No, it wasn’t an F-35. So, What Did Crash Near Nellis? Here Are Some Theories.

Sep 09 2017 - 38 Comments
By Tom Demerly

Who Was F-35 Test Pilot Lt. Col. Eric Schultz and What He Was Flying When He Died?

The tragic loss and impressive career of U.S. Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Eric Schultz in a reported crash on Tuesday night has been overshadowed in Internet forums by speculation about what type of aircraft he was flying when the accident occurred. The type of aircraft remains classified according to Air Force sources.

Amid increasing speculation that the aircraft involved in the crash may have been an F-35, USAF Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was quoted on Saturday morning, September 9, as telling Military.com, “I can definitely say it was not an F-35.”

The comment by Gen. Goldfein to Military.com confirming that Col. Schultz was not flying an F-35 raises the question; what was Lt. Col. Eric Schultz flying when he was fatally injured in the crash this Tuesday?

The U.S. Air Force said the aircraft was operated by the Air Force Materiel Command and that it crashed around 6 PM, 100 miles Northwest of Nellis AFB in the Nevada Test and Training Range.

 

What was Lt. Col. Eric Schultz working on when he died from a crash earlier this week?

It is important to understand any examination of his activities are strictly conjecture as all official sources have declined to comment on the specifics of Lt. Col. Schultz’s assignment when he died.

With a practical background in tactical air combat from flying F-15E Strike Eagles and an academic and career background including powerplant engineering, Lt. Col Schultz could have been working on any number of classified projects.

There are several projects known to be operational or under development in the classified Nellis, Nevada and California area test ranges where Lt. Col. Schultz is reported to have had his now fatal accident.

The test and development programs include opposing forces threat simulation and testing using Russian built Sukhoi SU-27 (NATO codename “Flanker”) aircraft. These aircraft were photographed on November 8, 2016 by Phil Drake from the Tikaboo Valley near the Groom Lake, Nevada test range. Drake captured long range photos of an SU-27P Flanker-B engaging in dissimilar air combat maneuvers (ACM) with an F-16, possibly an F-16D, four of which are thought to operate from Groom Lake. It is possible that, with Lt. Col. Schultz’s involvement in the F-15E Strike Eagle community and his advanced academic background, he could have been involved in an advanced opposing forces capabilities benchmarking research project or in a familiarization program with opposing forces aircraft like the Sukhoi(s) photographed at Groom Lake.

Russian built Sukhoi SU-27 aircraft were photographed last year over the test ranges near where Lt. Col. Eric Schultz’s accident may have occurred. (Credit: Phil Drake)

Another classified project in the area is continued flight operations of the “retired” Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk presumably for radar cross section testing and analysis. The famous “stealth fighter” was photographed by our reader, “Sammamishman,” in late July, 2016. The photos showed two F-117 aircraft in the air and on the ground at the Groom Lake test facility 8 years after retirement.

Two F-117s at TTR in July 2016.

Another test program that may be underway in the area, and that Lt. Col. Schultz may have been contributing to at the time of his fatal accident, is the classified Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB). The B-21 program is likely a replacement or augmentation to the currently operational B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Artists’ depictions of the B-21 Raider suggest it is similar in configuration to the B-2 Spirit, but may be smaller. It likely still retains a crew of more than one person however, although an accident involving any potential prototype may not necessarily be fatal for an entire crew, however many that number may be. Recall the crash of the XB-70 Valkyrie on June 8, 1966. That large strategic bomber prototype had a two-person crew on board when it crashed due to a midair collision. The crash only resulted in one fatality, with the other aircrew member safely ejecting. There is, however, no public information on the potential flight status of the B-21 Raider program.

B-21 raider concept (NG)

There is also the possibility aircraft was the same boomerang shaped trailing edge jet photographed on Mar. 10, 2014 by Steve Douglass and Dean Muskett at Amarillo International Airport or the triangular one seen over Wichita in the same period, or something else, never seen before.

However, whilst both the Su-27s (operated by the AFMC according to the Combat Aircraft’s editor Jamie Hunter), the F-117s and the two mysterious aircraft of 2014, were spotted flying in daylight, there is someone who believes a highly-classified prototype would hardly fly before sunset.

The reality of Lt. Col. Schultz’s tragic loss is that, while we know he was an accomplished aviator, test pilot and academic we likely will not know the actual circumstances of his accident or the aircraft he was operating until the Air Force chooses to make the information officially available. Until then, a survey of the known projects in the area where Lt. Col. Schultz’s accident unfortunately occurred is all we have.

