Lockheed Martin RQ-3 DarkStar

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The RQ-3 DarkStar (known as Tier III- or “Tier three minus” during development) is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Its first flight was on March 29, 1996. The Department of Defense terminated DarkStar in January 1999, after determining the UAV was not aerodynamically stable and was not meeting cost and performance objectives.

Design and Development
The RQ-3 DarkStar was designed as a “high-altitude endurance UAV”, and incorporated stealth technology to make it difficult to detect, which allowed it to operate within heavily defended airspace, unlike the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which is unable to operate except under conditions of air superiority. The DarkStar was fully autonomous: it could take off, fly to its target, operate its sensors, transmit information, return and land without human intervention. Human operators, however, could change the DarkStar’s flight plan and sensor orientation through radio or satellite relay. The RQ-3 carried either an optical sensor or radar, and could send digital information to a satellite while still in flight. It used a single jet engine of unknown type for propulsion.

The first prototype made its first flight on March 29, 1996, but its second flight, on April 22, 1996, ended in a crash shortly after takeoff. A modified, more stable design (the RQ-3A) first flew on June 29, 1998, and made a total of five flights before the program was canceled just prior to the sixth and final flight planned for the airworthiness test phase. Two additional RQ-3As were built, but never made any flights before program cancellation.

Although purportedly terminated on January 28, 1999, it was reported in April 2003 that the RQ-3 was still in development as a black project. The size and capabilities were reported to have increased somewhat. It was further alleged that the first such example had been used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. There has been no independent confirmation.

The “R” is the Department of Defense designation for reconnaissance; “Q” means unmanned aircraft system. The “3” refers to it being the third of a series of purpose-built unmanned reconnaissance aircraft systems.

Surviving Aircraft

The first prototype RQ-3A (A/V #2) is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. It is displayed in the Museum’s Research & Development Hangar. It is the only RQ-3A to have flown.

The second prototype RQ-3A (A/V #3) is on display in the Great Gallery of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.

A prototype RQ-3A which never flew before the program ended is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC.


Max. Takeoff Weight
Max Speed
RQ-3 DarkStar4.621.31.1386055592510.513500453

USALockheed MartinBethesda, Marylandhttp://www.lockheedmartin.com