Tonopah Test Range Airport: Wikis


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Tonopah Test Range Airport

Air Combat Command.png
Part of Air Combat Command (ACC)

Jfader tonopah airfield2.jpg
Tonopah Test Range Airport and the surrounding test range
Location of Tonopah Test Range Airport
Airport type Military: Air Force Base
Owner U.S. Air Force
Location Tonopah, Nevada
Built 1950s
Elevation AMSL 5,549 ft / 1,691 m
Coordinates 37°47′41″N 116°46′43″W / 37.79472°N 116.77861°W / 37.79472; -116.77861 (Tonopah Test Range Airport)Coordinates: 37°47′41″N 116°46′43″W / 37.79472°N 116.77861°W / 37.79472; -116.77861 (Tonopah Test Range Airport)
Direction Length Surface
ft m
14/32 12,000 3,658 Concrete
Source: Federal Aviation Administration[1]
HAVE FERRY, the second of two MiG-17F "Fresco"s loaned to the United States by Israel in 1969.
HAVE DOUGHNUT, (MiG-21F-13) flown by United States Navy and Air Force Systems Command during its 1968 exploitation.
Two 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron F-5s with a 4477th TEF MiG-17 (leading) and MiG-21 (trailing) in 1979. Note the Tactical Air Command badge applied to the vertical fin of the MiG-21.
1986 photo of members of the 4477th Tactical Evaluation Squadron standing in front of "Red 85", a former Indonesian MiG-21F-13 under evaluation
MiG-23MS "Red 49" (USAF Serial 20) of the 4417th Tactical Evaluation Squadron at Tonopah TR Airport.
4417th TES Flightline at Tonopah, about 1984 5 various MiGs on the ramp.
For the World War II Tonopah airfield, see Tonopah Army Air Field

Tonopah Test Range Airport (IATA: XSDICAO: KTNXFAA LID: TNX) is located near the center of the Tonopah Test Range, 27 NM (50 km; 31 mi) southeast[1] of Tonopah, Nevada and 140 mi (230 km) northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. It is a major airfield with a 12,000 ft × 150 ft (3,658 m × 46 m) runway, instrument approach facilities, and nighttime illumination. The facility boasts over fifty hangars and an extensive support infrastructure.

Although most U.S. airports use the same three-letter location identifier for the FAA and IATA, Tonopah Test Range is assigned TNX[1] by the FAA and XSD[2] by the IATA (which assigned TNX to Stung Treng, Cambodia).[3] The airport's ICAO identifier is KTNX.[2][4][5]

Tonopah is owned by the USAF Air Combat Command. The known primary use of this airport is to shuttle government employees to the weapons test range from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

The primary (paved) access to the facility is off of U.S. Route 6 at the north end of the airport. Dirt road access points also exist on the south and east sides of the range. The site is plainly visible from commercial airliners, which pass 17 NM (31 km; 20 mi) north of the base on transcontinental flights.



The Tonopah Test Range airfield came into existence in 1957 and was largely used by the Department of Energy, the Air Force, and several contractors. The airfield was presumably originally built to support the AEC/DOE test programs, and only later was taken over by the military for flight testing.


1957–1968: The early years

The Tonopah range first opened in 1957, supporting operations on the Test Range itself, which was used for United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, later Department of Energy or DOE)) funded weapon programs. It was apparently not a World War II era field, as it is not listed in the 1944 US Army/Navy Directory of Airfields. It was apparently established as an Air Force facility at some point in the late 1950s, as Tonopah Air Force Station was the location of a radar site operated by the 866th Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron to provide active surveillance over the area.[6] On 5 May 1965 Tonopah AFS became part of the Air Warfare Center based at Nellis AFB,[7] however the runway may have not been completed until after 1967, as it was not depicted on the 1967 Mt. Whitney Sectional Chart. The earliest known depiction of the airfield was on the July 1970 Air Force Tactical Pilotage Chart. The 1982 Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Airport Directory described the Tonopah Test Range airfield as having a single 6,600 ft (2,012 m) paved runway.