The more relevant story however, is the noteworthy career of USAF Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz.

Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, call sign “Doc” because he owned a PhD in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology in 2000, was an academic and award-winning pilot. At one point he was also an aspiring astronaut, having made application to astronaut training.

In one accounting of Lt. Col Schultz’s early academic career it is reported that after earning his undergraduate degree from Penn State in 1995, the Department of Defense paid for Schultz to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics. His master’s work included research on the ram accelerator, a powerful gun-like device that shoots payloads into exo-atmospheric orbital flight in space. If perfected, the accelerator could be used in place of reusable spacecraft missions, like the X-47B, to transport equipment into orbit or to space stations.

Schultz graduated with his master’s degree in aeronautics in 1997 from the University of Washington.

According to a report published on October 4, 2006 in the Baltimore Sun by writer Susan Gvozdas, Col. Schultz “Received a National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship to support his research on advanced propulsion systems and safety at nuclear waste storage facilities”.

Also according to news report archives, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz was rejected from the Air Force on five occasions for not meeting eyesight standards for pilots. After his early attempts at entering Air Force ROTC were rejected due to his eyesight, Schultz worked in a civilian capacity with the Navy as a flight engineer while continuing his graduate education.

Schultz’s prior work as a graduate assistant won the attention of jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney based in Connecticut. According to a report, Erik Christofferson, a deputy general manager at Pratt’s Washington office, persuaded the company to hire Schultz. “He had the right combination of technical background and communication skills,” Christofferson said. “He was engaging and sharp.” According to the report Schultz worked on the development of detonation engines at Pratt & Whitney’s Seattle Aerosciences Center,.

He was finally awarded a commission after earning his PhD in aeronautics and undergoing corrective vision surgery.

Lt. Col. Schultz went on to fly the F-15E Strike Eagle for the 391st Fighter Squadron, the “Bold Tigers” out of Mountain Home AFB in Elmore County, southwestern Idaho. He may have been deployed to the Middle East with the unit in January of 2007 according to an excerpt in an article about Schultz that said he was, “preparing for overseas combat missions in an F-15 fighter jet and training other pilots”. We were not able to find any mention in the media about a combat record for Lt. Col. Schultz or even confirmation that he did deploy to the Middle East, only that he was scheduled to deploy.

There are acknowledgements of Lt. Col. Schultz’s academic and military achievements through awards he received and brief quotes in official Air Force releases. His former commanding officer, then Lt. Col. Brian Kirkwood, said in an article on Mountain Home AFB’s official website that, “He’s a great role model.” Lt. Col. Kirkwood went on to tell the official Air Force media outlet that Lt. Col. Schultz’s “educational background is unprecedented for an [then] Air Force captain.” Lt. Col. Kirkwood made the statements when acknowledging Lt. Col. Schultz for being awarded the Outstanding Young American award.

Based on the information available in the public domain so far, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz had amassed a noteworthy academic background and career that spanned several aspects of military and experimental aviation and aerospace. It may be the combination of these experiences in tactical aircraft operations and experimental powerplants along with space operations that is particularly noteworthy.

David Cenciotti has contributed to this story.

Top image: composite made using Northrop Grumman, Dean Muskett, Phil Drake and Sammamishman

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  • John Aceves

    Rest In Peace Col. Schultz. You’re represented the best of all of us. You are a hero. Our prayers are with your family.

  • fightingirish

    That “B-21” concept model is actually made by Boeing, not by Northrop Grumman.

  • flutteric

    a). This is NOT Northrop Grumman B-21 model on the photo, but Boeing/Lockheed Martin NGB from late 00s – that clearly written on stand.
    b). Photo (c) Bill Sweetman

    • cencio4

      Absolutely right, used the wrong photo. Fixed now.

    • sferrin

      It couldn’t be the B-21. Everybody knows that’s going to be a supercruising arrowhead. ;-)

  • Jon National

    Dropping like flies. We need to seriously overhaul our aircraft

    • Mali King

      Lt Col Eric Schultz was most likely flying an experimental/Black project/non standard (for the USAF) aircraft when the crash occurred. Nothing to do with current operational USAF aircraft types. Please keep your comments relevant.

    • sferrin

      You might want to check your “facts”.

    • El Kabong

      List those crashes.

      Don’t forget to list the sortie rates generated by the USAF, USMC and USN.

