It has now been widely reported that Lt Col Eric ‘Doc’ Schultz, a highly-experienced US Air Force test pilot, was tragically killed in a crash on September 5.
First and foremost, we wish to offer our sincere condolences to Lt Col Schultz’s family and friends at this terrible loss.
The crash was revealed by the 99th Air Base Wing’s Public Affairs office at Nellis AFB, Nevada, some three days after the incident:
As the release states, Lt Col Schultz was killed during a ‘training flight’ at the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) about an hour before sundown.
There are two elements to the news release that immediately draw attention. Firstly, the news release doesn’t mention the aircraft type. Secondly, the location of the crash — ‘100 miles northwest of Nellis AFB’. This is roughly the area of Groom Lake, the USAF’s secret test base deep in the NTTR.
A follow-up question from the Las Vegas Review Journal led to Maj Christina Sukach, the Chief of Public Affairs at Nellis, saying: ‘Information about the type of aircraft involved is classified and not releasable,’ although it was admitted that the aircraft was assigned to Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC). TSgt Siuta Ika also confirmed that Lt Col Schultz was piloting the aircraft when it crashed.
In an unfortunate coincidence, the crash came the day before two A-10s also crashed on the NTTR on September 6. 99th ABW Public Affairs reported this the very next day, including the aircraft types, but lacking the location on the NTTR — the contrasting news release is shown below:
So, the tragic loss of Lt Col Schultz is currently shrouded in a veil of secrecy, which has caught the attention of the aviation world.
It’s readily apparent that the delay in releasing information regarding the crash and the lack of detail regarding the aircraft type means that this was no ordinary incident.
Schultz was a USAF Test Pilot School graduate of 2008. He was assigned to the F-35A test program fairly early on (he became the 28th person to pilot an F-35 on September 15, 2011 at Edwards AFB) and one of his many notable achievements was the first airborne weapons release from the Lightning II.
Schultz joined the USAF after a civilian career and was initially assigned to the F-15E Strike Eagle, flying with the 391st Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and he flew over 50 combat missions in Afghanistan. He dreamed of becoming an astronaut and graduated from the USAF Test Pilot School from Class 08A whilst ranked as a captain.
Details of Lt Col Schultz’s career in recent years remain unclear. He is last reported as involved in the F-35 test program in 2013, still as a captain, and his time as a major and now lieutenant colonel are unreported.
A number of theories as to what Lt Col Schultz may have been flying have been published over the past weekend. One was that he was flying an F-35, presumably because that’s the type he is last noted as having been involved with. It led to the following from USAF Chief Gen Dave Goldfein:
So it wasn’t an F-35.
There have been numerous reports of F-117s flying from Tonopah on the NTTR, so that’s a possibility. However, information suggests that these are flown by civilian contractor pilots, which would rule that out if so.
What about one of the Su-27s and MiG-29s flown on the Nellis ranges?
The 6513th Test Squadron ‘Red Hats’ of Air Force Material Command (AFMC) test-flew secretly acquired Soviet military aircraft at Groom Lake, Nevada, from the late 1960s.
The 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) ‘Red Eagles’ was subsequently formed as part of Tactical Air Command (TAC). Known as Constant Peg, this unit was established in order to give USAF, Navy and Marine Corps pilots experience of flying against these ‘assets’.
The 4477th TES officially closed down in March 1988, but the Nellis-based Weapons School and 422nd TES still enjoy access to a more modern range of dissimilar types. These are owned by AFMC and part of the so-called Foreign Material Exploitation (FME) program – and jointly operated by AFMC as well as Air Combat Command. These ‘assets’ (including a Su-27P photographed over the NTTR last year) are most definitely classified and they are shrouded in secrecy, despite a number of sightings. Today, the ‘Red Hats’ remain responsible for test and evaluation of foreign materiel under Det 3 AFTC. The ‘Red Eagles’ are formally Detachment 3, 53rd Test and Evaluation Group (TEG).
The other possible explanation is a highly-classified ‘Black Program’. Whilst this is the least likely (what are the chances that the USAF is flying a manned, tactical, aircraft that us outsiders know nothing about?), it’s a possibility…
The fact is that those of us on the outside may never know.
Those close to Lt Col Schultz and his family will doubtless be equally unaware and understandably consumed by the loss of their loved one.
For those of us who closely follow military aviation, we will be respectful of the tragic loss of a decorated military veteran in the prime of his life. We will also wonder at whether there may be an advanced aircraft that is being flown in complete secret by the USAF, in much the same way as the F-117 was back in the early 1980s. The F-117 story is one of the greatest ever in military aviation history, so it’s understandable that any potential indication of these secretive activities attract such interest.
It has now been reported by Aviation Week that Lt Col Schultz was the commanding officer of AFTC Det 3, ‘Red Hats’. This is, an will likely remain, unconfirmed.