Let’s Talk About The Reports And Theories Circulating Around What Crashed Near Area 51

We breakdown the speculation swirling around the tragic and mysterious death of an elite USAF test pilot.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Air Force photo


Last Friday we reported on the tragic and mysterious death of one of the USAF's elite test pilots somewhere on the sprawling Nevada Test and Training Range between Tonopah Test Range Airport and Area 51. The fatal incident was strange to begin with as it was reported days after it occurred, meanwhile two A-10 Warthogs crashed on the range a day later and that accident was quickly disclosed. Then the fact that the Air Force would not identify the aircraft type in its belated media releases turned the event from strange into a full on mystery. 

Speculation of what aircraft was lost in the incident began picking up steam after our initial report. Over the weekend the top officer in the United States Air Force commented that the aircraft involved in the mishap definitely wasn't an F-35. The public affairs operation at Nellis AFB also focused their statement to make it clear that Lt. Col. Eric "Doc" Schultz—a decorated combat and test pilot and the 28th pilot to fly the F-35—was flying a "classified aircraft."

Although the loss of such a skilled test pilot is emotionally shocking, really none of the secrecy surrounding it should come as much of a surprise. Nearly two entire air bases, along with secretive operations at satellite installations throughout the region, are dedicated to the clandestine development of new high-end air combat capabilities and aircraft. If the USAF can find a way not to disclose one of these programs after a major mishap it won't, and in this case the remote crash didn't demand such openness. 

Lt. Col. Eric Schultz at the controls of and F-35. He was just the 28th pilot to fly the F-35, a task that seemed to end around 2013. From then on it seems as if he began working in the clandestine flight test world., Lockheed Martin

Area 51 in particular didn't earn its secretive reputation for nothing and the base has continued to grow dramatically over the years. In fact, the installation is so busy that just having a family occasionally access their own historic property within line of sight of its runways is no longer acceptable—not just on secrecy grounds but on fiscal ones as well. 

The Air Force claims that millions of dollars are racked up as a result of delayed flight testing when the family is present on their property and that ongoing operations are also a safety concern with them present. All this, along with an outlandish history between the family and the federal government, has resulted in a bitter and incredibly bizarre land dispute case.

Over the years open source intelligence has also given us some insight as to the volume of classified programs being executed in and around area 51 at any given time, and that number seems to be closer to triple digits than otherwise, with large but murky operational budgets set aside for the facilities that host them. We also know of a handful of aircraft that have escaped Area 51's classified abyss over its sixty plus year past, like the U-2, A-12, F-117, Tacit Blue, Bird of Prey, and RQ-170

These aircraft were largely game changing and history making vehicles that helped to significantly mold not just the future of air combat but also the course of human events. These amazing planes represent just the tip of the metaphorical classified iceberg of projects that have been tested clandestinely over and around the Nevada Test and Training Range complex over the years.

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With this background in mind, let's take a look at a few of the most prominent theories that have been circulating regarding the identity of the classified aircraft involved in the deadly crash on September 5th, 2017. 

Red Hats

The most popular theory is that Schultz died flying a foreign fighter aircraft while working for the current iteration of the historically famous "Red Hats" squadron that secretly flies foreign tactical military aircraft for test and training purposes. These aircraft, which include MiG-29s and Su-27s, are flown not just to better understand their unique strengths and weaknesses, but also to test new sensors against them, as well as to support Weapons School classes at Nellis AFB, and to help train USAF adversary pilots. 

Area 51 and Tonopah Test Range Airport's affiliation with the flying of foreign military hardware dates back nearly half a century and the fact that these aircraft continue to have a presence over the National Test and Training Range today has been well known and documented. 

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The Red Hats are known to operate out of a set of hangars known as the "Red Hat Hangars" or "Red Square" located at the northern portion of Area 51's sprawling apron. But still, the Red Hats' mission remains a closely guarded compartmentalized program within the USAF. 

So called Foreign Materiel Exploitation (FME) programs are run by the Air Force Materiel Command—the same command that Nellis AFB officially says "owned" the aircraft that crashed last Tuesday along with most other test aircraft in the USAF's inventory. FME programs are sensitive by their very nature as they are meant to gather hands-on intelligence on enemy hardware and even put it through trials against U.S. gear. But since decades of Cold War history about FME and related foreign aircraft testing and operations were declassified around the end of the last decade, FME operations have become far more widely known, at least unofficially. 

