle East from the base on the island of Sicily.
But beginning in October 2016, you could track Global Hawks online over over Ukraine. On Feb. 4, 2017, for the very first time, another one of unmanned spies was visible through websites such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange during a 21-hour mission over northwestern Libya.
The flying branch’s Global Hawks had their baptism of fire on Mar. 1, 2011. After the Pentagon launched Operation Odyssey Dawn on Mar. 19, 2011, the drones took off for Libya to perform high altitude assessments of the damage from strikes on targets located in regions with a residual surface-to-air missile threats.
From bases like Sigonella in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and Al Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, the drones regularly gathered intelligence over hotspots North Africa, East Europe and Middle East. In March 2015, the U.S. Air Force acknowledged the involvement of the pilotless aircraft in the air war against Islamic State.
Over Iraq and Syria, the Global Hawks grabbed images of potential targets and served as a platform for the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN. This gear replaces the spy sensors and supports ground operationss by relaying communications between people and aircraft, as well as enabling airstrikes on the militants.
The aircraft rely on the concept of “see and avoid,” where the pilot flying is responsible for dodging all traffic conflicts — much like a visual flight rules flight plan without flight following. For this reason one should not be able to detect RQ-4s on clandestine missions using “simple” commercial receivers such as those feeding online flight tracking systems.
But on Feb. 4, 2017, you could find the RQ-4 on FR24.com taking off from Sigonella around 1:30 AM UTC, climbing to 46,000 feet over the Mediterranean and then heading towards Libya, where it circled for several hours.
Eventually, the drone returned to Sigonella in the late evening, landing after 10:30 PM UTC — some 21 hours later.
By the way, on the very same day there was another U.S. RQ-4 drone prowling again over Ukraine.
The reason why the strategic drone was visible on the Internet for everyone to see — including the bad guys — remains a mystery. Just another case of inaccurate use of ADS-B transponder?
The Aviationist has documented the operational security failures exposed by online flight tracking. The site has reported about special operations planes clearly flying over or near “danger zones” for nearly a decade.
This author has informed the U.S. Air Force and other air arms that anyone can track their planes online, live, several times, but our Tweets — and those of our Tweeps who retweeted us — or emails have not had any effect. Little has changed, even though several emails from American pilots and aircrew members have praised raising the issue.
Sometimes the reason for making an aircraft visible on FR24 can be deterrence. They purposely broadcast their position to let “the others” know a spy plane hunting terrorists is there.
Was this the case over Libya? Hard to say.