Tag Archives: Area 51

Is Star Wars Canyon, America’s Plane Spotting Jewel, At Risk Of Overuse?

We Visited “Jedi Transition” to Learn If the Best Low-Flying Area in the U.S. Is in Danger.

It is the African big game safari, the Mt. Everest and the Louvre of plane spotting: the “Jedi Transition.” Located in the western United States on the edge of Death Valley and the southern outskirts of the Nellis Range, home of Area 51. It is America’s best place to see combat aircraft training for their dangerous low-level infiltration role.

But is the Jedi Transition at risk of overuse and even possible closure?

The Aviationist.com visited the Jedi Transition this week to find out.

“Approaching Star Wars Canyon. West to East. Cleared hot…” crackles over our scanner from a fighter pilot dropping into the canyon as jet noise echoes up the rock walls like a speaker system announcing the arrival of our first aircraft. My skin goosebumps. The hair on my neck straightens. This is it… our first pass.

“Cleared hot…”

Today there are at least seven countries represented by at least thirty aircraft spotters from around the world in Jedi Transition. We are from England, Japan, Netherlands, Wales, Italy, the U.S. and Switzerland.

The name “Star Wars Canyon”, used interchangeably with Jedi Transition, came from the scene in the movie “Star Wars” where a flight of X-wing fighters led by Luke Skywalker negotiate an artificial canyon on the Death Star to deliver a lethal precision strike.

But Jedi Transition is not an air show. This is realistic training for combat flying. Although many current scenarios involve higher altitudes, fighter pilots still practice here to infiltrate heavily defended targets and to evade from areas protected by sophisticated air defense networks as those employed in Iran, Syria or North Korea. While electronic countermeasures help, the ability to get bombs on target and live to fight again may also depend on the white scarf, stick and rudder flying skills practiced by pilots in the Jedi Transition. This is where pilots learn to “use the force” and escape safely if needed.

Jedi Transition is also one of the few places on earth where you point your camera down to shoot combat aircraft photos (the other famous one being the Mach Loop). The aircraft actually fly beneath you through the canyon. And to say it is breathtaking is an understatement.

I have been on all seven continents, served in the military, seen flight demonstrations, training operations, exercises and simulations of every kind. I have never, ever seen anything as spectacular as aircraft transiting the Jedi Transition. It is so incredibly spectacular it is often difficult to concentrate on photography. After each pass, photographers up and down the canyon vary between excited hoots to hushed amazement as they paw the playback buttons on their Nikons and Canons then gawk in amazement at what they got.

But as spectacular as Jedi Transition is, it is also fragile. Media coverage like this article and hundreds of others along with videos on YouTube bring increasing numbers of people to the canyon in hopes of seeing fighters on combat training missions. Flying schedules in the canyon are closely guarded secrets, and there are no guarantees. Photographers and plane spotters talk of “rolling a donut” on days when the wind and huge black ravens are the only things to move through the canyon.

And then there is the threat of overuse. In one Facebook group devoted to the low-level flying areas around the world, members warn about responsible use of the area. Regulars at the Jedi Transition note that only a few months ago there were no visible trails connecting the best shooting spots along the canyon rim, but now there are visible foot paths worn into the desert cliff edge by hundreds of photographers who make the long, hot, dangerous drive every week in the hopes of catching something special.

Irresponsible visitors to the area leave trash, human waste, used toilet paper and garbage in the rocks along the canyon rim. And those people, still the minority among the primarily responsible and respectful photographers who visit the canyon, threaten the area for everyone.

But on a good day the Jedi Transition is maybe the best aircraft spotting and photography location on earth, and that is what keeps the crowds coming.

A classic Jedi Transition capture of a Navy EA-18G Growler banking hard the canyon exit. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

My co-reporter Jan Mack and I made the drive to the Jedi Transition in eastern California from Nellis AFB where after covering the Aviation Nation Air and Space Expo at Nellis AFB. It was a tough, dark, 187-mile trip on empty roads with few gas stations and long waits for emergency services if anything went wrong. This is one of the most remote areas in the United States. Jedi Transition is just along the southern border of the Nellis Range, a secretive, restricted military operational area where live weapons testing is done and opposing forces aircraft are secretly flown. This is the home of the nation’s biggest secrets.

