Tag Archives: Nellis Air Force Base

Famous “Miracle On The Hudson” Pilot Takes VIP Ride in Thunderbirds F-16

“Sully” Soars with Thunderbirds.

One of the most celebrated pilots in history, former U.S. Airways airline Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, returned to his Air Force roots when he took the rear seat in a U.S. Air Force F-16D Fighting Falcon for a VIP flight at Travis AFB in Solano County, California last week.

The Thunderbirds were at Travis Air Force Base in California for the Wings Over Solano Air Show during the May 5-6 weekend.

Former Capt. Sullenberger flew as back-seater in Thunderbird 7, a two-seat F-16D with Thunderbird Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh as pilot in command. Lt. Col. Walsh of Long Island, New York is a 2002 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He has flown as an instructor at the European F-16 Weapons School, Leeuwarden Air Base, Netherlands. Lt. Col. Walsh also has over 500 hours of combat flying experience.

Former Capt. Sullenberger is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a former F-4D Phantom II pilot. He has also flown as the Blue Force mission commander in Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III and his F-4D Phantom II (Credit: Sullenberger)

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is, of course, best known for his remarkable airmanship on Jan. 15, 2009 when he experienced a rare double engine outage due to birdstrike in an Airbus A320 operating as U.S. Airways flight 1549. As pilot in command of the flight he declared an emergency and made a first-ever “dead stick” (no power) landing in the Hudson River with 155 passengers and crew on board. There were no fatalities or serious injuries in the emergency ditching.

U.S. Airways Flight 1549 after successful emergency water landing in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. (Associated Press)

The accident has been widely publicized in media and “Captain Sully” rightfully lauded as a heroic figure who personifies the cool temperament and technical professionalism of experienced aviators.

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds provide publicity flights to noteworthy persons and key influencers as a way to spread the message of pride, professionalism and dedication about the hundreds of thousands of Airmen serving at home and abroad and to inspire everyone to achieve excellence in their endeavors. In 2012, “Sully” flew with the Blue Angels.

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We Have Rented A Cessna 172 And Skirted Area 51 and Nevada Test and Training Range. Here Is How It Went.

We undertook a very unusual trip over Nevada desert.

Area 51, a myth in the underworld of conspiracy theories, especially for those who believe in alien spacecrafts, flying saucers, UFOs etc, is a highly classified installation in the Nevada desert.

Since the 1950s, the remote site, located south of the dry Groom Lake, has been used to support the development and testing of several aircraft and weapons systems including the famous U-2 Dragon Lady, the Mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird, or the later F-117 stealth fighter (more precisely its Have Blue prototype).

Its involvement in Black Projects and the secrecy surrounding the operations conducted over there has made Area 51 the most interesting secret airbase in the world for aviation enthusiasts.

Groom Lake airbase is located inside the Nellis Test and Training Range, 200 miles north of Las Vegas, under a dedicated and forbidden airspace identified as R4808N in the aeronautical charts. This place is well protected from prying eyes as the ground perimeter extend to 10 miles from the runways, and a small ridge inside the Area prevent anyone on the Tikaboo valley to see anything.

Most enthusiasts and photographers climb Tikaboo peak. This vantage point is difficult to access, is almost 8,000 feet high which puts it 3,000 feet over the airbase but 26 miles away. You need a powerful telelens to see anything from there.

Being a very long time military aviation fan, both interested in the secret life of Groom Lake and in the larger Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR) where every Red Flag exercise happen since the 70s, I wanted to see it in real. What made it possible is that I’m a private pilot, and the airspace east of R4808N is “just” classified as a Military Operating Area (MOA). It’s a danger area when it’s active or “hot” (meaning some military activity is scheduled or in progress), but still accessible for anyone at their own risk.

While on vacation in the area, I decided to attempt a flight there, during the weekend to lessen any risk, particularly with the Air Traffic Control (ATC) in the area. I booked a rental Cessna 172 Skyhawk at West Air Aviation in North Las Vegas airport (KVGT) and had an appointment with an instructor for a check ride.

KVGT from above.

On a Friday late afternoon, after having spent the day around Nellis AFB, taking pictures of military jets of all sorts involved in their last day of Red Flag simulated war, I met Jacob for my “flight review”. After one hour of questions/answers about air traffic rules in the US and flight safety, I climbed in the small Cessna 172 cockpit for a short flight.