1968-1990 Foreign Technology Evaluation

During the Cold War, one of the missions carried out at Tonopah was the test and evaluation of captured Soviet fighter aircraft.

This was not a new mission, as testing of foreign technology by the USAF began during World War II. After the war, testing of acquired foreign technology was performed by the Air Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC, which became very influential during the Korean War), under the direct command of the Air Materiel Control Department. In 1961 ATIC became the Foreign Technology Division (FTD), and was reassigned to Air Force Systems Command. ATIC personnel were sent anywhere where foreign aircraft could be found.

In August 1966 an Iraqi Air Force fighter pilot, Captain Munir Redfa, flew his shiny new MiG-21 to Israel after being ordered to attack Iraqi Kurd villages with napalm. This fighter found itself in Nevada within a month. In 1968 the US Air Force and Navy jointly formed a project known as Have Donut in which they flew this 'acquired' Soviet made MiG-21 aircraft in simulated air combat training at a top secret facility in Nevada known as Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center, also known as Groom Lake and Area-51. That facility was the birthplace of the SR-71 as well as other projects that remain to be discussed.

In 1968 two ex-Iraqi MiG-17s transferred from Israeli stocks were added to the operation and it was renamed Have Drill and the project was transferred to the Tonopah Test Range Airport. These aircraft were given USAF designations and fake serial numbers so that they may be identified in DOD standard flight logs. In May 1973, Project Have Idea was formed which took over from the older Have Donut, Have Ferry and Have Drill projects.

In July 1975, the 4477th Tactical Evaluation Flight (“Red Eagles”) was formed at Nellis AFB as tactical evaluation organization, and in December 1977 the 6513th Test Squadron (“Red Hats”) was formed at Edwards AFB to perform technical evaluations of these aircraft. Some aggressor training was done where the units went head to head against USAF fighters in mock dogfights at this time to find out and exploit possible weaknesses. On 1 Apri 1977, the 4477th TEF was reassigned to Tonopah .

In 1980 the 4477th TEF was made a full-fledged squadron and the operation was renamed again to Constant Peg. The squadron developed realistic combat training operations featuring adversary tactics, dissimilar air combat training, and electronic warfare. Over the years more aircraft were acquired until they numbered about two dozen including ultra modern MiG-23s. Egypt was thought to turn over a number of un-needed MiGs but planes kept coming in from other sources as well. No less than three Cuban pilots brought their MiGs to Florida. A number of Chinese made MiGs were purchased outright from China via the front company Combat Core Certification Professionals Company (CCCP!) and imported in crates. Three Syrians flew their MiG-23 and MiG-29s to Turkey in 1988. On the whole, the aircraft weren’t as capable as US models, say those who flew them. Their fit and finish were vastly inferior, characterized by such defects as protruding rivets.

Over the course of its history the 4477th pilots flew three models of Soviet-designed MiGs.

  • Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 (Russian: Микоян и Гуревич МиГ-17) were a subsonic, early jet aircraft design. Though originally meant to counter American bombers of the 1950s and 1960s, durable, cigar-shaped MiG-17s became North Vietnam’s primary fighter and eventually served in at least 20 air forces worldwide. MiG-17s were designated as:
YF-113A Soviet MiG-17F NATO:"Fresco-C" used in Have Drill program
YF-113C Chinese J-5 used in Have Privilege program
YF-114C Soviet MiG-17F NATO:"Fresco-C" used in Have Ferry program
YF-114D Soviet MiG-17PF NATO:"Fresco-D" (Serial: 75-008)
  • Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 (Russian: Микоян и Гуревич МиГ-21) were cone-nosed, supersonic fighters that were somewhat less maneuverable than MiG-17s. They also saw action with the North Vietnamese and became a popular export aircraft, with more than 8,000 produced. MiG-21s were designated as:
YF-110B Soviet MiG-21F-13 NATO:"Fishbed-C/E" (Serials assigned: 75-001, 75-004 and 75-010)
YF-110C Chinese Chengdu J-7B (MiG-21F-13 variant)
YF-110D Soviet MiG-21MF NATO:"Fishbed-J"
  • Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (Russian: Микоян и Гуревич МиГ-23 were the MiG-21’s replacement. Their swing-wing was patterned on that of the F-111, but unlike their US antecedent, the MiG-23s were small and light enough to serve as dogfighters. MiG-23s were designated as:
YF-113B Soviet MiG-23BN NATO:"Flogger-F"
YF-113E Soviet MiG-23MS NATO:"Flogger-E"