A MiG-23 Flogger flown by the 4477th Test And Evaluation Squadron flies over the Nellis Range Complex during the 1980s. The aircraft was part of a then highly classified program known as "Constant Peg.", USAF

Defections and international espionage were originally the ways the U.S. got its hands on the latest Soviet aircraft. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, access to large amounts of once prized Soviet fighters become a possibility, and in the case of Moldova's nuclear capable MiG-29Cs, it was even a good non-proliferation play. 

Even though the Pentagon supposedly had its hands on Su-27s since at least the early 1990s—they have been flying over Groom Lake for decades since—today, with an active private fighter aircraft market that specializes in Soviet era hardware, snapping up even fourth generation Russian fighters can be far less of cloak and dagger affair than it once was. 

Case in point—two cream-puff Ukrainian Su-27s were put up for sale in the U.S. only to disappear to some undisclosed "wink-wink" buyer. It is widely assumed that the US government bought the aircraft through a third party shell corporation. 

And why wouldn't they considering the ongoing mission of the Red Hats? If anything else, the idea that the Air Force continues to need fresh Flanker airframes long after the type was fully tested and its qualities well understood is an indication that the Red Hats' mission is not only alive and well, but that it is likely less test oriented and more training centric today. 

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After being officially disestablished as the 6513th test squadron in the late 1980s, the Red Hats became part of 413th Flight Test Squadron's "Detachment Three" that operated out of Groom Lake from 1992 to 2004. The 413th "Bombcats" were headquartered out Edwards North Base, which itself is a highly secretive installation. The 413th had an electronic warfare mission, with the sub-unit handling those capabilities at Groom Lake and Tonopah being called the "Nutcrackers." But Electronic Warfare seems to have been just a portion of their responsibilities, with the Red Hats also falling under their purview during that time.

Note the Nutcrakcers' patch with 4 red stars and one white star symbolizing Area 51, and the three blue stars symbolizing Detachment Three., Official unit art via Trevor Paglen

The 413th was officially disestablished in 2004 but the unit has carried on at least partially under the more general "Electronic Warfare Directorate" Moniker. The Red Hats are thought to have gone on as an unnumbered and undisclosed unit within Detachment Three of the Air Force Test Center (AFTC) and seem to be also closely associated with 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, Detachment 3 which is officially based at Nellis AFB. According to the USAF the detachment's mission is fairly clear:

"Detachment 3 of the 53d TEG at Nellis AFB is the representative for ACC interests in FME testing with AFMC. The detachment’s primary mission is to ensure USAF combat aircrews are prepared to fight with the latest knowledge available through FME. It maintains an active involvement with AFMC and other agencies such as the National Air Intelligence Center and the Adversary Tactics Group for data analysis and to ensure FME test results are reported to the CAF. In addition, Detachment 3 is the liaison for FME training conducted on the Nellis Range Complex, providing procedures and acting as subject matter experts on key systems."

Aviation Week's Guy Norris filed a report on Monday, September 11th, 2017 stating that sources told him Schultz was not only flying a foreign jet belonging to the Red Hats when he died, but that he was actually the commander of the unit. This could very well be true or it could be completely untrue, not that Norris would intentionally lead any readers astray, we just don't know the source, and frankly, when it comes to the murky world of classified programs and aircraft, the self perpetuating rumor mill can infect even the best of sources. One also can't discount the disinformation operations that have helped keep Area 51's flying tenants largely anonymous for so many years.   

It could even be that one part of this report is true but not the other. For instance, maybe Schultz was a commander of a secret flying unit, but that unit flies a classified operational or semi-operational platform instead of the foreign aircraft flown by the shadowy Red Hats. 

Maybe another reason why many seem to jump to the theory that the mysterious aircraft involved in the crash was a foreign fighter is because a similar and quite famous situation has occurred before. Lt. Gen. Robert M. Bond, vice commander of the Air Force Systems Command, died while flying what in 1984 was described by Air Force officials as ''an Air Force specially modified test craft.'' 

Media reports shortly after the crash said it was in fact a MiG-23 Flogger being evaluated by Air Force pilots. Those reports ended up being true, and this was long before America's classified FME programs of the Cold War were officially disclosed.

