When the news broke that an aircraft had crashed near Area 51, it set tongues wagging. What could the classified aircraft have been? Why did the military wait several days to announce the crash? Since the test pilot who was tragically killed had experience in the F-35, people were quick to wonder if that troubled program had just run into more trouble.
The Air Force was willing to dispel the last notion, adding that it wasn’t an F-35, perhaps to avoid any more bad press for the program. That announcement successfully shifted the narrative to two points: first, the incredible life of Lt. Col. Schultz, the test pilot flying the aircraft and second, what he was flying.
Most rundowns have focused on known aircraft, and rightly so. Any speculation on unknown aircraft has far more room and far more risk to become ungrounded in reality and, ultimately, very little reward as it could be decades before there is confirmation of the type, if any. Also, if the Air Force is not being disingenuous in its announcements, Schultz was flying at 6PM. At that time, on that date, the sky would have been light. Deep black programs at Area 51 typically fly at night, and may even avoid moonlit nights to further deter sightings. September 5th was only a few days after a full moon. Thus whatever aircraft Schultz was flying, it was acceptable to fly during daylight or dusk hours.
This probably indicates an airframe that, while its use was classified, is not unknown to spotters. The USAF might not acknowledge having the craft, for one reason or another, but it is rightly suspected to exist or has been previously seen. Hence, suspicion has focused on several aircraft right away: the F-117, the Su-27 Flanker, or a test article associated with the B-21 Raider program. The last has only been seen in model and concept form, although the sighting of mysterious flying wings fuel speculation that it has been partially seen.
Ignoring the Area 51 hype and focusing on an aircraft with a semi-classified history with the Air Force and which represents an extremely likely threat brings another aircraft to light: the MiG-29 Fulcrum. The Air Force has had experience with the type via post-unification Germany. In 2009, Phil Drake, an aircraft spotter, photographed a MiG-29 and F-16 training together near Groom Lake. Tellingly, the United States purchased 21 of the MiG-29S version from Moldova, which have mostly disappeared into various laboratories and other exploitation centers.
Schultz had experience flying both single-seat aircraft (the F-35) and double-engine aircraft (the F-15E), so a Fulcrum is not out of the question. The Air Force claims he was on a training mission, which would be expected with familiarizing himself with the foreign aircraft. Further, after this article was written, rumors appeared via Aviation Week that Schultz was the leader of the "Red Hats" squadron who are suspected of operating foreign aircraft. This supports the idea that he was flying a foreign aircraft, and, if he were flying a training mission with a familiar airframe but classified payload the Air Force would have no reason to classify the airframe unless the payload were indicative of only one type of aircraft.
Why should we suspect the plane in question is specifically a Fulcrum? Because North Korea not only operates the aircraft, they operate the export version of the MiG-29S. These MiG-29SE are suspected to be based out of Sunchon and, at times, Onchon or Kwail. As the image below shows, a basic combat radius of 444mi allows these bases to cover all of North Korea. Assuming loiter and prep time decreases that radius, but they could still cover Pyongyang (the red star), Yongbyong (North Korea’s primary Nuclear Facility, the black icon), and several known missile launch sites (yellow icons). The radii for Sunchon’s aircraft are shown in shades of blue, those for Onchon’s aircraft in grey.
These aircraft are the most potent in North Korea’s Air Force. Aided by ground radar like the P-18 (chosen here because of its role in downing the F-117 over Serbia), whose detection range is shown in red, they would present quite a gauntlet to intruding aircraft heading for high value targets. If a B-2 flying along the yellow path were detected at maximum range, it would have 20 minutes before reaching its target, never mind exiting the airspace. For the F-22 at maximum Mach, this is closer to 10 although it also risks detection by the MiG's IRST. For the former, an encounter with a MiG-29 vectored by ground radar is a nightmare; for the latter, a hairy distraction which could imperil a sneak attack.
The United States acquired the technical details of the Fulcrum’s original radar, but North Korea’s MiG-29SE operate the replacement to the compromised system. Plus, theory doesn’t always match experience, so operating a MiG’s radar could, all these years later, still produce useful information. This is especially true if it’s being tested against an airframe that didn’t exist when the imported Fulcrum’s was tested.
Schultz may have been flying an imported MiG-29S to assess its capabilities against various stealthy systems that could be discreetly flown from Nellis Air Force Base (F-22s or F-35s), Tonopah Test Range Airport, or Groom Lake (B-2s, F-117s, the flying wings, etc). That Fulcrums are still operated is classified, hence the Air Force’s response, but they have been sighted and the Moldovan examples’ dispositions tracked, so it would be acceptable to train in the daylight. Schultz's position (100 miles northwest of Nellis) puts him close to Groom Lake, fueling the Area 51 speculations. It also puts him close to another feature of interest: the “Korean” airfield on Tonopah Test Range.
Besides having a design similar to Korean airports, there is a supposedly operational S-300 SAM system located there. While North Korea does not operate the S-300, they do operate the S-200 and an indigenous SAM that is potentially related to and suspected to be on par with the S-300. This setup (S-200s and S-300s on the ground and MiGs overhead) would partially simulate the overlapping air defenses of the Hermit Kingdom. Additional observations could be taken by Groom Lake and Tonopah’s various radars and ECM systems to help refine an attack.
Attack on what, though? Given the Trump administration’s rather schizophrenic statements on the use of diplomacy in disarming North Korea; the threat of reliving “Scud hunting” with road mobile ICBMs in North Korea; the devastation that would result from a ground war; China’s resistance to American troops coming north on the Korean peninsula; and the US’s practice of “decapitation strikes,” then the simulated attack would probably be on North Korea’s command structure if not Kim Jong-Un himself.
With a President who may favor action over talking anxious to see North Korea’s nuclear program “solved,” it’s not unreasonable to believe that planners would respond to presidential pressure by suggesting that toppling Kim Jong-Un would collapse North Korea’s willingness to use those nuclear weapons without the risks of all-out war against a nuclear state capable of threatening allies and the homeland—it’s also plausible to believe that there are exercises practicing just such scenarios on a regular basis.
All this is a dark assumption for why a MiG would be operating near Groom Lake, seeming to presage war or indicate a strong willingness to make it. Perhaps Schultz was flying an Su-27 in routine exploitation testing. So far commenters appear to favor the Su-27 as it was spotted most recently (2016 vs 2009), but since Flankers are legendary in aviation circles it is hard to imagine this hasn't biased that theory. There could be cooperative work with Ukraine going on at Groom Lake, where the Red Hats fly Flankers against Fulcrums flown by Ukrainian pilots as a half-way step to arming the Ukraine.
Both that theory and the theory that Schultz died flying a MiG-29 in support of a program assessing stealthy aircraft’s vulnerabilities against a North Korean-esque air defense system as they practiced a decapitation strike has the benefit of being timely with current events, but which is correct will have to wait until the USAF finally, if ever, says more.