In addition, unconfirmed Soviet aircraft flown were MiG-25 Foxbat (YF-116); MiG-29 Fulcrum (YF-118) and Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter (YF-112).

Aerial dogfights were staged between the various MiG models against virtually every fighter in US service, and against SAC’s B-52 Stratofortress and B-58 Hustlers to judge the ability of the bombers countermeasures systems, they performed radar cross-section and propulsion tests that contributed greatly to improvements in US aerial performance.

All the models had quirks. The MiG-17 did not have an electric seat, so pilots had to use cushions to position themselves properly inside the cockpit. Both it and the MiG-21 had pneumatic brakes applied by squeezing a lever on the front of the stick. Many of the MiG-21s did not have steerable nose gears, making them difficult to taxi; the sign of a novice Fishbed pilot was the zigzag track he made while moving on the ground. If a pilot put the throttle back on a MiG-21, it would take a long time to spool up again when trying to accelerate. Thus many of those who flew it stayed on afterburners as much as possible. The MiG-23 did not have that problem, as it was designed for speed—but it was unstable and difficult to fly.

None of the Soviet-designed aircraft at Tonopah flew in bad weather or at night. All were very short-legged, compared to contemporary US aircraft, and sorties were limited to 20 minutes or so. The MiGs had US airspeed indicators and a few other minor instrument and safety modifications. Other than that, they were stock—down to their Warsaw Pact paint jobs.

The 4477th flew its last MiGs in 1990 and with the end of the Cold War was deactivated. In 2006, the Constant Peg program was declassified and the USAF held a series of press conferences about the former top secret US MiGs. It was revealed that the US MiGs flew more than 15,000 sorties and nearly 7,000 aircrew flew in training against dissimilar aggressors in the Nevada desert between 1980 and the end of the program in 1988.

What was learned during these projects prompted the US Navy to commence Top Gun exercises first at NAS Miramar, California and then NAS Fallon, Nevada. Shortly thereafter the Air Force commenced its Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB, Nevada.[8][9]

1982–1992: F-117A Development

Beginning in October 1979 Tonopah TR Airport was reconstructed and expanded. The 6,000 ft (1,829 m) runway was lengthened to 10,000 ft (3,048 m). Taxiways, a concrete apron, a large maintenance hangar, and a propane storage tank were added. Phase II of the expansion consisted of the construction of an extra taxiway, a new control tower, a 42,000-square-foot (3,900 m2) hangar, a parts warehouse, a dining hall, a water storage tank, and extensive fuel storage tanks. Phase III expansion of the facility was a 2,000 ft (610 m) runway extension to a total length of 12,000 ft (3,658 m). Extensions were made to taxiways, the ramp, the runway gained arrester gear, and new navigation aids were installed. More fuel storage was provided, together with Liquid Oxygen (LOX) storage, a fire station, and the first 24 aircraft hangars. The cost was over $100 million.

In May 1982, Tonopah Test Range became the home of the Air Force F-117 fleet. At the time the F-117 project was still highly classified, and Tonopah Test Range became a black project facility. Air Force personnel were shuttled from Las Vegas to TTR on contract Boeing 727 aircraft. The new F-117 fleet was considered for several high-profile military operations during the mid 1980s, but operations remained largely confined to nighttime flights around Nevada and California for a number of years. In November 1988 the Air Force publicly revealed its F-117 activities at Tonopah, and decreased security brought the program into "gray world" status. However F-117 flight operations continued to be restricted to the nighttime hours.

