We Track Down the Secret MiGs and Sukhois of the Nellis Test and Training Range

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)

America’s Pilots Fight Russian Aircraft in Training but Where Did They Come From?

It is a vast 5,000 square miles. And it is off-limits. What happens here shapes the technology and tactics that turn world history. From modern fighter tactics to cruise missiles to stealth technology. It includes the operation and evaluation of the most classified aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, the secret MiGs and Sukhois of the Nevada Test and Training Range.

On any given busy weekday, you can stand on the shoulder of Route 15, the Las Vega Freeway, a few minutes north of the Las Vegas strip at the northwest corner of Nellis AFB and get treated to one of the best airshows in the world. Along with the Mach Loop and Rainbow Canyon, this is plane spotters’ heaven. The variety of military aircraft that fly the pattern over the roadway on final approach into Nellis AFB is staggering. Aircraft from every allied nation. Fighters, bombers, attack aircraft, trainers, transports, helicopters. In the morning when they depart Nellis AFB they mostly go the same direction: northwest. That’s where the air war that never ends is constantly being fought, the Nellis Test and Training Range or “NTTR”.

Summer, 1976. Approximately 30 Miles Northwest of Nellis AFB, Nevada.

“At about eight miles I could see a single spec of black through the windscreen. I was struggling to identify the dot from its outline. It was still too small,” retired U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot and later two-star admiral Jim “Rookie” Robb told author Steve Davies in his recently updated book “Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs”.

“Rookie” Robb was beginning a classic head-on engagement with an enemy aircraft. A real enemy aircraft, over the Nevada desert in the western U.S. Before he saw the aircraft he was fighting, the entire project remained a secret from him.

Weighing only about one-fifth what “Rookie” Robb’s Tomcat weighed the MiG-17 “Fresco” quickly gained the tactical advantage when “Rookie” made the error of engaging the MiG in a horizontal, turning fight. The nimble MiG-17 turned inside him, the much greater weight and physics of the F-14 working against him to bleed energy in the turn until the MiG passed his wing line where he became defensive. In a matter of seconds one of America’s best fighter pilots learned that if you want to fight the MiGs in the real world, you can’t fight fair. The fight has to be three-dimensional.

This account is one of many from retired pilots who can now tell the story of the secret Russian aircraft that were obtained by the U.S. military and flown over the remote deserts of the American west.

There is no doubt that the use of Russian aircraft in training over the American west has paid dividends in combat. The now declassified “Constant Peg” training program that used Russian built MiG-21 and MiG-23 aircraft was credited with helping train the U.S. Navy F-14 pilots who shot down two Libyan Su-22s during the Gulf of Sidra crisis in 1981. And that is just one of the historical precedents of the successful program.

But there is also a history of accidents flying the Russian aircraft. Early in the program, in 1979, a MiG-17F crashed when it departed controlled flight while flying against a U.S. Navy F-5 aircraft also used as an adversary simulation aircraft. The Navy still uses the F-5 as an adversary but a recent temporary grounding took place following a crash on August 9, 2017 off Key West, Florida. These accidents emphasize the hazardous nature of not only operating opposing forces aircraft like the MiG-17F but also flying the opposing forces role in any aircraft including the U.S.-built F-5.

It is a certainty that flying Russian combat aircraft over the American western desert continues today.

As we reported earlier this year, photos as recently as Nov. 8, 2016 show a Russian-built Sukhoi Su-27 in air combat maneuvering (ACM) with a U.S. built F-16. Aviation photographer Phil Drake scored the photos from Tikaboo Peak outside Groom Lake, Nevada, between 3:00 and 3:25 PM local time that day. Short of catching photos of a classified developmental project like the old F-117 (also seen still flying in the region) or the new B-21 Raider yet to be fully disclosed, Drake’s “Red Air” photos are the greatest prize in worldwide aviation spotting. Drake’s photos created an international sensation when he released them.

Publicity about the Groom Lake Russian planes has skyrocketed since the tragic loss of Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz on September 5, 2017. Lt. Col. Schultz, an accomplished combat and test pilot with a PhD in aerospace engineering, died in an accident that likely involved an aircraft the U.S. Air Force won’t specify. Since his death, the aviation media has been filled with theories of what Lt. Col. Schultz was flying.

During the past weeks, the U.S. Air Force has not released additional information on Lt. Col. Schultz’s tragic accident. But research in published accounts of the U.S. opposing forces aircraft operations and investigation into foreign sources and at the fringes of the “dark web” reveal much more information about what is flying northwest of Nellis AFB.