Leaving Las Vegas at 3:00 AM, we took the advice of ace aviation journalists and photographers Mr. Julian Shen, Carl Wrightson and many others. We met Mr. Shen on top of the Budweiser photo platform at Aviation Nation, where he and his associates gave us important intel on how to get to the Jedi Transition, how to find it in the remote desert (there are no signs) and how to get the best photos. When we asked them about the chances of getting some good fly-throughs of the area the answer was universal, “Nothing is guaranteed”. We could spend a total of ten hours driving through dangerous, remote areas, sit in the desert for hours more and see nothing at all.

Or we could see something incredible. And that is the draw. As it turned out, we were luckier than we ever imagined possible.

To make the drive from Las Vegas to Jedi Transition you need a paper map of the area since most GPS systems on cell phones, including ours, do not work in Death Valley. There is no cell phone service whatsoever in the area. We prepared a paper map with checkpoints drawn onto it in advance. Remember, you will be reading the map in the dark- and it is very, very dark in Death Valley. We used red-light headlights to preserve our night vision both on the long drive in from Las Vegas and to orient ourselves once we arrived as the sun came up.

Jedi Transition is in a National Park, so be alert for animal crossings. We spotted these friendly donkeys just before sunrise.

Buy fuel on the drive from Las Vegas at every opportunity. Consider a half tank as “bingo fuel” during the trip since a road closure, accident or emergency could force a detour of over a hundred miles. There is gas at the base of the climb into the canyon area at Panamint Springs. Keep an eye on your temperature gauge during the summer as this is one of the hottest places in the world and you will be driving up steep gradients. Be sure your brakes are functional too, descents are fast and twisting with steep drop-offs. Keep an eye open for herds of wild donkeys crossing the road as you leave the remote block-long town of Beatty at the southeastern edge of the Nevada National Security Site Nuclear Waste Repository.

Carry a paper map in the Jedi Transition since GPS on cell phones is not available most times.

Bring at least two liters of water per person to the canyon for the day. The closest store is at the base of the canyon, the Panamint Springs Resort, along Highway 190, the only road there is. The diner is excellent, the pizza is great. Ask for Morgan, the waitress, but hurry. She is leaving soon for a trip to Antarctica. There is a convenience store in the gas station next door for replenishing drinks and snacks.

Use sunscreen and a hat. Since the terrain is rocky and there are snakes and scorpions, especially during the summer, long pants and long sleeves are recommended. Remember that there are wild temperatures swings in the desert, from the 20’s at night to among the hottest places on earth, regularly over 105-degrees Fahrenheit, during the day.

Many photographers wait for the next fast jet pass.

We brought two camera bodies each, a 150-600mm zoom lens and several wide-angle lenses for landscapes. The aircraft in the canyon are close, so you are often shooting between 150mm and 250mm in focal length with the aircraft filling your screen. Planes move through canyon quickly, and you generally get one pass per aircraft, so practice your panning, double check your settings and be ready.

Arriving at Jedi Transition you quickly begin to understand the concerns surrounding preservation of the area. The parking areas are small and fill early. There is a larger parking area at the west end of the area called Father Crowley Vista. This is near the entrance for tactical aircraft to the training area as they fly west to east. There are additional turn-offs along the road shoulder for parking a few vehicles before you reach Father Crowley Vista to the east, but these fill early. Nearly the entire parking area was filled shortly after sunrise. We parked in one of these easterly areas at the road shoulder as the sun came up.

To get to the photo locations you will have to carefully cross the road. There are no marked pedestrian crossings. The road is winding here and sight distance is limited. Traffic coming through the area, especially after sunrise, will not expect to see people crossing the road, so use caution.

There are now distinct trails worn into the rocky terrain adjacent to each parking pull-off. Use the trails to minimize impact on the area and avoid getting lost, which would be difficult since it’s a short walk. You walk nearly due north about two-tenths of a mile to the canyon rim. From there the canyon drops off steeply into the ravine below. The most commonly used photo locations are along this ridge.