Late in 1989 the Air Force began preparations to lead the F-117 into regular Air Force operations. This would be done in two phases: first, bringing the aircraft under the umbrella of the Tactical Air Command, and second, locating the fleet at a regular Air Force base. The first phase came on October 5, 1989 when the 4450th Tactical Group was deactivated and the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing from George AFB was assigned to Tonopah. The Tactical Air Command (TAC) also activated the Det 1, 57 Fighter Weapons Wing (FWW) at Tonopah. The second phase of real-world integration came in January 1990 with the announcement that the 37th TFW would move from Tonopah to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, which would ultimately be delayed a couple of years due to the Gulf War. In April 1990, the F-117 was placed on public display and the Air Force mission at Tonopah Test Range became largely unclassified. Daytime F-117 flying operations began.

During this era, the F-117 fleet took part in several military operations. In December 1989, three pairs of F-117 aircraft left the TTR for Panama to participate in Operation JUST CAUSE. Only one mission with two F-117As was attempted. Later in 1990, the base was mobilized to support Desert Shield and on August 19, 1990, 22 F-117A's from the 415th and a dozen tankers left Tonopah for Langley AFB. A total of 18 F-117s would continue onward to Khamis Mushait Air Base in Saudi Arabia for Operation DESERT SHIELD. The planes and a contingent of Tonopah Test Range personnel remained in Saudi Arabia until late 1991.

On May 9, 1992 the official ceremony for the F-117A arrival at Holloman AFB was held, setting into motion an exodus of Air Force activities at Tonopah that summer. On June 1, 1992 Det 1, 57 FWW moved from Tonopah to Holloman AFB. On July 8, the 37th FW was inactivated and the 415th FS, 416th FS, and 417th FS had all become part of the 49th Fighter Wing. By August 1992, the base was largely in caretaker status.

F-117 stealth fighter

USAF F-117 Nighthawk during maintenance. Photograph is not from the Tonopah Test Range.
4450th TG A-7D at Nellis AFB.

The facility is legendary for serving as the home of the U.S. Air Force's F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter fleet between 1982 and 1992. At Tonopah, the operational development of the F-117's was accomplished by the 4450th Tactical Group (4450th TG).

The first flight testing of the YF-117A began in June 1981 at Groom Lake Nevada. Although ideal for testing, the Groom Lake test site was not a suitable location for an operational base, so a new covert base had to be established.

On May 17, 1982, the move of the 4450th TG from Groom Lake to Tonopah was initiated. The move was completed in 1983.

An F-117 based at Tonopah Test Range and piloted by Maj. Ross Mulhare crashed on July 11, 1986 near Bakersfield, California. Another F-117 piloted by Michael C. Stewart was lost on October 14, 1987 on the Nellis Range. In both crashes the pilot was killed on impact, and both were attributed to fatigue and disorientation.

A-7D Corsair II

Because of the tight restrictions on F-117A flights during the 4450th TG "black" era, a surrogate aircraft was needed for training and practice and to provide a cover story for the 4450th TG's existence. The aircraft chosen was the Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) A-7 Corsairs II. The SLUFF (Short Little Ugly Fat Fellow) was chosen because it demanded about the correct amount of pilot workload expected in the F-117A, was single seat, and therefore would bring all pilots to a common flight training base line.

In addition to providing an excuse for the 4450th's existence and activities the A-7's were also used to maintain pilot currency, particularly in the early stages when very few production F-117As were available. The pilots learned to fly chase on F-117A test and training flights, perform practice covert deployments, and practice any other purpose that could not be accomplished using F-117As, given the tight restrictions imposed on all F-117A operations.

There were approximately 20 aircraft, including a couple of A-7K trainers. The 4450th TG was the last active USAF unit to fly the A-7D.

