Stalking Big Black Triangles in the Mojave Desert

In the early 1990’s there were a flurry of reports of a very strange type of aircraft in the skies over some parts of Southern California.  These eyewitness reports were primarily, but not exclusively, from the Mojave Desert area and occurred at night.  The reports described a somewhat slow moving triangular craft, blotting out the background stars.  Some reports included notation of a whirring sound.  One or two very interesting reports said the craft appeared pitch up vertically.

Because I had been researching radar facilities around that time, I was considering the possibility that this object people were reporting was perhaps a airship (lighter than air, dirigible) which was functioning as a bistatic radar facility.  With normal radar, the transmitter and receiver are in the same location.  The transmitter sends out a pulse, it bounces off a distant object, then returns to the receiver.  Works quite well, except for two items.

The first is that a normal radar facility is susceptible to anti-radiation missiles.  These suckers follow the transmitted radar pulse back to its origin and make a general mess of things. The second problem with normal radar is it doesn’t work well with stealth aircraft.  Aircraft shaped for stealth either bounce the transmitted pulse off in other directions or absorb it.

So enter bistatic radar.  The transmitter and receiver can be located far apart, with the transmitter out of the “theater of operation” to use military speak.  The receiver (or multiple receivers) can be located anywhere, passively listening, watching for “holes” in the signal received from the transmitter.  Neat, huh?  Now suppose you could make the receiver mobile, say built as a lighter than air craft that could lurk around the edges of a battlefield.  We could be talking legitimate Big Black Triangles!  The pitching up could be the craft going into a receive mode.

(While this theory sounds good, in the interests of full disclosure I eventually met someone who claimed some knowledge of the craft.  He said it was designed as a airborne flying sensor platform designed to detect incoming missiles against the black of space.  Why the secrecy?  I was told such an aircraft would be a violation of the then current Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, so our government wouldn’t exactly want to advertise what it had, so they only took it out to play after dark.)

One of the reports I heard came from a friend of a friend.  This individual, and ex-Boeing engineer, was travelling with his wife late in the day through the Southern California desert from Baker to Pahrump.  A lovely area, for those of you not familiar with it.  Before reaching Shoshone, he observed a large black triangular craft moving from west to east at modest speed, accompanied by what appeared to be a small jet.  (I know, there would seem to be a disparity between a jet and a lighter than air craft, but that’s his story).  He and his wife pulled over and watched as the two aircraft disappeared off to the east.  To the east, is of course, good ol’ Area 51 as well as the Tonopah Test Range.  To the west, where it appeared to be coming from, lay the vast and little known domain of China Lake and the Mojave Test Range.  As a result, I developed an interest in having a (legal) look at areas the powers that be would rather not I have.

What follows is a trip report  I sent out to friends and acquaintances  after my trip out there.  Notice only one mention of BBTs?  I know how to act sorta normal when I need to.



Another stupid trip report, this time to the north end of the Mojave Test Range. March 18, 1996

A few months ago, Jeri and I were at the Death Valley Visitor’s Center with some friends. On the wall there they had a collection of raised plastic relief maps covering all of Death Valley, and the new southerly addition which extended the park almost to the north boundary of Ft. Irwin and the Mojave Test Range (an outlying area of China Lake).

Because I have become twisted in recent years, I noted with some interest that there was a fairly high peak shown near the very southwest corner of the new park addition that looked down into the northerly areas of Ft. Irwin and the Mojave Test Range. Normal folks would never notice this.

This peak was labeled Quail Peak ( 35.628267° by -116.903493° for you GPS fans) and is just over 5,100′ high. It is also shown very well on the Los Angeles aircraft sectional chart, right at the northwest corner of the R- 2502N restricted airspace. From the topo, it looked like the place would have pretty sweeping views of the area, and it was just BARELY on public land. Uh, oh…feels like another stupid trip brewing…

Our schedule’s pretty full right now, but we knew it’s getting hotter out there, so we didn’t want to wait too long to try it. We left about noon on Sunday, March 17th. After getting gas in Baker, we headed northwest on Highway 127 toward Death Valley. Exactly 30 miles from Baker, as 127 turned north to Shoshone, we kept going straight on a dirt road. This route is an alternative dirt road type route into Death Valley.

