Tag Archives: Nellis Air Force Base

We Got A Close Look At America’s Iconic U-2 Dragon Lady Spy Plane

It Wasn’t on the Schedule, but a Late Tip at Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo Gave Us Unique Insights into The Historic U-2.

The fine print in every air show schedule reads, “Aircraft appearances are subject to change”.

It’s a reminder that the primary mission of military aircraft is not display, but operational readiness. Sometimes that means an aircraft scheduled to appear at a flight demonstration or static display gets cancelled because of higher priorities.

But sometimes it also means one gets added.

That was the case at the 2017 Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo at Nellis Air Force Base. A Saturday flyover of a B-2 Spirit strategic bomber was moved off the schedule when the scarce, national security asset was assigned to a higher priority mission. With only about twelve of the B-2 Spirit fleet in operational status and the looming North Korean crisis many aviation enthusiasts thought we would lose the flyover to higher tasking. What we didn’t know was that the good folk at Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo would replace it with something even better.

It pays to keep your eyes open at an airshow, and especially at Aviation Nation. Nellis is a hub of training activity in one of the busiest military aircraft training regions in the world. If you’re a keen observer, you may spot an unusual flight suit patch, a different name tag, or something else extraordinary. There is so much going on at Nellis it can be tricky to pay attention to everything at once. It’s like looking for the best candy in the world’s largest candy shop. But on the Friday Veteran and Military Appreciation Day and Working Media Day, our helpful media escort, Mr. Mike Young, a retired Public Affairs Officer in the Air Force, found us a rare gem. Mr. Young was working with the Nellis 99th Air Base Wing/Public Affairs Office at Nellis. His unenviable job was to follow me around all day to make sure I didn’t stray off anywhere I wasn’t supposed to, photograph anything off limits, or touch any switches in cockpits that ought to not be touched.

As our media escort ushered us through the many static displays and aircrew introductions I spotted an unusual patch on an officer’s flight suit. The patch read, “Dragon Lady 1000, Solum Volamus.” And in case that didn’t raise an eyebrow, it said quite plainly across the top: “Lockheed U-2”.

We had just stumbled upon one of the rarest aircraft pilots in aviation history, a Lockheed U-2 spy plane pilot.

I often feel for pilots at airshows, especially when a gawky fanboy reporter like me is fawning over them, asking, “Can I take a photo with you Sir?” But they always do, and with a smile. This was no exception.

With accommodating enthusiasm, the U-2 pilot I spotted in the crowd confirmed he did indeed fly the Dragon Lady, one of the most difficult planes to fly in one of the most dangerous roles in any air force. He went on to leave us with another gem, “It will be arriving here today at 4:30 PM, right after the Thunderbirds practice is over.”

Jackpot.

Few people have ever seen a U-2 high altitude reconnaissance plane up close. First flown in 1955, only 104 were built. The U.S. continues to use about forty U-2s in their intended surveillance role. Interestingly, Taiwan operated a few of the aircraft at one time, but they have been, and continue to be mostly employed by the U.S. Air Force and NASA. The Central Intelligence Agency also operated the U-2 in the intelligence gathering role.

While every aspect of the U-2, its mission, operation and performance are remarkable, certainly the most remarkable chapter in the U-2’s history is the Francis Gary Powers incident.

On May 1, 1960, Operation Grand Slam, managed by the C.I.A., was initiated. A U-2 spy plane flown by Capt. Francis Gary Powers overflew the Soviet Union to obtain photos of ICBM bases and a plutonium manufacturing facility. The Soviets knew the American U-2 was coming, and put all their air defense units on alert. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to intercept the U-2 spy plane along its route using fighter aircraft, none of which could reach it because of its extreme high altitude, a salvo of three SA-2 Guideline surface to air missiles (SAMs) was able to shoot down Capt. Powers’ U-2. The missile salvo also accidentally shot down a Soviet MiG-19 aircraft chasing Powers’ U-2. Although Capt. Powers was able to eject and survive the shoot-down, the Soviet pilot trying to intercept him, Senior Lieutenant Sergei Ivanovich Safronov of the 764th Fighter Aviation Regiment, Soviet Air Defense Force at Bolshoye Savino Airport, died in the tragic fratricide incident.

If people hadn’t known about the most secret spy plane in the U.S. arsenal before the Gary Powers incident, that soon changed when the Soviets paraded the captured Capt. Powers in front of newsreel cameras and displayed the wreckage of his U-2 spy plane. Overnight the U-2 went from national security secret to the most famous airplane in the world at the time.

Since then the U-2 and its related versions such as the TR-2 have gone on to perform the strategic and tactical reconnaissance mission around the world. The aircraft has also been flown to collect high altitude weather data.

