America’s notoriously shy and increasingly geriatric flying signature measurement testbed aircraft has surfaced once again.
When it comes to shy aircraft that we know exist, the Air Force’s wildly modified NT-43A flying signature measurement aircraft, known by its callsign “RAT 55,” really takes the cake. The nearly 50-year-old aircraft has no definitive home. It lives at either Area 51 or the Tonopah Test Range Airport and spends its very limited time in the air flying, usually in formation with stealthy aircraft, high over the desolate and sometimes inaccessible ranges that span large swathes of desert in California and Nevada. While online plane trackers have seen data associated with RAT 55 pop up here and there in recent months, nobody had spotted the bizarrely shaped test jet for what seemed like at least a couple of years, that is until now.
I did a full profile on RAT55 six years ago. It definitely caught many people’s imaginations. The one-of-a-kind NT-43A is the strangest looking and most secretive Boeing 737 ever created, and that is saying something considering over 10,000 of the type have been built over nearly 60 years, with the airframe being adapted for many purposes.
The aircraft in question’s current configuration, which transformed it from a T-43A navigational trainer aircraft into the strange form it is in today, will be celebrating its 20th birthday this year. As for what the aircraft was built to do, here is what I wrote back in 2015:
“The NT-43A radar aircraft testbed (probably where the “RAT” callsign comes from) is most likely the last stop in advanced low-signature testing and validation for new stealthy aircraft, new radar-absorbent coatings and heat mitigation technologies, as well as exotic and stealthy structural modifications to existing aircraft. In other words, whether it be a whole new aircraft or just a new radar absorbing material applied to an existing stealthy aircraft, the NT-43A evaluates it under realistic flight conditions with its powerful radars and infrared energy detecting devices. Even repairs and depot-level work on existing stealth aircraft may be validated in flight via the NT-43A.
The NT-43A’s massive radars are most likely able to take incredibly detailed synthetic aperture ‘pictures’ of their target aircraft, as well as collecting sensitive ‘raw’ radar measurements and associated data. Its front and rear pods that give the jet such an ungainly appearance allow it to collect radar and infrared data (the IR sensors sit atop the radar fairings) from every angle around the target aircraft in” [ … ]
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