Perhaps the only problem with the most frequently used locations on the south rim is that everyone’s photos look the same. That said, having your own shots from the Jedi Transition is a trophy on any day, even if they do look similar to what the other photographers got spread out along the canyon rim from the same day.

A guide to the lower section of the canyon. A through F are the most used photography spots.

Use caution at the edge of the canyon rim. Rain and wind loosen even large boulders. The one you choose to lean against, stand or sit on could dislodge and roll into the canyon below. That we know of, there has never been a photographer rescued from the canyon. It is critical we all work to maintain that safety record. If there is an increase in injuries to photographers in the area from falls, rock slides, snake bites or exposure, the U.S. Park Service will likely restrict access to the canyon rim for photographers, or at least regulate and patrol it more strictly.

Aircraft often make a high pass over the canyon to orient themselves and conduct a visual confirmation of conditions and traffic before transitioning to low altitude for entry into the training area.

Observers and photographers with a scanner can set their frequencies to 315.9 for the R-2508 Low Level Training Area, the Jedi Transition, according to the official Air Force briefing from 31 March, 2016 published on the edwards.af.mil website in .pdf format. You will hear radio traffic as the pilots check into the area. Pilots often refer to “entering point Juliet” as the initiation of their run through the canyon.

The official U.S. Air Force guide to the Jedi Transition.

We also had one aircraft, a Navy F/A-18, make repeated passes over the canyon, but not drop into the canyon. He performed an impressive “show of force” pass over us and a roll pulling up, off the canyon rim, before departing.

On the day we visited, aircraft began flying over the canyon at 10:35AM local. We saw an F/A-18 and two A-10s transit the area from east to west at approximately 7,000 feet. At 10:56 AM we picked up radio traffic announcing their drop into the canyon. Pilot transmissions were brief and business-like. The aircraft were visible making the turn to the west of our locations and were easy to hear in advance coming up the canyon. The jet noise changes distinctly once the planes drop down into the canyon, echoing off the canyon walls.

The A-10s from Davis-Monthan AFB passed through the canyon stunningly low. It was easy to see the pilots looking at us as we stood on the rim, in some cases waving as we shot photos of them. Their pass was spectacular.

A navy F/A-18 followed them. Then, throughout the day, we had a succession of EA-18G Growlers, F/A-18s and the A-10s from the first fly through as our first opportunity. The A-10s only made one transit.

An F/A-18F exiting the canyon.

Jedi Transition is not an air show. It is something far better. Rarer, more exclusive, more fleeting and exotic. This is big game hunting for aviation photographers. There is risk, and there are no guarantees. It is also a potentially endangered resource that needs to be preserved and respected by the photographers who visit it. But on a good day, Jedi is incredible.

The authors Tom Demerly and Jan Mack at Panamint Spring Resort at the bottom of Jedi Transition.

The canyon settles thick with sprawling silence in the long wait between aircraft. Photographers whisper about rumors of aircraft departures at Nellis, China Lake, Creech, Miramar and others. Frequencies on scanners are checked, and nervous photographers stand up from their folding camp chairs to stretch, set their cameras and practice panning along the canyon wall one more time. Hours pass.

Then that one radio call:

“Point Juliet, Jedi Transition. One pass. West to east…”

Check Out These Photos Of A Mysterious F-117 Under Protective Cover On A Trailer On Route 95 South Of Creech AFB, Nevada, Yesterday

What appears to be an F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jet was spotted yesterday on the road south of Creech AFB, Nevada.

The above composite image was obtained by merging two screenshots from a video filmed by Randy Williams and made available to The Aviationist by Brett Wyman who first posted them on a FB group focused on Nellis AFB.

The screenshots clearly show what seems to be a (real or mock?) F-117 Nighthawk stealth jet, hidden under protective cover, on a trailer spotted on Route 95 south of Creech Air Force Base.

Side by side, here are the two screenshots provided by Brett Wyman from the original Randy Williams footage.