It is also washboard hell. Bad, bad, BAD!! The road was well graded and wide, but the road just shook the crap out of us! After about 13 miles, we reached a fork and headed left, toward the west, southerly of the Owlshead Mountains. This route provides the only access into the region and would eventually end near our jumping off point for the hike.

After another very scenic 27 miles, we reached the end of the line, an ATT microwave relay facility. It appears that’s what the road was semi- maintained for. Strangely, the facility seemed dead, with no outside power leading to it, nor any generators running. Obviously a cover for an underground base! We were on to something good.

We backtracked down the road a few miles to park as close as we could to the peak, just as the sun set. I’d guess we were a little over 3,000′ elevation. Checking with my GPS, I was a little concerned that the peak was still 4.5 miles away, not an insignificant distance when headed out cross country. I could see the peak, and it didn’t look far, but I knew from past unpleasant experience that that was also a bad sign.

The next morning we got up early and headed out by 7:00 am, feeling doomed. The temperature was nice and cool and the going was much better than I expected. The terrain was very open, with few bushes, and was mostly gentle rolling. As we got closer to the main peak area, I was very cautious to pick a route that avoided having to give up any elevation gained.

Lots of stuff to be found out there for being in the middle of nowhere. We came across two radiosondes, one being the usual generic yellow type, but also one I hadn’t seen before. It was small, about the size of a very thick paperback book, and was labeled “Vaisala Radiosonde RS80”. It presently awaits dissection on my workbench.

As I was looking at the route, Jeri was watching the ground (snakes, no doubt). She found a few 50 caliber shell casings dated 1943, that seem to litter the Mojave. She also found a much larger shell casing, one that measures out to a 75 caliber.

As we began our climb up the steep sections, I noticed what appeared to be a pipe sticking out of the ground. Upon closer inspection it was not a pipe. It was painted gray, cylindrical, about 3 inches in diameter, and was sticking out of the ground about a foot. At its end were 4 folding fins about 1 1/2 inches wide and about 10 inches long. It had four holes in its end that looked like nozzles, and in the center of them was what looked like some sort of 4 eared wing nut. As neat a souvenir it would have made, I thought it best not to even touch it and backed slowly away.

As we went higher we passed close to a herd of wild burros. From their reaction, I’d guess they don’t get much human visitation.

Reaching what appeared to be the peak, we were not too surprised to see that it was a false summit, with the actual peak being another half mile or so away. The going on this upper portion was surprisingly easy with almost no brush and open rolling terrain, like high tundra, and the view was getting to be pretty good.

The view from the peak was excellent. It was pretty much 360 degrees. To the east, Mt. Charleston in Nevada was very clear. To the north, portions of Death Valley were visible. The Sierras could be seen to the northwest. And then there was all that stuff right in front to the south.

Actually, what there was in front of us was nothing. Oh, we had a fine view of a massive valley, it was just that there was nothing there to look at. No secret saucer bases, nothing. A big valley running east/west below us, with only a mediocre dirt road. Lots of assorted debris scattered on the hillsides, glittering. Probably from tow targets.

However, further to the east there were some installations. Far in the distance (maybe 15 miles?) we could see Sea Site 1, the Navy’s electronic combat facility. A little closer was a large collection of buildings, presumably the control center. A few miles away from the building cluster was something that looked, from our angle, like a sewage treatment pond. Black, shiny, and covering an acre or so. I don’t think that’s what it was, but that was what it appeared like. Perhaps it was just one of those “big black triangles” that have been seen lurking around the Mojave at various times at night. Closer yet was what appeared to be a mock airstrip plowed in the desert with a few “parking areas” that had been plowed out from it at right angles.

Looking to the northwest, partially obscured by intervening hills, was another interesting sight. There was a straight graded area, wider than a normal road, but seemingly smaller that a landing strip. At intervals, there were dirt strips running off at right angles, ending after several hundred yards in graded open areas. These areas each contained an aircraft. Presumably, this was some sort of targeting arrangement (perhaps just electronic) for aircraft flying through the valley.