F-15 with a MiG-23 during the Constant Peg program., USAF

At the time the Air Force had serious fears that the media's investigations into the crash could out the then highly classified stealth F-117 Nighthawk program that was also operating out of both Area 51 and Tonopah Test Range Airport. Two and a half decades later the whole story of General Bond's death could be told along with those of the various units and programs that bravely tested Soviet fighters during the Cold War. This history has been accounted for in multiple books and the Red Hats and Red Eagles' exploits remain top of mind in modern military aviation lore. 

F-117 Nighthawk

The legendary F-117 Nighthawk is still flying out of Tonopah Test Range Airport today and although that fact is public knowledge, the USAF does not want to openly admit it. Some think the aircraft that crashed was an F-117 and that would seem like a possibility at first glance but I have written about the F-117's past and present extensively and have heard one constant message from various sources regarding the jet's ongoing flight program, and it relates to who flies them. 

Supposedly the only remaining active F-117 "Bandits" are contractors. In other words, no active USAF pilots, test or otherwise, are flying the famous "black jets." Instead ones working for the F-117's original manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, are flying them. 

Maybe this has changed, which is possible, or maybe it wasn't the case at all in the first place and USAF pilots still do fly F-117s. But either way, under current plans, the F-117s will be pulled from storage at a rate of four per year, demilitarized and likely disposed of.


So could Schultz have perished while at the controls of one of the USAF's nearly 40 year old and largely mothballed stealth attack jets? We can't say definitely no, but if the F-117s are primarily flown by contractors, that would be quite unlikely. Also, the USAF may keep the F-117s flight operations quiet, but the fact that the jets are stored at Tonopah is no secret and calling the F-117 a "classified aircraft" following the death of an accomplished test pilot doesn't make much sense at all. 

Future Bomber

Others seem to be drawn to the conclusion that an aircraft related to the B-21 program—formerly the B-3, Next Generation Bomber, and LRS-B—was lost in the mishap that took Eric Schultz's life. By nearly all accounts, no B-21 aircraft are flying today, but at least one technology demonstrator—supposedly of Northrop Grumman origin—was built for America's future stealth bomber ambitions in the mid to late 2000s. Lockheed may have also fielded a self-funded demonstrator using an existing airframe and/or components as well. 

A technology demonstrator does not have to be the same size or have anywhere near the same capabilities as a loosely associated operational bomber partially derived from it. It would be used to prove new design elements and manufacturing techniques, as well as to test advanced sensors, communications and other capabilities. This in turn would reduce risk, help to better define a capabilities requirements list, and generally help make the case for a full-up follow-on procurement contract. That contract ended up turning into the B-21 Raider which is being developed now by Northrop Grumman. 

It remains unclear just how much presence the B-21 program has at Area 51 today. Hiding the bomber's initial flight testing at Area 51 may be possible for a short period of time—it would at least make it impossible for anyone to get a close-up view of the new super weapon—but more advanced testing with multiple early production aircraft will almost certainly occur at Edwards South Base which has been going through major remodeling in advance of an "upcoming program or programs." Still, key technologies directly related to the B-21 could and likely are being flown on surrogate test aircraft out at Area 51. 

B-21 Rendering, Northrop Grumman

Some close watchers of air traffic in and around Area 51 over at Reddit's Special Access forum noted the massive and highly unusual drop off of Janet flights bringing workers in and out of the base following last week's mystery crash. What were normally 30 flights a day were cut down by a factor of 10 in the days following the incident. Some have speculated that this was indicative of a huge program operating at the base being put on hold temporarily following the mishap. The B-21 is the largest known classified program underway today. 

On the other hand, maybe this had to do with security issues following the crash or maybe it was due to an operational pause being executed by the installation's commander. Also, the USAF's official statement said the location of crash was roughly 100 miles north of Nellis AFB. This could have been a very rough number based on the approximate location of the range complex and the shadowy bases located there.  Maybe the crash occurred at Area 51 itself and needed to be cleaned up before normal operations could resume. Frankly we just don't know for sure the reasoning behind the drop in flights, although we can safely assume it's related to the crash.

The fact that Schultz was a fighter pilot may make the idea of him working on a bomber development program sound off, but the very nature of the test pilot's job is to be able to competently test various types of airframes, not just the ones they are most familiar with. Additionally, technology demonstrators and surrogate test aircraft may have more in common with tactical aircraft than with lumbering bombers and can be comparatively sub-scale in size. 