The sun was really low and it was time for me to prove Jacob that I knew how to handle this wingy thing. Fortunately, I use to fly a Skyhawk at home so I behaved myself at the controls. Slow flight, steep turns and simulated loss of engine: I went through all before heading back to the airfield for pattern work.

After a couple of touch and goes, and the radio work with the tower, Jacob asked me to perform a full stop landing on runway 30L. Back to earth, I was now ready to take to the sky as Pilot in Command. The only unknown thing was how would I handle the Bravo airspace controllers of Las Vegas, as KVGT lays in an easier Delta airspace.

Next morning, I was on the tarmac for the walkaround of N9572H, my 42 years old Skyhawk for the day. No glass cockpit here, just the typical six-pack instruments with a trusty Garmin GNS430 GPS. I also had my iPad with a GPS antenna and a good nav app with all the latest charts in it.

At the commands of N9572H, waiting for departure

After a thorough preflight, I started up, listened to the ATIS and talked to Ground with a request to taxi for a VFR flight to Rachel and Lincoln airfield (1L1), with Mike information. No more info given to the controller about my intended and legal visit close to Area 51. Both 30L and 30R runways were in use and I soon taxied to the runup area. Radio was clear and I was now confident that I could handle the communications with McCarran or Nellis AFB controllers. After my routine tests, dutifully performed in accordance with the checklist, I switched to the Tower and requested take-off. Then again, directions were very concise but clear, and my radio ability reinforced my confidence.

Moments later, I’m lining up for a “rolling take-off” on 30L runway, an expedited departure. Full power, no flaps, 55 knots indicated, no alarm, 2300+ rpm checked, I’m rotating and the wheels leave the ground. I’m very concentrated as I inform the tower that I prefer a 350 heading rather than the proposed 280 heading (where do they want to send me ?). My right turn is approved and I’m soon handed over to Nellis Approach. I’m still below their airspace but I need to request a clearance before entering Bravo airspace. I quickly request it and I hear a fast “72H is cleared thru Bravo airspace” ; this is my passport for a further climb north of Las Vegas.

With the hot weather, the climb is slow and I’m passing Gass peak. Again, as I climb to 8,500 feet, I have no problem understanding the instructions from Nellis and I can copy the traffic information when they tell me that I’ll be overtaken by four F/A-18 Navy jets, 2,000 feet above. I will never see them, even with my cranium turning everywhere inside the Cessna cockpit. Shortly after that, I hear a “resume own navigation” and I settled onto a 8,500 feet cruise, still heading to 350, the direction of my first waypoint, Alamo.

After 10 minutes, Nellis Approach wants me to leave their frequency as I’m reaching the virtual fence of their airspace and I’m left with Los Angeles Center on 134.65. This will be a frequency on which no communication will ever be made with my small Cessna, as it’s overloaded with static. I hear some voices, request “flight following” 5 times and I’ll never get a clear reply.

After a while, I decide to climb a thousand feet more. This may improve radio reception and also give me a better view of the area beyond the long north-south Sheep Range to my left. 5 minutes later, I’m stable at 9,500 feet with, still, no radio contact with LA Center, but with a good view. I know that Blackjack control is the ATC facility managing the whole NTTR

As I’m overhead the Pahranagat lakes, I can see a big dry lake on my right, “Texas Lake” (Delamar), sometimes used as a staging area for aircraft forward operations from unprepared runways.

Texas Lake, named as such due to its shape.

A few minutes later, approaching Alamo I get my first good glimpse at Groom Lake and its buildings. With the naked eye, it’s impossible to distinguish anything other than these big hangars, small metallic dots reflecting the sun. I’ve got my camera on the passenger seat and I take some pictures with my 55mm, an easy lens for photographing while handling the yoke, but not big enough for the distance.

Groom Lake from Tikaboo Peak

I decide to turn left as soon as possible to get closer, while staying well out of the restricted area. I take a 270 heading, not directly towards the airbase as I don’t want to alarm the Blackjack air traffic controllers.

The flight track beside the restricted areas (blue track)

As I enter Tikaboo valley, with the straight ET highway (US 375) going north-west to Rachel and the Black Mailbox trail leading to the Area 51, I get a clearer view of the dry lake, the long runway and the various buildings.