Everything about operating the U-2 is remarkable. Its pilots, among the most skilled in any air force, wear an ultra-high altitude pressure suit that is effectively a spacesuit, including the large bubble-like helmet. Pilots must pre-breath pure oxygen for an extended time prior to their high-altitude surveillance missions, the time varying depending on the duration of their mission. Long missions can last a staggering 10+ hours. The pilots also wear radiological dosimeters to record the amount of solar radiation they are exposed since they fly at the outer limits of the atmosphere and are exposed to higher levels of harmful radiation from the sun. During periods of elevated sunspot activity, the pilots do not fly high altitude missions. Pilots eat pureed paste-like food through a tube during long missions. If a pilot has to urinate during a mission, they do so into a flexible bladder sewn into the suit. If they have to defecate, something avoided through careful management of diet in the days prior to a long-range, high-altitude flight, the suit is no longer useable. Once the helmet is donned and the pilot is ready to fly, they can’t even scratch an itch on their face.

I got a privileged opportunity to sit in the operational U-2 flown into Nellis AFB by two of the officers who fly her. For security reasons, they asked that their real names not be used.

While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

The first thing that occurred to me climbing inside the aircraft is how small it is. I was wearing summer street clothes. In a high-altitude pressure suit I have no idea how someone could wedge themselves into the compact space.

Flight controls and instrumentation in the U-2 I sat in seemed antiquated compared to more modern aircraft like the F-22 and F-35. Recall that the first U-2, designed by the famous Kelly Johnson of the Lockheed Skunkworks, was flown in 1955, so these are all old aircraft.

All U-2 aircraft go through what is effectively a re-building process called Programmed Depot Maintenance every 4,800 flight hours or every seven years. The aircraft are almost completely disassembled, inspected and necessary components are repaired or replaced. About six of the aircraft are cycled through the extended maintenance procedure per year. This fascinating video shows the process:

Pilots who fly the U-2 are restricted from discussing aircraft performance and mission specifics for security reasons. However, the pilot who briefed me on flight control procedures when operating at the classified operational altitudes showed me how the autopilot controls are used to maintain the aircraft within its very narrow speed and attitude band. Fly too fast and the aircraft is possibly damaged, likely resulting in a crash, fly too slow in the thin air of the outer atmosphere and the aircraft stalls and tumbles out of the sky, hopefully regaining control if it doesn’t disintegrate before it reaches lower, thicker air below 60,000 ft. The difference between max airspeed, the VH airspeed, and VMU airspeed, or minimum unstick airspeed can be incredibly narrow, a band of less than 20 MPH. When you factor in wind speed, vertical acceleration from turbulence and other variables, you quickly begin to understand that a U-2 pilot will be extremely busy during a high-altitude mission just trying to keep the aircraft in the air.

The U-2 on static display at Aviation Nation along with its chase car.

With the tip from the U-2 pilot we met on Friday we also got to see the U-2 arrival and landing, including the unusual procedure of having a fast car driven by another qualified U-2 pilot chase the aircraft down the runway on final approach giving the pilot minor corrections on attitude and line-up. Once the aircraft touches down on the runway the pilot attempts to hold what is ostensibly the world’s largest unicycle on its center main landing gear. As the aircraft slows during roll-out the pilot tries to hold the wingtips off the runway until the final moment. Once they stop on the landing roll, small “pogo” wheels are installed under each wing to keep the wingtips off the pavement and allow the plane to taxi.

A close look at the U-2’s enormous flaps and unusual pogo wheel parking system.

Seeing a U-2 in person was a rare treat in aviation history.

On both Saturday and Sunday, everyone attending the airshow got a chance to see the “Dragon Lady”. This incredibly rare and exotic opportunity is just one of the many things that make the Nellis AFB Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo one of the finest air shows anywhere in the world.

TheAviationist.com would like to thank U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Marie Ortiz, Chief of Media Operations at the 99th ABW/Public Affairs and Mr. Mike Young, USAF (retired), along with the entire Public Affairs Team at Nellis AFB for their generous assistance in covering not only the arrival of the U-2, but all of the events at the 2017 Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo.

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…”

Report: 2017 Aviation Nation Air and Space Expo Celebrates USAF 70th Anniversary at Nellis AFB

Expo Showcases USAF Heritage, Capabilities and Breaking Barriers in Military Aviation.

It is the premiere U.S. Air Force air show: the Aviation Nation Air and Space Expo at Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, Nevada. This year’s Aviation Nation Air & Space Expo celebrates the 70th Anniversary of the U.S. Air Force with displays and demonstrations rarely seen at any other air show. The theme of the show is “Breaking Barriers” and showcases advances that have crossed gender and race in the U.S. Air Force.

Nellis Air Force Base is adjacent to the sprawling Nellis Range farther north. The range covers a total of 4,500 square miles. It is home of the Nevada Test and Training Range, Nevada National Security Site, Tonopah Test Range, Groom Range, Tikaboo Valley and the fabled “Area 51”. To the southwest is “Star Wars Canyon”, one of the premiere low-flying training areas in the world. It is one of the few places where lucky aviation photographers can photograph real world, low-level flight training- if they’re lucky.