We know that two Sukhoi Su-27s, NATO codename “Flanker”, were owned by a company called “Pride Aviation” prior to summer 2011. Before their ownership by Pride Aviation they were registered to “Meridican, Inc., a Wilmington, Delaware company.” One of the aircraft is listed as a “Sukhoi Su-27UB” and states it was manufactured in 1990. A U.S. air worthiness certificate was issued on December 12, 2009.

The aircraft’s registration number is, or was, N131SU. It is, for some reason, incorrectly listed as a “single engine” aircraft. The Su-27 family is, of course, twin engine. Beyond these records and others like it along with a few inquiries on aviation forums, the trail of these aircraft appears to go cold. The planes disappear.

Public records of U.S. acquired SU-27s exist on Fightaware.com. (Photo: Flightaware.com)

But a pair of 18-ton Russian built combat aircraft does not just disappear.

An August 2009 report published on the Russian media source Pravda.ru says openly, “The Pentagon purchased two Russian-made Su-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. The United States will reportedly use the Russian jets to train effective counter-operation efforts.”

The August 2009 Russian media report seems to coincide within a few months of the transfer records for the Pride Aviation/Meridican Inc. Sukhois. It is a small stretch to suggest these events may be related. And if they are related, this could be the origin of the aircraft in the now famous 2016 Phil Drake/Tikaboo Peak photos.

Official Russian news source Pravda.ru reported on the U.S. acquisition of SU-27s in 2009. (Photo: Pravda.ru)

By an interesting historical parallel, the now-retired 65th Aggressor Squadron formerly of Nellis AFB used to fly as many as 24 McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle aircraft as threat aircraft for air combat training. The twin-engine F-15 mimics the size and performance of the Sukhoi Su-27. The 65th Aggressor Squadron F-15s were painted in a variety of opposing forces color schemes, some almost identical to Russian SU-27 camouflage. But in late 2014 the aggressor squadron F-15s were deactivated. Somewhat ironically, the maintenance unit that serviced the aggressor F-15s was the 757th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and according to reports was named the “Flanker Aircraft Maintenance Unit”. “Flanker” is the NATO reporting name for the Sukhoi Su-27.

Was there a correlation between the 2014 deactivation of the Nellis AFB aggressor F-15 Eagles and the 2009 acquisition of the Russian SU-27s? Could the five years in between the two events have been used to field a secret Sukhoi SU-27 opposing force capability that may have contributed to the stand-down of the aggressor F-15s? Or, as the official reports say, were the Nellis F-15 aggressors simply stood-down due to budget concerns? While this is an interesting theory, it is no more than a theory. Although it is easy to suggest the Phil Drake/Tikaboo Peak Su-27 photos may support this theory, the reality is that only one SU-27 was photographed by Drake in 2016. It is hard to imagine a single threat aircraft or even two as cited in the early Pride Aviation/Meridican Inc. Sukhoi acquisition could perform a similar threat simulation mission as the more than twenty F-15 Eagles that were stood-down by the Nellis aggressors in 2014.

Does the stand-down of Aggressor F-15s at Nellis AFB coincide with the Flankers photographed from Tikaboo Peak in 2016? (Photo: TheAviationist.com)

While the published accounts of declassified MiG operations over the American west provide a convenient extrapolation to new theories about Russian aircraft being used in training, their trail does go dry within the last decade. The Russian reports and “dark web” accounting of Sukhois being bought by shadowy U.S. companies shed some light on any new “black” program that may exist. And finally, the famous Phil Drake/Tikaboo Peak photos effectively render any black program with Sukhois over the desert at least somewhat grey in transparency, even without official comment.

But this fact remains: we still have no official information about all of what is flying northwest of Nellis AFB or what Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz was flying on September 5, 2017 when America lost one of its finest men.

Top image credit: Phil Drake


About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.


  1. I personally think that the media should keep their noses out of these secret training programs. The Air Force hasn’t needed their input and have defended the U.S. so far. So media butt out!

    • They have defended the U.S.? When was your homeland really under attack the last time? As far as I know, the U.S. always was the country that invaded other countries or paid mercenaries to do so.

      • Where the hell are you coming from? You are one of those people who will sit on their finger and let every radical into our country without question. Bud, that simply doesn’t work!

        • Technically, yes. And it’s also not looking good. At least the opium production for the CIA is up and running again. The Taliban had brought that to zero in 2001 – the exact year of the invasion.

            • The Soviet Union was not fighting the government. The Taliban that the US attacked were the government in 2001 (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, since 1996).

      • Figures. I can always tell who the America-haters are by looking at who gave you a comment “up” arrow. The usual crowd. What they are is unknowledgeable, inexperienced and jealous of American superiority – that’s all. All likely never flew a single mil flight hour in their entire lives. You too. Probably 10,000 hrs on X-Box and Playstation. lol!! : )

        • Same goes for the people who you upvote and who upvote your comments? So what. Everyone in his echochamber or filter bubble?