Area 51, aka Groom Lake, as seen from over Tikaboo valley, 9500 feet AMSL

I’m elated as this is something I wanted to see by myself, somewhere I wanted to come to for the last 15 years. And being there in this little Cessna, flying alone and wherever I may think of, it’s a dream come true.

Same view as the previous one, cropped and postprocessed.

It’s now time to turn a bit right to skirt the north-east corner of R4808. Bald mountain to my left hides the dry lakebed, then the main airbase. These are the last seconds for me to have a look at this most secret airbase. I don’t circle in the area because I don’t want to draw more attention. Having an F-16 escorting me away may be great for pictures, but this could be a sign that the sheriff is waiting for me on the ground, so that’s the last thing I want for now.

Approaching Rachel, I recognize Coyote Summit where I spent two long days this same week. And I’m now eager to discover from the air all the geographical report points the military pilots use during their Red Flag sorties. Over Rachel, I’ve got now a good view of No Name mountain, west of Bald Mountain. This lone butte is a good mark showing the northern frontier of Area 51, or the Container as the military pilots call it. They also have no right to penetrate that area and if they do, they’re sent back to their home airbase the next day with a bad grade for their career.

North Groom range with Rachel and No name.

Farther west from No Name is Belted Peak, from where all the air-to-ground activity starts at Red Flag, and beyond it I can distinguish Quartzite Mountain, between the 74 ranges and the 75 ranges. I spent a lot of time studying the NTTR chart and reading about it ; that helps me identifying all these now.

Belted peak with Quartzite mountain behind it.

I now turn east to my destination for the morning, Lincoln Co airport (Panaca town). This brings me just south of that long north-south Worthington range.

Worthington mountains.

After a few minutes and an overhead of the Timpahute range mines, I overfly Irish mountain. This peak is used also by Blue Force pilots during Red Flag to report and prepare their collective and structures ingress towards the FEBA (or Forward Edge of the Battle Area).

Heading east, Approaching Irish peak, with its snowy summit.

I fly east over Hiko, hoping for a good tailwind on the return trip to Las Vegas. I’ve been having a headwind for the main 1.5 hours and the gas supply on the few Nevada airfields is scarce (Alamo and Lincoln has none for example). I now can see without any mistake a large gap in between two ridges : Pahroc Summit Pass, also  known as Student Gap among Red Flag pilots. This is the main passage point for Blue Force pilots when it’s “push time”. It’s a lot better to be here in my Cessna during the weekend than during a Red Flag weekday.

Heading east in view of Student Gap with US93 crossing it. Red Flag pilots usually fly it in the opposite direction, towards the main ranges.

After ten minutes, I see the small Lincoln Co airfield where I’ll have my lunch break, under the wing and in a 10 kts wind. The landing is uneventful and I find myself really alone on that parking. I’m amazed that nobody other than me, seems to enjoy the Nevada desert by plane, specially when you can be so close to where the most secret planes get tested.

The return trip is straight as gas is a bit of a concern for me, having already burnt 1.7 hours, with a total endurance of 4 hrs. 80 miles out of Las Vegas, I get my clearance for the Bravo airspace and after passing the mines and plants of Apex, north of Sin City, I request to overfly Nellis AFB. Nellis Approach grants it and I can approach the base at 6,500 feet. After some pictures, I’m asked to take a westerly heading to North Las Vegas and I comply.

These few seconds allowed me to get a good souvenir of the big military airbase: the cherry on the cake.

Still dozens of airplanes on the tarmac of Nellis, while Red Flag 17-2 is now just over.

Las Vegas as seen from the downwind leg of runway 30L at KVGT.

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Watch C-17, A-10 and HC-130J Aircraft Operate From Delamar Dry Lake Bed (the original emergency landing site for the X-15)

U.S. Air Force landed and took off from the Delamar Dry Lake Bed, the emergency landing site for the X-15.

C-17 Globemaster III airlifters from 57th Weapons Squadron, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from the 66th Weapons Squadron, HC-130J from the 34th Weapons Squadron as well as HH-60Gs belonging to the 66th Rescue Squadron took part in USAF Weapons School squadrons composite mission application and combat search and rescue operations at the Delamar dry lake bed on the NTTR (Nevada Test and Training Range).