Although where the aircraft was being transferred is unknown it’s probably safe to assume it was collected at Tonopah Test Range. Indeed, since 2014 we have documented the flights of some F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jets over Nevada. Last year we published a video showing two F-117s flying in July 2016, filmed from the distant hills east of Tonopah Test Range.

Back in 2014, once a few videos and photographs had already appeared online, the U.S. Air Force affirmed that the Black Jet was kept in a “Type 1000” storage at TTR which meant that the type is to be maintained until called into active service.

Desert conditions of Nevada are perfect for maintaining the stealth jets in pristine conditions (due to the low level of humidity and hence, lower probability of corrosion).

Therefore the U.S. considered the F-117 somehow useful in a current scenario so much so, they continued to fly some of the preserved jets, every now and then, in plain sight, to keep the pilots current and the aircraft airworthy and ready.

However, the 2017 defense budget retired the fleet permanently. In fact, “in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, passed Dec. 23, the Air Force will remove four F-117s every year to fully divest them — a process known as demilitarizing aircraft,” wrote Oriana Pawlyk recently.

According to Pawlyk, one F-117 was scheduled to be divested this year and approximately four every year thereafter.

The one spotted yesterday may have been that one, heading for the boneyard, a museum or something else. Anyway, if you know something more, let us know in the comments section or by sending us an email.

Update Nov. 15, 07:00 UTC

The Aviationist’s writer Tom Demerly and his girlfriend Jan happened to be in Nevada for Aviation Nation. He saw the F-117 under tarp as well. Here’s his recollection of the “sighting”:

We were east bound going back toward Las Vegas from the Nevada/California border after shooting photos all day at the Jedi Transition.

Both of us were tired having gotten up at 3:00 AM that morning to drive to the Jedi Transition/Star Wars Canyon near Death Valley. It gets dark early there. There is only one road in that area, and we did have a little difficulty locating that road, US-95, on the way back to the junction in Beatty leaving Death Valley, California and going back into Nevada.

Once we got on the road headed west there was no traffic. The road is sparsely travelled even during the day. It is absolutely black out there at night. Zero lights, zero power lines. Nothing, just the road. Earlier we had seen herds of donkeys, huge desert hare, fox and jackals along the road.

We stopped briefly to photograph the donkeys in the dark, pulling off the road to illuminate them with our headlights. I saw the truck with the covered load coming towards us once we got on US-95. It appeared to have at least one, maybe two vehicles following it and extra forward-facing lights.

The lights were incredibly bright, facing outward from the load, making it difficult to see what was on the trailer as we passed each other going in opposite directions. It would have been impossible to grab a quick photo because of those lights.They were not moving excessively fast, but we were headed the opposite way, so we only saw it briefly. I recall, immediately after we passed it, trying to figure out what was under the tarp.

We decided it may be an aircraft being moved somewhere for static display or some type of radar test model- or something more banal like a piece of a big sign or construction equipment, but that idea seemed odd, especially after dark on those remote roads. It wasn’t easy driving. We could not see the angle of the forward portion of the load, which would have given it away, because of the bright lights. We only briefly saw the back two-thirds of the tarp.

The back portion of the load protruded off the back of the trailer. That was the tail of the aircraft under the tarp. In retrospect, seeing these photos, it actually becomes pretty clear. As soon as my girlfriend and I saw these photos we were amazed. It actually was an F-117.

Much earlier that day, before sunrise on the way to Death Valley, we stopped briefly at a gas station directly across from Creech AFB. There are no gas stations between Creech and Beatty, so you want to tank-up before you get on that section of road. I noticed a man with a beard in his late 20s, early 30s, park a nice-looking pick-up truck at the edge of the gas station parking lot, then get in a large shuttle van with darkly tinted windows, like an airport shuttle van. He was carrying a large lunchbox. I thought he was a civilian contractor being shuttled onto Creech AFB for some type of civilian support role.

But when the shuttle van (with “Y” license plate) left the gas station parking lot going west it continued for quite some time. There is nothing out there. The shuttle made one other stop and we passed it. We could see it behind us for a while, then it disappeared. I supposed, based on the age and appearance of the man who got on the shuttle, and the fact that he noticed I noticed him, that he was working on something potentially interesting.

