by Kyle Mizokami | Popular Mechanics
- In 2002, the U.S. Air Force requested permission to fly a KC-10 tanker across Austrian airspace.
- The Austrians granted it, but soon became suspicious of the request.
- A fighter patrol sent by the Austrian Air Force to investigate revealed two F-117 stealth fighters tagging along with the tanker, hoping to remain unnoticed.
An unusual story has surfaced involving the U.S. Air Force, stealth aircraft, and a little bit of trickery.
On October 18, 2002, the Austrian air force, suspecting something was up with a U.S. government overflight of its territory, sent a pair of fighter jets to investigate the activity. The Drakens discovered the single approved plane was actually flying with two more unapproved planes: F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters, according to Airpower.at, which bills itself as “Austria’s virtual military aviation journal.”
Foreign airlines and air forces fly over Austria, which is centrally located in Europe, up to 800,000 times a year. Those wishing to overfly the mountainous country need to file a flight plan, but in general, overflights are often approved.
On that particular day in 2002, the U.S. Air Force requested permission for a DC-10 commercial transport flight originating at Spangdahlem Air Force in Germany to fly over Austria. While the Austrians granted approval, they began to get suspicious when the aircraft number for the “DC-10” was actually assigned to an aerial refueling aircraft.
Even fishier? Only one aircraft was registered for the overflight, but there were multiple aircraft registrations. The flight registration was reportedly also changed twice during short notice.
The Austrian Air Force sent two Swedish-made Draken fighter jets to investigate. The American flight, noticing the incoming Draken fighters, promptly diverged from the flight path. Nope, not suspicious at all.
The Drakens caught up to the slower American airplane and discovered it was a KC-10 Extender, the military tanker version of the DC-10 transport. That in itself wasn’t a big deal. But the two F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters trailing from each wing sure were.
As Airpower.at writes, the Nighthawks’ overflight was “neither requested, nor would have been approved.” The Drakens snapped pictures of the secret American flying formation, one of which you can see here.
So why did the Air Force try to pull a fast one on Austria?
At the time, the service was flying combat missions over Afghanistan, but the F-117A’s short range kept the jet out of the air campaign. By the fall of 2002, however, the U.S. military had begun a buildup of military forces in the Persian Gulf region, which eventually led to the invasion of Iraq. The two stealth fighters were probably part of that buildup, and a desire to get them there quickly, by the most direct route, likely led the Air Force to file the intentionally misleading flight plan.
While F-117As did take part in the invasion of Iraq five months later, there’s no way to know if the ones that tried to sneak across Austria were part of the aerial armada that pulverized the regime of Saddam Hussein.
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