It seems RAF Fairford is very much the place to be at the moment with a sudden increase in USAF military activity in recent weeks.
For nearly four weeks, three B-2 Stealth Bombers operated from RAF Fairford conducting a wide range of operational training sorties including a historic first-ever landing in Iceland, round robin trips of the UK and further afield, and several integration sorties flying alongside the RAF F-35 Lightings based at RAF Marham.
On the morning of Thursday 19th September, all three aircraft departed homeward under the callsigns MYTEE 21, 22 and 23.
It wouldn’t take long however until Fairford would see some more action. In actual fact, it took less than 24 hours for another NOTAM to appear:
U4094/19 – FAIRFORD MIL ATZ ACTIVE. AD, RWY 09/27 OPEN. 20 SEP 12:30 2019 UNTIL 20 SEP 15:00 2019. CREATED: 20 SEP 10:14 2019
With a short timeframe, it was clear this was for something scheduled and the it wouldn’t’ take long until all was revealed with DRAGON 21 being intercepted on 252.875MHz in the descent for RAF Fairford.
Shortly after DRAGON 21 touched down, the callsign DRAGON 22 was also being intercepted by sharp-eared military radio monitors, again on 252.875MHz, passing his current altitude as above FL600 (60,000ft).
Given the routing of DRAGON 21 and 22, it is relatively safe to assume they have arrived following a detachment somewhere in the Middle East, possibly operating from an undisclosed location or locations, conducting their high-flying surveillance operations.
U-2s routing through RAF Fairford is relatively common in the grand scheme of things, as aircraft rotate from their operational deployments back Beale Air Force Base. It has been highlighted though the usual pattern is the aircraft deploying from Beale Air Force Base to the operational theatre usually arrive at RAF Fairford first.
During the recent B-2 deployment, rumours did emerge of the venerable U-2 Dragon Lady being based and operating from RAF Fairford for the next two years, and speculation now exists that these two aircraft may be staying in Gloucestershire for some time.
Both arrivals were fully kitted out with a wide range of operational components as well. To have one aircraft fully fitted out is relatively rare, but to have two fully kitted U-2 Dragon Ladies arriving within a few hours of each is, is practically unheard of.
The fully fitted specifications are:
DRAGON 21 80-1071 – Senior Span Dorsal (satellite communications system); DDL2+ (Dual Data Link); ASARS nose (Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System).
DRAGON 22 80-1067 – Senior Span Dorsal (satellite communications system); DDL2+ (Dual Data Link); Ruby Super Pods, SYERS nose (Senior Year Electro Optical Reconnaissance System).
The intelligence gathering suites on these aircraft is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s highly likely there’s a lot more going on underneath than we will ever truly know. Even the true capabilities of each of these systems is likely to be a closely guarded secret, although there’s a lot of general information openly available which gives a good indication to what the aircraft is capable of.
SENIOR SPAN DORSEL: Used for satellite communications and sometimes referred to as Senior Spur depending on the full aircraft configuration. The system allows signals intelligence collection beyond line of sight and around the globe. It can also be used for transmitting other forms of data, including both image and electronic intelligence.
ASARS (Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System): Advanced electronic scanned array sideways-looking radar mounted either side of the nose. This system takes high-fidelity radar imagery out to approximately 100 miles to each side of the aircraft.
SUPER PODS: These are carried underneath the aircraft’s wings and can be used for carrying an array of surveillance equipment for Communications Intelligence (COMINT); Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT). Common names for systems include Senior Sear, Senior Ruby and Senior Glass.
SYERS (Senior Year Electro Optical Reconnaissance System): A camera system which can act as the U-2’s primary optical sensor to penetrate deep into enemy territory while retaining excellent image resolution. Upgrades and advancement have dramatically improved the system’s ability to overcome the effects of weather and other environmental factors, with infra-red capability being able to counter attempts at camouflage and concealment of vehicles or similar.
But the question that everyone is now asking is how long will these aircraft be staying at RAF Fairford for? There’s high hopes these aircraft will be deployed and operating from the base for some time with the future of RAF Fairford looking bright.
The universe conspired against me and my 400-mile road trip to see the B-2 Stealth Bombers, however if two fully-equipped U-2 spy planes are going to be a regular feature for the foreseeable future, the road trip plans might be getting dusted off again!