Still, even with all this in mind, we have little if no real evidence that anything associated with the B-21 program was involved with this incident. 

The best theory is that we just don't know, and that's largely the idea 

Red Hats fighters, F-117s, and possibly next generation bomber related assets all represent just a portion of the aircraft that call lands north of Creech AFB in the southern Nevada desert home. By almost all indications, there are many compartmentalized flying programs underway at any given time. The aircraft associated with these programs may not fly on a constant basis like their operational "white world" counterparts, but flights are conducted often—both during daytime and nighttime hours depending on the conditions, the type of program, and where it is in its development cycle. 

Although the idea of the existence of cutting-edge manned tactical test aircraft seems somewhat passé in an era of increasingly unmanned warfare, the USAF seems to be wanting to continue its manned tactical aviation tradition into the future to some degree, for better or for worse. And for testing purposes—like for technology demonstrator aircraft and surrogate test platforms, manned aircraft still have their advantages over unmanned ones. 

Complex drones have a larger payoff and reach greater efficiency on the back half of their development curves than manned assets. In fact, it is overtly common to test flying systems such as sensors that are intended for unmanned aircraft on manned aircraft until they are ready to be fully integrated onto said drone. 

Also, the existence of a small fleet or two of highly classified operational manned platforms is entirely possible if not probable as well. I have talked about all these possibilities and more at great length in more posts than I can link. Such a unit would require top pilots and a uniquely capable commander to execute what would likely be a very dangerous and dynamic mission set. In other words, not just experimental aircraft and Russian Sukhois may be zipping around over and around Area 51. The F-117 force lived at Tonopah Test Range Airport for nearly a decade in such a secretive yet operational state. Even the Black Hawk helicopters that enabled the raid against Osama Bin Laden were flying out of Area 51 and its surroundings before they were used for the mission.

The ever expanding Area 51., Google Earth
Tonopah Test Range Airport. , Google Earth

Suffice it to say that Area 51 and Tonopah Test Range Airport have many untold secrets to give up. It's widely thought that throngs of developmental aircraft from past programs are still stored there (see Dyson's dock) or are buried in the desert nearby. These bases have unique amenities that draw secretive programs of all sizes to their runways and hangars. This diversity and temporary nature of operations also helps with the base's ability to maintain their visitor's anonymity. Few if any aircraft destined for normal operations fly from their runways forever. The steady rollover of programs executed and test planes and systems flown makes pinning down details of current activities at these installations very difficult. 

And many of these diverse and highly classified programs need highly capable and trustworthy pilots. 

Just look at what is known about Lt. Col. Eric Schultz's background. He was an incredibly talented and wickedly smart guy with a diverse flying and engineering background. It is hard to imagine what program couldn't benefit from his expertise. From his obituary:

"Prior to joining the military, he was the senior scientist and business development manager at the Pratt & Whitney Seattle Aerosciences Center, and a rotary wing flight test engineer at the Naval Air Warfare Center. He achieved six degrees including a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from California Institute of Technology and a Masters of Business Administration from Penn State University."

Schultz also was also involved in systems engineering for the Airborne Laser program. Solid-state lasers and how they integrate into an aircraft's tactical capabilities are now an attainable leading edge of air combat technology for both strategic and tactical airborne platforms. Future fighter aircraft, manned or otherwise, will almost certainly be armed with them at least for defensive purposes. Considering that testing is ongoing in the unclassified world for various airborne tactical laser systems, imagine what could very well be under development in the classified world at sites like Area 51. 

In the end I would posit that it is too early to claim to know exactly what Schultz was flying out on the Nellis ranges last Tuesday evening or why he was flying it. He could have very well been the boss of the Red Hats flying a Su-27 to its max against an American fighter. On the other hand, he could have been trolling around in a highly exotic technology demonstrator with anemic performance when things went terribly wrong. 

Eventually we may find out what really happened to Lt. Col. Eric "Doc" Schultz and why. But until more definitive information becomes available we can only be certain of one thing—the decorated test pilot who took a winding and tough road to accomplish his dreams was doing what many of us and even other fighter pilots only dream of, and something that he clearly believed in dearly. And for that we can all be eternally grateful.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com