Things in the Sky

If it's flying, and you don't know what it is, then technically it's an unidentified flying object, or UFO. To that end the Mojave sky is as full of UFOs as any 1950s copy of True magazine would have you believe. Unfortunately for the true believers, however, most of these "UFOs" quickly lose their "U" status with just a little investigation. The Mojave is home to several military and civilian test bases, all of which on any given day launch some odd looking piece of machinery that defies identification at first glance. You have Mojave Airport (or "Mojave Spaceport" if you're asking the Mojave Chamber of Commerce, which is the home of the Civilian Flight Test Center and the National Test Pilot School), Edwards Air Force Base, (home of the Air Force Flight Test Center and the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center), China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center (where the U.S. Navy tests air-to-air missiles), Fort Irwin, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Nellis Air Force Base (home of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, or "Top Gun" for USAF fliers), Naval Air Facility El Centro, Air Force Plant 42 at Palmdale Airport, the Southern California Air Logistics Airport near Victorville (formerly George Air Force Base), and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, just to name a few, all crammed into that region we call "The Mojave." That makes for a lotta hot and sometimes odd looking things zinging around the sky. For example:

(Above) We saw this departing Mojave Airport in the fall of 2007. It appears to be a Gulfstream IV airframe with a lot of funky additions. We were pretty far away so the res isn't all that great. But for this reason we always keep a telephoto lens handy and an eye to the sky when we're in the Mojave (but then, as we've said, we're jet freaks).

Then there was this one below seen during a day trip to Walker Pass on January 27, 2008. Looks like a plain vanilla 747 but notice the outsized engine pod just below the fuselage. We think this was an engine-test aircraft out of Mojave Airport.

(Above) An E-3A Sentry AWACS on final approach to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, photographed on January 16, 2007. This shot was taken on Cheyenne Boulevard two or three blocks south of Nellis Boulevard. This is a great vantage point for photographing aircraft when they are making their approach over the city, but this neighborhood is a bit seedy. Use caution when carrying a bunch of camera gear around this area, and consider bringing someone to watch your back.

(Above) An F-15E on short final into Nellis Air Force Base, July 17, 2007. A great place for viewing jets when they are flying approaches over the desert is at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard. Yes, there's a Hollywood Boulevard in Las Vegas, but it's a dusty two lane street adjacent to the speedway. This portion of Las Vegas Boulevard is not part of the Strip, and we usually access it by taking I-15 North to Lake Mead Boulevard East, follow Lake Mead about three miles to North Nellis Boulevard and proceed north (left turn), take Nellis until reaching Las Vegas Boulevard, then make a right. About another mile northeast on Las Vegas Boulevard brings you to Hollywood Boulevard. Anywhere on this stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard will give you a good view of the jets, but near Hollywood Boulevard will give you the mountains as a backdrop. WARNING: if you are going to photograph military aircraft from this area, make sure you remain on the north side of Las Vegas Boulevard. In other words, put Las Vegas Boulevard between yourself and Nellis Air Force Base and keep it there! If not you run the risk of trespassing onto military property, with a camera no less. Nellis property fronts the south shoulder of Las Vegas Boulevard. There is also some Nellis property on the north side of Las Vegas Boulevard closer to the base. Watch the signs and be careful! Be careful, too, where you park and stand on the north side of Las Vegas Boulevard. Some of the land is private property and some belongs to the speedway. Las Vegas Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard seem to us to be about the safest place to photograph jets flying into "Nellie." Remember what we said about trespassing; and remember, we are not lawyers and what we tell you here are our opinions, not legal advice.


(Above) This is one of the "Janet" flights touching down at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Innocent as she looks, this is one of the aircraft that shuttles workers to and from the test base at Groom Lake, a base known popularly as "Area 51." These aircraft sometimes fly in and out of Edwards North Base and Burbank Airport as well. They appear to be early model Boeing 737s with what looks like an old TWA paint job with the TWA logo painted out. Their call sign is "Janet," so they have been dubbed "Janet Flights" or "Janets." In this case, July 17, 2007, this jet's call sign was "Janet 302." They communicate with McCarran on normal VHF aviation frequencies and the faces we can see in the windows seem human. By the way, don't criticize this landing; there was a more or less twenty knot crosswind that day. Below, you can see Janet 302 as it rolled down the runway, spoilers and reversers extended, and this picture gives you a great idea of how close McCarran is to the Las Vegas Strip..

There are a couple of fantastic areas for viewing landing air traffic at McCarran, and one of them was built just for you, courtesy of Clark County, Nevada. Take Sunset Road (which parallels the runway on the south side of the field) west from Eastern Avenue. Just west of the Paradise Road turnoff you will see a turnout on your right (make sure you're in the right lane because it comes up kind of suddenly). You can park here at watch all day long, and they even rebroadcast the air-to-ground radio chatter so you can pick it up on your car radio. Pretty cool. Another great viewing spot is the parking lot of the mini-mall on the northeast corner of the intersection of Sunset and Eastern. Here you can get good shots of the jets still airborne on short final. They fly very low over that mall. The mini-mall lot has the advantage of having trees, which we really appreciated in July, but you can't hear the radio calls from there unless you have a hand held receiver. For more on jet watching at McCarran, please visit our McCarran Journal.

Below: Seen recently departing Mojave Airport. We don't know what this is, but it obviously has "Rutan" written all over it. The blurring is due to atmospheric turbulence between us and it (this was an extreme telephoto shot). We think it is, or is an outgrowth of, a Rutan aircraft called the Pegasus:

Tips for aircraft photography: coming soon.