  • leroy

    So many clowns out there praying that it was an F-35 involved so they can spew forth venom and hate against this aircraft. What drives it? Well, jealousy of its best-fighter-in-the-world status number one, and number two many an aviation illiterate is desperately looking for validation of their incorrect conclusions about this fighter. Grasping for straws to prove that they were right when it’s already been proven that where F-35 is concerned the critics were wrong. Dead wrong! 20:1 kill-ratio wrong!! That a good man died here, to them, is quite secondary to their dream of an F-35 crash. Despicable haters the lot of them.

    • Mali King

      Spot on!

    • John Winter

      Right if it was then what ??? of course it will be a cover up for many years to come sad truth is US military in all sectors is falling apart Navy ships hitting oil tankers lol planes falling out of the sky . Fact remains people are stuck on the top gun movie Maverick lmao when most US pilots Die before even getting into a dogfight by hitting the ground I read somewhere that 3 out of 5 pilots will indeed hit the ground in a dog fight thi is why USA is so keen on BVR rather then dog fighting
      You think its bad now its only going to get worse with the F 35 .
      This problem is actually getting worse for the American combat pilots. The new F-35 stealth fighter, which is slowly replacing almost all other frontline jets in the U.S. arsenal, suffers from a particularly cramped cockpit that affords a comparatively poor view of the outside world—especially when a pilot is wearing the high-tech new helmet that the military is buying specially for F-35 pilots.
      In a mock dogfight in early 2015, an F-35 test pilot discovered that he was having trouble seeing the “enemy” plane during tight turns. “The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft,” the pilot reported.
      Not only does limited visibility make it harder for an F-35 pilot to see and shoot down his opponent, there’s an obvious safety risk, as well. As a pilot, you can’t prevent a collision with a plane you can’t see.
      But air combat training is dangerous even when your plane’s own design isn’t actively impeding your vision. The Air Force’s F-15 boasts a large, bubble-shaped canopy that, by warplane standards, affords an excellent view of the outside world. But that didn’t prevent two F-15 pilots from colliding during a simulated dogfight over the Gulf of Mexico in February 2008.
      Both aircraft crashed. One pilot died. The Air Force officially attributed the incident to “pilot error” but did cut the fliers some slack. The two pilots had suffered a “loss…of flight proficiency” that, investigators concluded, wasn’t their fault.

      • leroy

        Yes, yes – it’s so bad its kill ratio at Red Flag this year was 20:1. That’s why I come here. To gain knowledge by listening to experts like you.

        Never flew a day in your life have you? United, Delta, Southwest or kites don’t count. Well, maybe not to you. : )

      • Larry Patrick Johnson

        Kinda snarky, and creepy, I’m guessing you’re not an American talking about one of our (yes I’m American) fighter pilots.

        All military aircraft have issues at first. And when they’ve found most of the faulty issues they start building the Best aircraft in the world…. bar none. Still can Hardly believe how you’re talking about something you likely have little forest knowledge of.

        Snarky…. Creep

      • Mali King

        It was not a F35 that crashed PERIOD. So you can keep your crazy conspiracy theories and untruths to yourself. Oh BTW, the F35 is actually getting better and better. Funny how actual F35 pilots are realising this. Heck, even the recently retired head of Israeli Air Force Amir Eshel realised this. Geez, looks like you forgot to tell Royal Norwegian Air Force pilot Morten “Dolby” Hanche that the F35 has an terrible rear view that is insurmountable…… “Dolby” has figured out how to check his six in the F35 cockpit effectively and still win BFM/ACM exercises.

        Leroy is absolutely right about guys like you….absolutely despicable.

    • Holztransistor

      Double standards much?
      You accuse others to be hateful when it comes to the F-35. But what you write in your comments about Russian aircraft is exactly the same. So I can ask you too. What drives “it”?

  • Danny Pratt

    That is sad to hear. He sounds like he was a great man and an incredible and irreplaceable member of the armed forces. Condolences to his family and friends.

    Hopefully his legacy will inspire others to follow his path of excellence.

    RIP Sir

  • leroy

    Unlikely that a fighter pilot would be testing a bomber. My guess is it was an F-117 or F-16 testing radar capabilities using certain Russian or Chinese signals reproductions. That’s probably why they didn’t release the fact of the crash for days.