Referred to as “Texas Lake” dry lake bed because of its resemblance to the state of Texas from the air, Delamar Lake landing strip was established in 1943 and, in the 1960s it was designated emergency landing sites for the North American X-15, a rocket-powered, missile-shaped manned aircraft operated by the U.S. Air Force and NASA capable to reach the edge of space at an altitude between 100,000 and 300,000 feet at speed exceeding 4,500 MPH (+7,270 km/h) .

In fact, the dry lake bed was located underneath the Delamar Dry Lake Drop Zone where the X-15s brought to the launch altitude of 45,000 feet under the wing of a B-52 bomber, were dropped at a speed of Mach 0.8.

The Delamar Lake Landing Strip consists of a 15,000 ft long runway; still, considered the lack of obstacles, aircraft can land in any direction.

Along with making “unprepared landing strip operations” training possible, dry lakes can be particularly useful also in case of emergency: the huge lakebed can minimize the damage to a plane forced to land there. Here is what happened when a B-1 Lancer performed a crash landing on the Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base in 1989. Here you can find a U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy airlifter making a successful emergency landing once again at Rogers Dry Lake in 2001.

 

Red Flag’s air combat maneuvering as seen from the Nevada Desert

Climb with us to the top of Coyote Summit to see some real Red Flag 17-2 action!

Red Flag is a major event in the military aviation community, known by both pilots, spotters and other fans. In a nutshell, it is the most important exercise in the world, both in terms of realistic training and participating units, and it’s held 4 times a year. It is staged from one of the world’s biggest and most famous airbases: Nellis Air Force Base, north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

Much has already been written about Red Flag so I won’t come back to the origins, dating back to the Vietnam War; nor will I describe the Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR), where the wargame takes place, nor the 64th Aggressor Squadron whose involvement as a realistic opposition makes Red Flag what it is.

Aircraft parked on the apron at Nellis AFB during RF 17-2

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Nevada, during Red Flag 17-2, and watch these machines around the base. The unit panel consisted mainly of F-16C squadrons :

  • the 55th FS from Shaw AFB with few jets from 77th and 79th FS;
  • the Alabama ANG 100th FS with two jets decorated with beautiful red Tuskegee tails;
  • the Colorado ANG 120th FS;
  • RNLAF 322nd sqn F-16s based in Leeuwarden, with some jets from Tucson (with mixed Arizona ANG and dutch markings).

The only other jet players were Spanish Ala 111 with their Eurofighters, supported by KC-130H from Ala 312, and 493rd FS Eagles from Lakenheath.

An Aggressor F-16 about to start “flexing” after take off

After two days of shooting tons of pictures (you can have a glimpse here), and wanting more than take-offs and landings at the base, I was looking for some more action. My plan was to go and see and hear the aerial war in the high desert of Nevada, the natural habitat of these metal birds.

The place is known as Coyote Summit and is a two hours drive from Sin City, heading north. Passing Hancok Summit on the E.T. Highway (also known as US 375), one can see the vastness of the USAF playground. On the left, there’s a trail leading to Area 51, invisible behind a small ridge. Thirty miles ahead is Rachel, and my plan is to stop at a small gap, up the road where most of the Blue players (Blue air are the participant units of Red Flag, while Red air with their Aggressor F-16s simulate the enemy) should fly by, low or high.

Around Coyote Summit

So here I am, on this clear Nevada weather morning, sitting on top of Coyote Summit, a 200 ft hill at the “gate” of the Range (aka the NTTR), and waiting.

This particular place is very well-known among spotters and by noon, we’re 5 people there, chatting about aviation, and catching in a hurry our cameras at every engine sound we hear above the wind.

At around 1PM, things start moving with 2 white pickups driving fast accross the desert south of our vantage point. They’re not going to set up a simulated Roland SAM as we initially believe. They just drop a guy alone in the bushes and carry on their drive and stay in a deep creek 2 miles away. Radio chatter begins, after a long silent morning, between the pickups and some range controller. We understand that they should have gone to “Red gate”, instead of “Blue gate”, but it seems to be a bit late to fix so the guy on the ground will stay there.

