We expect it to happen during combat, not at home, training to do battle in far away places. The death of a highly decorated and revered pilot is never an easy event to talk about, never mind being there when it happens. In my career as a police officer I have seen death in all its dark guises, and if I close my eyes and lower the barriers, they'll be there again like a never ending slide show. This trip to Red Flag was something I could never had expected.
I have been going to Rachel, Nevada for many years, usually alone, but sometimes with a friend to spend a day and evening watching the Red Flag exercises. Since I live in Las Vegas, just a few miles south of Nellis AFB, several day trips of 300+ miles has been the norm for me. It has been only the past four years that I have had the luxury of spending one or two weeks, several times a year observing the exercises from the comfort of my RV, either parked behind the Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada, or a few miles down the road, camped out at Coyote Pass. Since I am retired, most of the time I go alone as my wife Sandy is not thrilled about the heat either. And as she likes to say, it is a guy thing. I guess!
The daytime temperatures for July in Rachel, realistically, are close to 100F by early afternoon, but the evenings cool down quickly into the 80s late evening, and 60s by early morning.
Since I hate the heat, it is no fun for me to be standing out in the hot sun hoping for what I call hot action of jet aircraft engaging in dog fights or low level flying. I guess it is like fishing in that you never know what you will catch, and the weather, well, you live with it.
Since the invasion of Iraq, I have noticed that the Red Flag activities have diminished in intensity. Prior to the invasion, you could almost expect some kind of air combat activity throughout most of the day and evening. There was hardly a dull moment. I think those days are now gone. This last RF was very regulated, and at least from my point of view very boring for we ground observers, that was until last Wednesday, at 11:22 AM.
Having been staying in Rachel since July 24, and having seen very little of what I would normally expect in RF activities, I decided to move my RV and spend the next several days boondocking in the parking area at Coyote Pass. With my Honda generator running the air conditioner in my RV most of the day, I can sustain a reasonable level of comfort.
So I moved there last Tuesday, July 29th, setup the RV by early morning, and climbed the small hill to the first level observing area, where many of you park your vehicles. I didn't bother climbing to Coyote summit until I had a good idea there was something worth seeing. There wasn't. You could hear the sound of jets flying at altitudes of 20-30 thousand feet, but in the bright clear sky, I couldn't see a dam thing. Nothing flew in low that day. When darkness finally arrived, there was not even that much night activity where you could see the flares being dropped and the afterburners kick in. I enjoy the night action as you can at least follow the maneuvers and dogfights.
I should also mention that the published schedule as shown to us is not all that is going on during Red Flag. Several sonic booms late at night, and high flying aircraft detail the fact the there is a lot of action taking place all night long if you want to wait up for it. I have my limits, I need some sleep.
Wednesday, July 30th started out the same as all the other days. I drove up on the hill, parked my pickup so it would give me a bit of shade. I could hear some jets heading into the combat range, but again to high to see any of them. I was thinking to myself that maybe I would pack it in, and head home early, but that was all going to change.
I was standing looking around at the horizon, all 360 degrees of it, as I am constantly turning and looking because if a jet does come in low, it has come and gone in just a few seconds. I can't push any rewind button. You either get the shot (photographic) or you don't. I'm there for photographs, and never without my camera. I can't tell you how many times a jet has been coming from one direction while I am looking in the other direction, or when I let my guard down and start to daydream, that is why it is nice to have another person with you, another set of eyes to give you that edge.
The camera I use is a Nikon D-70 with a Nikor 80-400mm VR lens that can reasonably stabilize my hand movement as I spin around trying to get off shots as a low flying jet passes overhead a few hundred feet off the ground cruising at several hundred miles per hour. It is almost glued to my right hand for several hours. When the jets fly by, it is an adrenalin rush when it happens. It feeds my soul if you can believe that. It is why I am there.
But now, the overhead sun is approaching noon time, and I am lazily looking off into the distance toward Rachel when I notice a black cloud near the far distant mountains. I look and I look and then it dawns on me that maybe it is not a cloud but smoke. I grabbed my Cannon IS binoculars and focused in on the object and sure enough, it was smoke, almost mushroom in shape. I started asking myself what the hell is it. I didn't hear any noise, no crash, no explosion, everything was still, silent. I snapped off a photo of the smoke, and I waited. The smoke wafted some, drifted, and then started to dissipate as I snapped off several more photos in the course of a few minutes. I thought maybe some ordinance had been accidentally dropped. Then as the thought that a jet might have crashed, my scanners came alive with chatter. I have at least two scanners with me at all times, constantly scanning the frequencies published on Joerg's web site. At any one time there may be ten or more active frequencies broadcasting. I don't listen to the conversations as I do more for key words like, Blackjack, Roulette, "Striker one, you're dead", "Mig one, you're dead". They'll come at you fast and furious, but to my ears it is like music, because it tells me the game is on, and hopefully I'll see some aerial action.
