Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport – 2/8 & 2/9 2014
Article and Photos by Steven Valinski
Another weekend at Willie. Since I recently arrived back from Las Vegas covering the Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, I was curious to see what aircraft may be stopping in at Willie for the weekend. This weekend Willie was quite busy with aviation photographers, but not quite as busy with military aircraft. A large contingent of aviation photographers from all over the world have been visiting Las Vegas for the U.S.A.F.’s Red Flag exercise. Some of these photographers made it down to Willie to try to catch some military aircraft activity on the weekend, when most bases, including Nellis AFB, have little or no activity. At one point, it felt like a Euro NATO convention at the “Hill”. Photographers from the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands were anxiously awaiting an opportunity to photograph military aircraft (and document the tail numbers).
To some extent, Willie did not disappoint. There was some military activity at Willie over the weekend. Four Harriers from MCAS Yuma arrived Friday evening and were flying sorties in and out all weekend. A KC-130T from VMGR-234 out of JRB Forth Worth, Texas arrived on Saturday, and a F/A-18F Super Hornet from VFA-122 out of NAS Lemoore, CA came in for the weekend. However, the most interesting aircraft of the weekend was a U.S. Army Beechcraft RC-12X Guardrail.
The best word to describe the Guardrail aircraft is “spooky”. Essentially, the Guardrail is a spy plane. The Guardrail supplies airborne signals intelligence (SIGINT) which includes data collection, targeting, and reporting capabilities. Basically, the Guardrail system can monitor many frequencies of information, categorize the data, and provide real-time reporting of the data. The Guardrail system monitors communications, locates High Value Targets (HVT’s), then reports the precise location of these HVT’s to the military command. The technology the Guardrail system employs is similar to the technology developed for the U-2 and RQ-4 Global Hawk. The Guardrail has been in existence for over 42 years. The original Guardrail aircraft began as Army U-21’s (which were a hybrid of a Beech Queen Air with the wings of a King Air) which were then modified with the Guardrail configuration. Today, a Guardrail begins as a Beechcraft King Air A200 (C-12) which is then modified by Northrop Grumman with the latest Guardrail configuration. The latest version of the Guardrail is the RC-12X, which is the model of the aircraft that visited Willie this past weekend.
I am sure that some were disappointed at the low volume of military aircraft at Willie this past weekend. With a contingent of aviation photographers present with high-end DSLR’s and long glass in hand, expectations were high. With the U.S. government’s constant struggle with fiscal responsibility, I learned to appreciate any military aircraft I get to photograph, especially on the weekends. But then again, I did not travel thousands of miles to photograph military aircraft in the U.S..