A-7 flight operations began in June 1981 concurrent with the very first YF-117A flights. The A-7's wore a unique "LV" tailcode (for Las Vegas) and were based officially at Nellis Air Force Base. They were maintained by the 4450th Maintenance Squadron, based at Nellis. Some A-7s operated from Tonopah from the beginning, and care was taken to leave them outside the hangars, so that prowling satellites could see that Tonopah operated nothing more exciting than some Corsairs.

T-38 Talon

4450th TG T-38B

In January 1989, just three months after the USAF admitted the F-117A existed, the aging A-7's were replaced with newer T-38A and AT-38B Talon trainers.

Many of these "Talons" formerly belonged to the 4447th TS "Red Hats" that flew "acquired" Soviet aircraft at Groom Lake, Nevada. One of the AT-38B Talons even served as a USAF Thunderbird in the 1970s.

Most of the T-38s were reassigned to training units with the disbanding of the 37th FW.

Post 1992: Tonopah nowadays

After 1992, very little was published about what, if any, aircraft were based there. The facility was placed on caretaker status effective 31 December 1992, however the USAF continued to maintain the runway as active along with the navigation aids remaining open to the DOE and the USAF on an as-needed basis.

It is known that the USAF continues a Foreign Materiel Acquisition/Exploitation program, although the extent of acquisitions and operations of that program is not available.[10]. In 1997, the United States purchased 21 Moldovan aircraft for evaluation and analysis, under the Cooperative Threat Reduction accord. Fourteen were MiG-29Ss, which are equipped with an active radar jammer in its spine and are capable of being armed with nuclear weapons. Part of the United States’ motive to purchase these aircraft was to prevent them from being sold to "rogue states", especially Iran.[11] In late 1997, the MiGs were delivered to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, though many of the former Moldovan MiG-29s are believed to have been scrapped.

In July 2001, a commercial McDonnell Douglas MD-82 aircraft landed at the Tonopah Test Range airfield due to a cargo fire warning light, according to an ASRS report. It departed without incident.

The 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, operating Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicless, was activated at Tonopah in August 2005 as part of the 57th Operations Group at Nellis. The Air Force Times reported that the unit’s operations are classified. Combat Aircraft magazine reported that the unit would do “operational test and evaluation” work.

On April 22, 2008, the last of the F-117s were returned to Tonopah to be mothballed. Since the aircraft still contain classified material, the Air Force was not able to mothball them in the normal facilities and will use hangers at Tonopah instead [12]. One aircraft will be left in service at Nellis.[13]

The airfield continues to be used by the DOE in support of its mission at the Tonopah Test Range. The DOE facility supports approximately 15 flights per week for its operations. The remaining flights are in support of the USAF and other organizations at the Tonopah Test Range.


  1. ^ a b c FAA Airport Master Record for TNX (Form 5010 PDF)
  2. ^ a b Great Circle Mapper: XSD/KTNX - Tonopah, Nevada (Tonopah Test Range)
  3. ^ Great Circle Mapper: TNX/VDST - Stung Treng, Cambodia
  4. ^ AirNav: KTNX - Tonopah Test Range
  5. ^ FlightAware: KTNX - Tonopah Test Range
  6. ^ USAFHRA Document 00414943
  7. ^ USAFHRA Document 01120743
  8. ^ Constant Peg, Air Force Magazine, April 2007 , Vol. 90, No. 4
  9. ^ Steve Davies: "Red Eagles. America's Secret MiGs", Osprey Publishing, 2008
  10. ^ [1]
  11. ^ Barrier, Terri. "F-117A retirement bittersweet occasion." Aerotech News and Review, March 16, 2007.
  12. ^ ROGERS, KEITH (2008-04-23). "Flying Into History". Las Vegas Review Journal. Retrieved 2008-04-25.  

External links

Have Doughnut - MiG-21 Tactical Evaluation
Have Doughnut - Mig-21 Technical Evaluation
Have Drill - Mig-17 Tactial Evaluation
Have Drill - Mig-17 Technical Evaluation


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