          I’m not an American-hater. I’m just disagreeing with your government or better with what the deep state does.

          You should stop making such assumptions. You’re not good at that or your crystal orb is broken. I never owned a console and never will. I also mostly play only RTS with SCIFI background (DOW3 lately) or ARPGs (D3/Path of Exile). Sometimes Mechwarrior Online. You see, it’s mostly disconnected from the conflicts that take place in the real world.

      • 9/11.
        Pearl Harbor.

        When was the last time your Russian wasteland was attacked?

        We could chat about ALL those ex-Warsaw Pact countries you invaded and occupied…



        Speaking of Russian mercenaries.

        Southern Africa – Angola, Rhodesia, Mozambique….

        Israeli invasions – Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya…

        Korean War – Russian MiG pilots, Chinese pilots

        Indo-China/Vietnamese war

        I can keep this going all day long….

        • Oh right, I forgot to add “since WW2”. My bad. It’s funny when you say “your Russian wasteland”, trying to degrade Russia whenever possible. *facepalm* I’m not even Russian, mate. I also see you still have problems to distinguish the Soviet Union from Russia.

          The list of US wars is much much longer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_involving_the_United_States

          And I don’t say that the Soviet Union always did good things. They have made many mistakes and it was a different time. They did not invade the (later to become) Warsaw Pact countries at first, they drove back the German Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. And the US helped them. That they stayed and it sometimes became an occupation was wrong. Mostly they helped local socialist and communist movements to form governments. Only in East Germany the Soviet Union had troops stationed.

          Communism was literally the red rag for the US imperialists. The Russophobia was strong then in some misguided people (McCarthyism much?), and it became strong again lately.

          Something that is little known: Stalin offered a reunion of Germany in 1952 under the condition that it became a neutral country like Austria. The US and the German chancellor Adenauer declined. America had different plans and needed Germany as base in the cold war that had just started. Adenauer was dreaming of his own atomic bombs.

          Afghanistan was a war against radical Islam that the US supported and dropped afterwards. That became the birth of Al-Qaeda. The Soviet Union (that doesn’t exist anymore) was asked for help by the Afghan government. They did not just invade that country. Look up pictures of Afghan women in the 70s. Not much difference between them and western women. They were going to school and later to university and had a normal life. After the US helped the radicals, that was all over. Good job! The US threw the Islam world back by decades. And all that because they feared these countries could turn towards Moscow. Something that had to be prevented at all costs – mostly at the costs of the people who lived there.

          Here’s an interesting video with a speech of the Egypt president Nasser:

          You can tell from the reactions that they had no intentions to suppress women in the way the Islamist people wanted. The ones the US supported. And that hasn’t changed. Always like “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, when that is the worst that could be done in the middle east. Just to keep control over the oil and other resources.

        • LOL, both on 9/11 and Pearl Harbor USAF failed to do anything meaningful, so the statement “…have defended the U.S. so far” is FALSE. Enjoy ;)

        • Uh huh and what does any of this Bulls**t have to do with the article?

          Crawl back to your little Russian hating world and let the adults converse little boy…

      • Only Hitler was stupid enough to want your giant ghetto full of peasants and primitive military. At least he had heavy drugs as an excuse. And it’s good know that Russia never invaded anybody, all of those Warsaw Pact countries were clamoring to join, right?

      • This moron is a classic example of a paid russi troll, their aim is to divert the conversation and antaginize, its exaxtly whar this paid russi troll is doing. Ignore them.

    • You mean defended the corporate interest, right ? :D Technically, USAF had to defend its “soil” once – at Pearl Harbour.. and it failed.

  2. The Russians know why they only sell export versions of their planes to smaller countries. Chances that they are overrun (they just don’t have the numbers) by the 600 billion dollar (a year) overblown US military are high if a conflict erupts. Like when the country is selling oil for a different currency than the Dollar. Of course the media doesn’t tell you that this was the reason.

    It was a little bit different with the Ukraine though. At the time when they became independent, they had planes that were on the same level as everywhere else in the former Soviet Union. It’s only logical that the US military had a high interest in those Su-27s. Strange feeling to know that this was 27 years ago and these planes are old already compared to what the Russians have now. And there also was Tolkachev, who gave away so many secrets about Russian technology that it crippled the Soviet defense industry for years.

    • Adorable RT spam.

      Want to try spinning the FAR more capable Indian Su-30MKI’s?

      The MiG-23’s came from a disgruntled Egypt, after being screwed by Russia.
      Want to explain ALL the reasons pilots defected with MiG’s?

      MiG-25, MiG-21, MiG-17, Su-22…

  3. and im sure the ruski’s have some second hand F16s and F15s at their disposal as well…

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