Team Givan's thoughts go out to the family of Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, the pilot killed in the crash. Hopefully the Air Force has felt they can tell them enough about the circumstances of his death to bring them understanding and closure.
Cover image by Maj. Hank 'Hankster' Blasiak, CAF. (C) 1992 Ukranian Flying Club. Via Phil Drake.
According to the Annapolis Capital Gazette, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz was flying an unspecified plane on Sept 5, 2017 over the Nevada Test and Training Range when it crashed at 6PM, killing him. The location was roughly 100mi NW of Nellis Air Force Base . In a followup email, Military.com was told that unspecified plane's type was "classified and not releasable." Further followup confirmed it was not an F-35, a plane Schultz was known to have flown on as a test pilot .
Questions abound about the situation, not least of all because Area 51 is roughly 80mi NW of Nellis AFB and even though the crash occurred on Tuesday the 5th, it was not publicized until Friday the 8th . Theresa having read Annie Jacobsen's excellent Area 51, and Team Givan having working in a Cold War focused museum, our curiosity was piqued.
A common practice for Area 51 projects includes night testing to avoid the ever-present plane spotters. Assuming that the Air Force is not being purposefully vague or misleading about specifics in the press release, the sky would still have been light at 6PM. There also would be a nearly full moon, another no-no for deep black projects doing flight testing.
Certainly any aircraft taking off before 6PM would have done so in all-revealing daylight. Thus, the classified aircraft is probably a familiar one, whose program would not be at risk if observed. This leaves two options: a familiar airframe flying for classified reasons or a familiar airframe with a classified payload.
I think the most obvious candidate for a familiar airframe that would be flying in that area but as part of a black program would be the "retired" F-117, which is known to still fly at times . Since it's a single seat jet aircraft it would also fit nicely with Schultz's F-35 experience. The USAF reference to a "training mission" could refer to his familiarizing with the aircraft or the use of a payload. Since its stealth would be ruined by opening the payload bay doors, it seems unlikely to this author that any specific payload would benefit from testing on the F-117. Two more likely candidates are tests of radar absorbent coatings (the F-117 would provide a well-known baseline without needing to use operational aircraft) or tests of fly-by-wire control schemes for the B-21 Raider without having to use or expose a prototype (both are probably inherently unstable).
Alternatively, a foreign-made fast-mover would be a candidate aircraft. That Sukhois fly in the area is known, even if not officially recognized . Perhaps the it was referred to as classified to save face over the loss. (This author considered a newer variant, such as an Su-30 variant from India, Malaysia, or Indonesia, loaned to the US as part of an exchange, but all would be visibly different in the daylight from the known Su-27s).
Given tensions between North Korea and the United States, maybe a MiG-29 crashed. The MiG-29S models in the United States have a murky disposition, with some probably having been scrapped or mothballed and the rest on display . Phil Drake reported a spotting as late as 2009, also at dusk no less .
North Korea operates the MiG-29SE, the export version of the MiG-29S . The crash of a Fulcrum could be classified because the USAF has adopted an Israeli-like ambiguity towards the possession and use of these aircraft, to save face, or to keep preparations hidden from North Korea. This theory has the added weight that F-35s are currently near North Korea and Schultz had experience in the F-35 . He could have been training with an eye towards understanding the aircraft better from the perspective of an F-35 pilot. He could also have been training to participate in exercises that pitted some USAF inventory against Fulcrums with the pilots in the MiGs experienced in F-35s to exploit their characteristics. Finally, it can't be ignored that while the US has been hesitant to arm Ukraine over its dispute with Russia, it isn't hard to imagine the US secretly providing training--and Ukraine operates MiGs .
It is doubtful that the United States could secretly acquire a Chinese J-10 since it is the only user, much less a J-20 or Russian T-50 (the latter two operate in far too low of numbers to facilitate a secret transfer). However, a JF-17B is an outside possibility. Nominally allied with Pakistan, the USAF could have worked out a deal to borrow the airframe and considered its resemblance to an F-16 or Mirage to be close enough to risk daylight flying...or even worth sending a single if spotted. Its composite construction and diverterless supersonic intakes could yield insight into China's technological progress on aircraft design.
I'm not convinced that a familiar airframe flying a classified payload would alone merit the Air Force's response. While it's possible, I suspect it is the airframe itself or that the payload is indicative of the airframe that is classified.
Ignore the full moon and broad daylight implied by a 6PM flight on September 6th, and what else could Schultz have been flying? These are the less likely aircraft, in this author's opinion, but are always interesting to speculate about.
First, a B-21 Raider. With the appearance of the flying wings over Texas and Wichita , it became apparent there may have been airframes prior to the selection of Northrop Grumman's proposal. Perhaps Schultz was in a training mission in one of these and the other pilot (presumably two crew would be needed) safely ejected. Alternatively, it was a subscale test article in support of the program, with only one pilot necessary.
Next, the Lockheed-Boeing B-21 proposal. Since the two flying wings previously mentioned already exist, the losing version could have been retired to Area 51 (or both if they were one-off/two-off airframes). Again, there would probably be two pilots, and the second safely ejected.
Third, Lockheed's SR-72/TRX. Perhaps Skunk Works has progressed farther on its proposed SR-71/U-2 follow-ons and Schultz was training in one or the other.
Some other penetrating ISR--since a manned platform is one of the most oft-cited gaps in the USAF inventory, but there has been little work to procure one, the existence of a classified platform has been theorized.
An aircraft or airframe equipped to test technologies like directed energy weapons or pulse detonation engines perhaps?
Finally, no article on Area 51 cannot go without mentioning the possibility that the aircraft in question is the Aurora.