A mystery aircraft crashed close to Area 51 last week. The pilot, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, later died. The type of aircraft remains a mystery, we speculate on what it might have been.
Last week a pilot was killed in a plane crash at the Nevada Test and Training Range, the Air Force said. According to the official release, the aircraft was assigned to Air Force Materiel Command and was flying a training mission. Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, 44, died from injuries sustained in the crash, which took place on 5th September at 6 p.m.
“Information about the type of aircraft involved is classified and not releasable,” according to Maj. Christina Sukach, Chief of Public Affairs for the 99 Air Base Wing at Nellis. The crash occurred a day before a pair of A-10s crashed at the same training range.
The majority of classified aircraft that have been revealed over the last forty years have been low- or reduced observability designs; aircraft with reduced conspicuity, especially to radar. This have included the Lockheed Have Blue (a technology demonstrator that led to the F-117), Lockheed F-117, Northrop Tacit Blue (a technology demonstrator that influenced the B-2), Northrop B-2, the US Army’s (still secret) stealth helicopter, the Boeing Bird of Prey and the Lockheed RQ-170. The external geometry of a stealth aircraft is not the whole story (much of stealth is materials) but does reveal a great deal. Note that in the case of the F-117 and the B-2, technology demonstrator preceded the operational aircraft. Reconnaissance aircraft also tend to lurk in the shadows. If the aircraft was involved in stealth research (and should be noted that USAF said it was a ‘training’ flight) then it could be in the exotic field of visual stealth. The science of invisibility has long been of interest to USAF and there have been several significant steps forward in this field in recent years.
Another large aircraft programme at an early stage, and perhaps requiring testbed aircraft is the US’ sixth generation fighter. The B-21 bomber is also in development. The next generation US fighter will be tailless to offer a greater degree of stealth against low bandwidth radars, it is possible that the mystery aircraft is a technology testbed for the 6th Gen fighter and features a new tailless design concept. Again though, the word ‘training’ – if taken on face value- implies an operational aircraft.
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It also possible that the aircraft may have been a F-117, though why this would have been kept secret is questionable (though rumours of a the officially retired F-117 fleet being loaned to a specific Middle Eastern client nation have long been rumoured). At least two F-117 are still airworthy and were photographed flying in 2016.
Other classified aircraft have included USAF’s fleet of captured Soviet designed fighters operated to train pilots in countering threats by the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron. An officially unacknowledged Su-27 has been photographed training with F-16s.
Triangular and cranked arrow-head designs have been reported over the last ten years. One of the latter being photographed in 2014. Hypersonic aircraft are another area of interest.
Schultz was a combat veteran and test pilot with over 2,000 hours flying hours. His flying experience was largely with fast jets, mostly in the air-to-ground role, which may offer a clue. He had flown the F-35 and CF-18, Canada’s variant of the F/A-18 Hornet, and the F-15E, in which he flew more than 50 close air support missions in Afghanistan. Perhaps significantly he performed systems engineering for the Airborne Laser programme.
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While initial speculation pointed to the possibility of the crash featuring the controversial F-35 or F-22 this has since been denied. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, ruled out the idea that aircraft involved may have been an F-35 Lightning II.
We don’t know
There is currently not enough information to work out what the classified aircraft was.
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Some have noted that classified aircraft in the past have had cover stories (a crashed F-117 was reported as an A-7) and it is perhaps odd that this one does not. It has been suggested this supports the idea that it was actually a F-35, or F-35 in secret configuration.
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