At 2:20PM, we hear some tactical comms on the radio: U.S. F-15Cs and Spanish Typhoons are setting up their Combat Air Patrol (CAP), well east of our position. Cylon flight will take New York CAP (should be above Hiko as we see the contrails) and Pulsar flight will go to Alaska CAP, above Worthington Peak.

F-15s contrailing above Coyote Summit

“Vul time” has been delayed because some players are still on the tarmac at Nellis, and now, according to “Words Bravo,” this Vul time is 2245Z (or 2:45PM). And that’s precisely then that we see “the Wall”, formed by 4 F-15Cs and their contrails, pushing west towards the Red players. The opposition is now just a pair of F-16Cs Aggressors. But soon, as the fight develops, more aircrafts from both sides will converge above Rachel and fight at high altitude.

To the merge!

An F-15 during the engagement

Shots are called on the radio, e.g. “Pulsar 1, Fox 3, bullseye 080 10 23 thousand!”
“Copy shot” says a controller, and a few seconds later some voice confirms the shots as kills (“Mig 3 dead”), or misses (“Pulsar 1, shot trashed).

A Spanish Typhoon contrailing at high altitude

The action never stops, some Aggressors come back (“Cylon 3, pop-up single, BRA 250, 15 miles, 26 thousand, regen”), some Blue players get shot, but mostly Red Air gets hurt and regens regularly. Spanish Typhoons and Dutch Vipers drop flares every now and then, calling out “Spike” or “SAM” based on what their RWR gear tells them.

Spanish Typhoons flaring

Plenty of flares were used during the mock air combat training we observed from Coyote Summit.

While these jets fight overhead, sometimes with an impressive double sonic boom, we can hear some choppers approaching low from the southeast.

MH-60 approaching

Two Navy MH-60S from HSC-21 turn for a few minutes before converging toward our lonely guy, not far from us.

I’m as close to the action as I’ll ever be and soon, we hear jets coming for help as the Sandy fighters used to fly in Vietnam. These are 2 F-16Cs from the 120th FS, with their Colorado ANG tails, circling about 1,000 feet above us and protecting what is now clearly a “downed pilot extraction.”

One of the choppers involved in the CSAR mission

Two F-16s circling above provided cover to the downed personnel extraction operation.

F-16 “Sandy”

This lasts for 10 minutes and the Vipers even simulate an attack on the hidden white pickups. The choppers take off with their precious cargo in and head to the southeast.

MH-60s egressing

The fighter jets activity now seems to subside a bit.

Some are already calling “RTB” (meaning Return to Base) and some sanitize the area while the strikers egress. I haven’t seen any striker as they must have flown through a route north of Rachel. It is also interesting to add that all the air combat seen today, at least the kills, were BVR (Beyond Visual Range) or nearly – no WVR (Within Visual Range) dogfights were spotted.

At about 4:15, two hours after the first thunderous noises, we hear on the frequency “All players, all players, knock it off, knock it off”: this is the end sign and everybody now RTB.

This was a long day and pretty intense afternoon which I’ll never forget. Hundreds of photos were taken. But what’s most important when coming here, is the possibility to listen to the air-to-air communications with a UHF scanner: the best way to be immersed into the action.

Thanks to Aviationist Todd Miller for all the precious info about aviation photography and Coyote Summit area.

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Amazing helmet cam video brings you in the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom aircraft flying over Grand Canyon

Awesome footage from aboard one the last USAF F-4s, as it flies in formation with another Phantom over the amazing scenery of the Grand Canyon.

The U.S. Air Force retired its last F-4 Phantom at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, on Dec. 21, 2016.

The final appearance of the mighty “Rhino” at an airshow occurred during Nellis Air Force Base’s Aviation Nation air show, on Nov. 12 and 13.

The following crazy cool video was filmed as the two aircraft that took part at the airshow, piloted by Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King and by Lt. Col. (Ret) Jim “WAM” Harkins, departed Nellis AFB to return to their homebase.

The footage, filmed with a camera attached to the flight helmet of WAM, lets you experience the afterburner formation takeoff, the rendezvous with a T-33 for short air-to-air photo session and then the flight over the amazing scenery of the Grand Canyon, as if you were strapped into the cockpit of one of the last USAF F-4s.

At 04:56 into the video you can also get a clear view of the Grand Canyon West Airport, close to the famous Skywalk.

H/T to Giulio Cristante for the link to the stunning AirshowStuff video!