    Anything or any aircraft American stealth is so world-class, so coveted by Russia and China because they have not mastered even basic stealth, that the U.S. military to this day maintains the strictest veil of secrecy over our superior proprietary technology. The Russians and Chinese won’t have a true 5th gen stealth fighter for 20 years at least. Su-57, J-20 and J-31 are NOT stealth aircraft. I’d call them stealth-lite. Half-stealth. Wanna-be stealth. Anything but true (like the U.S. has had for decades) American superiority 5th gen stealth aircraft. They just can’t do it.

    • TheEvilBlight

      I almost wonder if they acquried an example of a more modern Russian aircraft for testing purposes, which then went down. It would justify the secrecy…nobody wants to admit that they procured one, or that some third party sold one.

      • Black Eagle

        That’s unlikely. Countries such as for example the Venezuela, Malaysia or Uganda own just couple of modern Russian aircraft (Su-30), therefore it wouldn’t be hard to notice (by hull numbers) if some of the aircraft would missing despite the fact that no incidents would be reported and countries that own 100+ of them (India, China) have no interests to sell secrets of their aircraft to the West.

    • Rob Annable

      Diet Stealth – half the stealth, same great stealth taste.

    • J Storm

      You’re wrong there. Test pilots are test pilots. Not just fighter pilots. They will be checked out in a variety of aircraft. Heavy drivers do the same. Get fighter time during their course.
      Check out the TPS syllabus and learn a bit.

  • FoilHatWearer

    I would believe that the crash involved an aircraft that has not been publicly revealed, like Su-27s out in Area 51, or some experimental aircraft. Previous F-35 Class A mishaps have had AIB reports publicly released, the name of the pilot publicly released, and the fact that it was indeed an F-35 was released. I don’t see a reason why an F-35 crashing on Nellis’ range would suddenly be non-releasable.

    I feel bad for the guy, hopefully we’ll find out someday what happened. I also feed bad for his family for all the hush-hush.

    • WpnsLoader175

      F35s haven’t crashes yet, just caught fire and hard landings and stuff. But this is looking increasingly less likely to be a F35. More likely it’s a SU or black project.

      • FoilHatWearer

        Yep, I think you’re right. And I agree that we haven’t had any F-35 crashes yet, just a few mishaps with Class A damage.

    • Rob Annable

      His family will be told he died in a crash. I doubt they will care what model plane it is ;)

      • FoilHatWearer

        Very true, sorry to say.

  • Ilya Kurenkov

    remember how in Eighties USAF tried to cover F-117 crash telling that it was A-7 Corsair II that went down?

    • sferrin

      Remember how in the 80s the F-117 was a classified aircraft who’s existence wasn’t public knowledge?

    • Uniform223

      Then you would know then that the F-117 did have some A-7 components in its construction to help hide its development and that the F-117 also flew out Tonopah Test Range with A-7s. Unlike the F-117 at the time (which was a black budget project), the F-35 is a VERY public aircraft. If an F-35 did indeed crash (which it didn’t)… then we would know about it.

  • TheEvilBlight

    My conspiratorial thoughts were:

    SR-71, followed by F-117 flying as modified testbed for B-21.

    More mundane thoughts would be Russian aircraft, perhaps new ones procured clandestinely.

  • VaultDweller73

    Hey editors…please do not rush.

  • Redeemed

    My guess is that not a single one of you has any clue as to what the Lt. Col was flying when he crashed. Not meaning to insult, but all this conjecture and speculation seems to me to take some away from the remorse and respect we all need to be showing at this time. Just my .02 worth….

  • phuzz

    An F-15 pilot wouldn’t have been flying a bomber, even a prototype. (If the B-21 is flying they’ll almost certainly be using B-2 pilots).

  • FROZEN EMPIRE

    Even IF it was an F-35, they wouldn’t announce it for obvious (financial) reasons.
    But the REAL IMPORTANT INFO of the very interesting article was the following:

    “The test and development programs include opposing forces threat
    simulation and testing using Russian built Sukhoi SU-27 (NATO codename
    “Flanker”) aircraft.”

    Do Americans/Does NATO prepare themselves for DIRECT DOGFIGHTS with the Russian block above the Northern European skies, thus an indeed potential war between WEST and RUSSIA – not today’s harassments but real dogfights? The global community is focused on Korea but perhaps the real danger for the global stability will come from the Baltic Sea/Ukraine. Food for thought. Please do exchange your thoughts and info.

  • Mike F.

    AW&ST is reporting that Lt. Col. Schultz was the wing commander of the Red Hats. Sounds like he may have been driving an Su-27.

  • seekless

    This is to do with what type of craft it was it is nothing against the f-35 !