Lockheed / Boeing RQ-3 DarkStar
High-Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) UAV
The initial Lockheed DarkStar prototype of 1996 crashed on its second flight leading to its termination in a 1999 review.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
DarkStar origins were found in a 1983 initiative that saw the United States Air Force (USAF), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) begin a new competition to fulfill a requirement for a reconnaissance-minded, high-altitude Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). The competition involved both defense powerhouses Lockheed Martin and Boeing with the product assigned the nickname of "Quartz". The system was intended to penetrate deep into Soviet airspace and loiter over territory for periods reaching forty hours while utilizing onboard intelligence-gathering equipment. This initiative begat the Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System (AARS) program designation.
However, in December of 1992, the AARS program was terminated after a budget review and also hampered along the way by the eventual collapse of the Soviet Empire. The dissolution of the Soviet Union meant that many spy-type programs were either curtailed or cancelled outright. Despite this, the program continued along a more low-key, less ambitious route under the "Tier III" name.
The Tier III program was itself eventually divided in two distinct directions - the first to produce a non-stealth, long-range, high-altitude UAV and the second to become a high-altitude, stealth-minded alternative. The former went on to become the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 "Global Hawk" while the latter evolved to become the Lockheed/Boeing RQ-3 "DarkStar" system. The DarkStar was created under the "DARPA" label, the "Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency".
Externally, DarkStar was given a rather unique shape as aircraft go. It featured a disc-like fuselage that was well-contoured and very squat in profile. At its aft sides, the main wing assemblies were attached, these as straight-wing appendages. Moving wing surfaces were identified along the trailing edge while wing tips were clipped. The fuselage housed the powerplant which was aspirated from the front and exhausted through a small opening at the rear. The undercarriage was wholly retractable. There were no vertical wing surfaces of any kind and its payload was held internally, consisting of intelligence-gathering equipment and similar. A probe was attached to the forward edge of the fuselage shape. Overall dimensions of the aircraft included a length of 15 feet, a wingspan of 69 feet and a height of 3 feet, 6 inches. Empty weight was listed at around 4,360lbs with a loaded weight of 8,500lbs. Cruising speed was approximately 288 miles per hour. Range was 575 miles with a service ceiling up to 45,000 feet.
The RQ-3 DarkStar prototype went airborne for the first time on March 29th, 1996. However, the vehicle crashed on its second flight in April. Slight revisions to the design begat the "RQ-3A" designation and a further two RQ-3A prototypes were completed but these were never to fly for the program was terminated (due to fears of its stability on top of budget cuts) on January 28th, 1999.
All three existing examples were then relegated for display as museums showpieces. They can currently (January 2014) be found at the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio, the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington and the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum of Washington D.C.