What I didn’t see was the radar cross section facility located out there somewhere. Also, we could not quite see the Goldstone facility, because the mountains in the foreground were just a little too high.

All in all, it provided a very comprehensive view of much of the Mojave Test Range. There was a lot less “stuff” out there than I had expected.

The trip back was a bit warmer, and we got a little off course on our way back to the truck, but we made it back just after noon, cheating death in the usual manner

As we were driving out on the road to/from hell, we crested a rise on the road coming face to face with a pair of A-10 Warthogs coming right at us, just a few hundred feet up. Jeri waved and they dipped their wings, probably targeting us in the process. Very neat!

I discovered that by increasing my speed on the washboard from my previous 25 mph to about 45, we’d “hydroplane” over a lot of it. In any case, it certainly wasn’t any worse that way, and cut down the total time we had to spend on the damn thing.

Made it home Monday night, with another adventure in the bag. It’s one of those things I’m glad I did, but since there’s not much to see, I wouldn’t go back. Well…maybe if they smoothed out that road….

If anyone else is stooopid enough to do this, any car with reasonable clearance should make it. Remember: 40 miles of dirt road hell. Parts of the road have small washes crossing them, so after a storm it might be messed up a bit. Cellular coverage is probably available at the peak, but nowhere else. This is WAY out there. The USGS Owlshead Mountains, 1:100,000 map shows the whole route pretty well, and the Los Angeles aircraft sectional gives a good 3-D rendering of the terrain. The place is not exactly in the National Park, but instead in a BLM strip just south of the park. From what I gather, this means ground fires are OK, provided you can find something that will burn.


Here’s a panorama I took that day on the top of Quail Peak, with Jeri in cammo, looking bored.  This was of course in the days prior to digital cameras in common use, so it consists of 35 mm prints (gasp!) physically stuck together.  I scanned the montage and enhanced the colors a bit to remove some of the haze.  To add even more quaintness, I marked the compass bearings in black by hand at the top of the images.  If you click on the image below, it will bring up the full 3.2 Mb version.

Now as mentioned I did see something black and took a photo of it through my spotting scope.  The image isn’t so great, but visually is looked like a black pond.  Beyond that, I didn’t think much further of it.  Here’s what I saw:

"The Black Thing" as seen through my spotting scope at 25 power

Not long ago, as part of my search for the DV Germans, I recalled my first trip into that area, and pulled out my old photos and notes.  I remembered the “black sewage pond” and looked at the photo.  Still couldn’t make any sense of it.  So then I turned to Google Earth, a powerful tool not even dreamed of when I made my trip to the top of Quail Peak.  Using Google Earth, I could align the visible landmarks and topography and figure out what the hell I had seen.

After some effort, I was able to establish my line of sight and find a nice clear Google Earth image of the facility I had seen.  Hmmmm…Nothing black there.  I noted the image I was looking at was made in 2003.  What about 1996 when I saw what I saw?  Google Earth has a time slider that allows users to look at earlier images of the same location, if they are available.  Sure enough, there was an image of that same facility taken in 1994, fairly close to my observation.  But damn, no large black splotch!  Annotated screen captures of both images are shown below.  The facility is located at   35.542292°, -117.263244°.

Satellite image taken in 2004 showing sightline (North is at the 4 o'clock position)

Satellite image taken in 1994 showing sightline (North is at the 4 clock position)

The facility appears to be an emplacement for radar dishes, which are mounted on the roof of a concrete structure.  The structure itself runs from the NW to the SE, with what appears to be a long linear vertical face on the NE side.  The first thing I thought of was that face was simply in shadow, which was my “black thing”.  The photograph certainly hints at that.  However I clearly remember visually seeing the area as very dark, not like a shadow.  As for the photograph, due to its lack of dynamic range,  it would have given the same level of blackness if it was just shadow of a real black object.

And suppose that the linear dark strip on the right side of the structure is just a shadow.  Then what is the dark thing on the left side of the structure?  There’s nothing on either satellite image in that area that could throw a shadow of that size.

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