Thanks a lot to Brett Wyman for allowing us to use the screenshots!

 

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

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

Salva

New Details on Mysterious Crash of Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz Near Area 51 Emerge

Unnamed Sources in Published Report Suggest Pilot May Have Been Flying Russian Aircraft.

In a story published late Monday, September 11, 2017 on AviationWeek.com, new information has been revealed about the type of aircraft that USAF Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, call sign “Doc”, may have been flying at the time of his mysterious crash 100 miles Northwest of Nellis AFB in the Nevada Test and Training Range.

Speculation about the crash was fueled by Air Force media releases that did not indicate the type of aircraft that was being flown by Lt. Col. Schultz on Tuesday, September 5, 2017 when the accident occurred. There was also a delay in the story reaching news media that raised further questions since the accident was reported after another, unrelated accident involving two A-10s, was reported sooner.

File photo of Lt. Col Eric “Doc” Schultz. (USAF Photo)

AviationWeek.com correspondent Guy Norris wrote late Monday, September 11, that, “Sources indicate Schultz was the Red Hats squadron commander at the time of his death. The Red Hats became an unnumbered unit within the Detachment 3, AFTC test wing after the 413th flight test squadron (formerly 6513th test squadron) was deactivated in 2004. Over recent years the unit has operated a variety of Russian-developed combat types, including the MiG-29 and several Sukhoi-developed models such as the Su-27P, one of which was recently observed flying in the vicinity.”

The photos of the SU-27P referred to by Guy Norris on AviationWeek.com first appeared on TheAviationist.com on January 6, 2017 when we published the shots taken by Phil Drake from Tikaboo Peak outside Groom Lake, Nevada, on November 8, 2016 between 3:00 and 3:25 PM local time.

Photographer Phil Drake told TheAviationist.com, “I took my camera out and photographed the ensuing dogfight between the Flanker and a F-16.  The sortie seemed to consist of a head-on intercept, conducted at descending altitudes from 30 down to 20 thousand feet, and after each intercept a turning dogfight ensued after they had flashed past each other.

The highly maneuverable Flanker was a single seat version, a Su-27P, and it pulled out all of its best moves to get behind the F-16. I watched in awe as the pair fought it out for 25 minutes before they both climbed to altitude and flew back into Groom Lake restricted airspace. My scanner remained silent throughout the whole encounter.”

[Read also: Russian Video Of Captured U.S. F-5 Tiger Jet Dogfighting Against MiG-21 in Tests Raises Question: Do They Still Operate American Jets?]

Guy Norris’ story on AviationWeek.com also reports that, “Given the approximate location provided by the Air Force, it appears the accident occurred midway between Groom Lake and Tonopah Test Range airfield, both of which are operated by Detachment 3, Air Force Test Center (AFTC). The site is responsible for test and evaluation of classified “black” aircraft as well as foreign types which are flown by the Red Hats for tactics assessment and dissimilar training against front line Air Force units.”

Pilots of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron, a unit tasked with testing opposing forces aircraft and tactics, pose for a photo published in the public domain. The unit was known to fly in the region where Lt. Col. Eric Schultz likely crashed. (Photo: USAF)

The Air Force has not provided any additional information on the specifics of the Lt. Col. Eric Schultz crash except for the famous tweet quoting USAF Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, who, on Saturday morning, September 9, told Military.com, “I can definitely say it was not an F-35.”

A map of the test ranges where the Phil Drake photos were taken. (Map: DailyMail.com)

Whether the U.S. Air Force will follow-up with additional information in the crash of Lt. Col. Eric Schultz is unknown. If Lt. Col. Schultz was involved in testing, evaluation and training with opposing forces aircraft in a classified program that remains ongoing the information may never be released. Additionally, the accident, if it did involve non-U.S. opposing forces aircraft, may compel the Air Force to change its opposing forces training program as seen in the now famous Phil Drake photos of the Su-27 outside Groom Lake.

Top image credit: Phil Drake

Salva

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

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

Salva

Salva

Salva

Salva