“All of a sudden I heard a clearance for a short approach from ‘JOHNNY01.’ A prop plane, a Beech 55 with the registration N254BC, comes high overhead and then I turn and there's an RQ-170 with dayglo markings! The RQ-170 just dropped out of the sky and did the steepest approach ever, followed by high-speed taxi into the Skunk Works area,” an unnamed witness told The Drive.
The individual was able to capture a couple of photos of the brief event.
“The Beech 55 chase plane circled over Skunk Works until the RQ-170 disappeared into a tent there. Then the Beech landed,” he detailed. “There were two C-130s in the pattern also and they asked the tower if the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] landed because they had a hard time seeing it move from the downwind. It is such a small airframe.”
Prior to the landing in Palmdale, the Lockheed Martin-made UAV had only been linked to South Korea’s Kunsan Air Base, Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base, Nevada’s Tonopah Test Range Airport and Creech Air Force Base, Afghanistan’s Kandahar Airfield and California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Details remain scarce regarding the spotting, but it is worth noting that Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs - better known as Skunk Works - is located in Palmdale.
The RQ-170, formerly known as the “Beast of Kandahar,” was deployed to Afghanistan by the Pentagon during Operation Enduring Freedom. It has been reported that the UAV was used by the US Armed Forces to gather intelligence that led to the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the founder and first leader of al-Qaeda.
An RQ-170 was later commandeered by Iranian forces in December 2011. After refusing then-US President Barack Obama’s request to return the UAV, Tehran reverse-engineered the aircraft and produced its own version.
Citing Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh and Fars News Agency, Sputnik reported in February 2019 that Tehran was able to successfully hack “seven to eight drones” that were operating over Iran and Syria. Footage of the alleged hacks was later published by Fars News Agency.
According to The Drive, the RQ-170 has an estimated wingspan of 38 feet (11.6 meters) and has been spotted with a number of paint jobs, including a “white-cream color,” a mixture of black and cream and also a dark gray.
The recently-spotted UAV was also adorned with what the outlet described as orange “high-visibility treatments.”