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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

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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

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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

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