I don't recall any particular conversation, but I could hear pilots, and various control and air bosses telling everyone to knock it off, hold all action. I could hear pilots saying they were orbiting the area. The chatter was fast and choppy, but I knew that something bad had happened, that something had gone terribly wrong. Then it finally sunk in that a plane had gone down. While I am listening to all this I am still looking at the cloud of smoke. I had a rough idea of where it might be coming from. Hell, I thought, I better get my butt over there.
It is around 22 miles from where I was parked on Coyote Pass to the junction of Rt 375, the E.T. Highway, and what I call Cedar Gate Rd. that leads into one of the back entrances to the Nevada Test Site. After driving faster than I should have, I came to a gravel parking area at the junction, and that is where I parked to see an eerie scene unfold.
Several miles W/NW of me and in the middle of an expanse of desert I could see black smoke rising from the earth. With my Cannon Binoculars I could see several vehicles leaving wakes of dust clouds heading toward the black smoke. A vehicle or two was already at the crash site.
It was official, a jet had crashed. While speeding to the crash site I could hear reports from the scanner that an aircraft was down and planes were orbiting the crash site.
From my vantage point I could not see any debris. As I learned later, the plane had crashed into a wash or gully below my line of sight. More vehicles arrived and eventually a rescue helicopter arrived. As the helicopter made its approach it passed over the crash site, and its prop wash momentarily fanned what was left of the burning flames, and more black smoke started to rise. You can see this occurring when viewing the sequence of still photos I took while it was all unfolding.
The helicopter headed for some vehicles where I think the pilots may have parachuted. As the chopper landed it kicked up an immense cloud of dust that must have really choked those waiting on the ground. the cloud took a few minutes to dissipate after the chopper shut down its engine.
As I watched, what I assumed might be the down aircraft's wingman, orbited around and around the crash site, like a bird mourning the loss of its companion, but hopelessly knowing that there is nothing that it could do. It orbited as long as it could and then left. I debated whether I should drive down to the site, but I decided against it. I figured it might be crawling with security, and anyway, I'd just be in the way. I watched for about and hour, and then I drove back to my RV. At that time I had no idea that anyone had died in the crash.
Thursday morning I drove back to where I was parked at the junction, and I could see more vehicles at the crash site. I drove down Cedar Gate Rd. for several miles to what is called Cedar Pipeline Ranch; from there I took one of several gravel roads that seem to head towards where the jet had crashed. I drove for several more miles until I came upon some vehicles. There were several pickups and a large eighteen wheeler truck with what appeared to be a refrigerated trailer attached. There was a security truck pulled across the road. I was just a couple of hundred feet from the vehicles. There were military personnel all over the place. I got out of my pickup as did the guard. I introduced myself as a civilian and told him why I was there, as I had seen the crash the day before. We chatted for a few minutes, and I think he started to get nervous, as he soon told me that it might be a good idea if I left as more personnel were coming in, meaning to me, more brass. As I left I took a few photos.
Prior to this visit I had learned that one pilot has died.
Friday morning I went back to the junction and I could see that more equipment had been brought in. I could see a piece of heavy duty earth moving equipment, and what looked like a large tan colored tarp or tent covering something. Was it just a tent or what was left of the jet? I still don't know. You can see the tent in some of my photos. I drove around a bit looking for a closer vantage point, but didn't really find any, so I left and went back to my RV, packed everything, and drove home.
I still don't know how the plane crashed, not what caused the crash but how did it impact the ground. Did it go straight in or did it crash on its belly? Did the pilots eject from a high altitude or a low altitude? Were they both able to eject? I don't have any answers. When someone can get to the crash site, maybe we'll have an idea. I won't be able to get back there for the next two weeks.
I will venture a guess, and I may be very wrong, but from the little I could see I don't think they had a safe amount of time to eject. That they may have been flying low and something went terribly wrong.
Before I end this report there is this little aside. Monday, the 28th, two days before the crash I decided to spend the afternoon at Cedar Pipeline Ranch observing Red Flag. I stayed for the afternoon and could hear the jets overhead, but I could not see a dam one of them. I thought to myself that I was not coming back here for the rest of Red Flag because nothing was happening. It was then that I decided to pack up my RV and drive to Coyote Pass the next day, being Tuesday. The irony is that if there was some observable air combat activity that Monday, I would have come back the next several days. I would have been there at the time of the crash, just a few miles away. I might have been the first responder on the scene.