Part of what differentiates Aviation Nation from other air expos and air shows around the world are the unique Air Force units that live at Nellis, and those units’ capability to demonstrate the air force mission better than anyone. While Aviation Nation only covers two days of the year, the capabilities and missions demonstrated during the expo are lived every day by the officers and airmen of Nellis.

One of the most unique and dynamic demonstrations at Aviation Nation is the USAF Warfighter Demo, a combined air and ground demo that showcases the unique Aggressor units and their capability to simulate opposing forces and tactics. The demo also highlights Air Force air superiority capabilities, close air support and Combat Search and Rescue missions and capabilities.

For the first time at an airshow the Lockheed F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter demonstrated its role in both close air support and also air superiority in a single mission. The F-35A flew in the Warfighter Demo alongside the A-10C Thunderbolt II. The demo reinforced the role of F-35A as a complementary asset to the A-10C, and an aircraft that can use its advanced capability to fill the role of the A-10C in addition to performing the air dominance mission.

The demo began with a simulated attack on Nellis Air Force Base performed by F-16s of the 64th Aggressor Squadron. F-15 Eagles on ready alert responded by taking off to contest the aggressors. A pair of F-35A Lighting IIs arrived and the Aggressors were quickly routed by the F-35s and F-15s.

A pair of F-15 Eagles leap off the runway at Nellis AFB during the Air Combat Demo. (All photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

Following the air combat phase of the demonstration a simulated rescue of a downed airman featured HH-60G rescue helicopters and A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft providing close air support. The new component of the close air support demonstration was seeing the F-35As transition from their air superiority role in the first demo to the air support operation in the second phase of the demo, providing simulated close air support along with the A-10Cs during the rescue demo. The message in the demo was clear, the F-35A can perform the close air support mission. While this was only a demonstration, it did provide at least the visual insight that the F-35A can do close air support (CAS). The demo showed the low altitude, close support capability of the F-35A alongside the A-10C for the first time at Aviation Nation.

A pair of F-35As performed close air support (CAS) alongside A-10s in the Air Combat Demo.

Highlights of the veteran, military and media day at Aviation Nation on Friday, November 10, 2017 included a surprise visit by USAF Air Combat Command Commander, General James M. “Mike” Holmes. General Holmes inspected a specially painted F-15 Eagle honoring the city of Las Vegas in the wake of the tragic mass shooting on October 1, 2017.

General James M. “Mike” Holmes, Commander, Air Combat Command (right) inspects the special livery F-15 Eagle.

General James M. “Mike” Holmes with members of the team responsible for the special F-15 and surprise F-16.

There was the surprise unveiling of an F-16 Fighting Falcon (shown in the top image) also painted in a new, commemorative livery honoring Las Vegas and the memory of victims lost and survivors recovering from the October 1st mass shooting.

The Aviation Nation Air and Space Expo takes place this weekend, Saturday, November 11 and Sunday, November 12, 2017 at Nellis AFB outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Admission is free to the public.

Nellis AFB F-15 Receives Special Paint Livery Honoring Victims of Las Vegas Mass Shooting

This Nellis-Based F-15A Was Repainted in Time for Next Week’s Aviation Nation 2017 Airshow.

Public affairs and local Las Vegas news outlets have released a new video of an F-15A Eagle with a special set of markings honoring the victims of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history in nearby Las Vegas, Nevada on October 1, 2017. The tragic shooting claimed 58 lives.

The F-15A has what appears to be applique markings on the left side of the fuselage under the wing that reads “Vegas STRONG” in white against the air force grey tactical color. The markings under the right-side wing read “U.S. AIR FORCE”

The saying is an adaptation of a popular U.S. tagline that has been used in a U.S. Army (not Air Force) recruiting campaign called “ARMY STRONG” since 2006. The “Army Strong” tagline was originally developed by an advertising agency named McCann Worldgroup. It has since become a household phrase. The phrase was also adapted as “BOSTON STRONG” following the Boston Marathon bombing in April, 2013.

The left tail of the newly repainted F-15 wears an interpretation of the highly recognized Las Vegas sign memorializing the tragedy. It reads, “We Are VEGAS STRONG, October 1, 2017”.

The left hand side of the “Vegas Strong” special colored F-15.

The right-side tail wears a stylized graphic of the Air Force Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The right-side tail of the F-15C AF76-057

The F-15A will be on static display at the 2017 Aviation Nation Airshow at Nellis AFB on November 11 and 12. The Aviation Nation Airshow, one of the most unique airshows in the world showcasing the entire USAF arsenal in a setting that permits unparalleled aerial and static displays, will feature the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team, a tactical air combat display, numerous static displays of aircraft, some of which can only be seen at Nellis AFB, and a Saturday flyover the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber from Whiteman AFB, Missouri.

TheAviationist.com will provide full coverage of Aviation Nation 2017 on this website.

A previous version of this article mistakenly reported the involved aircraft is an F-15C wheareas it is an F-15A.

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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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