|Water vapor condenses on the wing of an F-15C from the 144th Fighter Wing of the +Air National Guard in Fresno
I’ve encountered jets in this canyon in Death Valley by coincidence a few times over the years, so I mentioned them on page 130 of my “Photographing California – South” guidebook. But I’ve only recently sat around and waited for them to arrive. The first time, I showed up at 4:30 pm and waited for a couple of hours, and was skunked. I later talked to someone who had arrived at 3:30 pm, and saw three passes in 45 minutes before leaving at 4:15 pm.
The second time I waited from dawn, nothing happened until a single plane went through at 9:50 am. Nothing happened for another hour, then a pair of F-15C jets from the California +Air National Guard went through it in each direction, twice! They seemed to spot the camera on the first run, then on the next three runs the lead plane pulled up sharply right at my location partway down the canyon, to be pulling a lot of Gs and turning up out of the canyon sharply directly next to me. The pilot appears to be looking at the camera each time, and I can’t think of many reasons to end a run up the canyon early, in both directions, so it sure seemed like he was setting up selfies.
Having heard that photographers fly over from Europe to spend a week sitting all day waiting for the jets, and they report 7 to 9 per day, I had my 9 and figured that I had done well. For some reason, Mondays were considered to be less promising, so I might not see any more planes that day. I picked up my tripods and started moving towards the car, and more planes came! It was like that until I had to leave by noon. I’d throw the tripod over my shoulder and another jet would come.
A couple of guys from the adjacent campsite in the Stovepipe Wells campground the night before showed up and saw a jet go through. A few random people watched one go by from time to time. A busload of children on a field trip showed up, their wait was no more than 10 minutes, then a jet went by and they left. It sure seemed as if perhaps they came from a town nearby and had been able to coordinate with the pilot, perhaps a parent of one of the children?
When these jets was turning the hardest, smoke-like trails formed behind the wingtips, and smoke-like misting formed on top of the wings as well. It turns out that this is water condensing, not uncommon when pulling the most Gs:
“Condensation of water vapor in wing tip vortices is most common on aircraft flying at high angles of attack, such as fighter aircraft in high g maneuvers, or airliners taking off and landing on humid days.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wingtip_vortices
Having been skunked on a prior visit then rewarded with a flurry of activity after a few hours of uneventful watching the second time, I can’t make generalizations yet about your odds of catching jets flying up canyons in Death Valley, but apparently if you are persistent enough, the jets may eventually come. That’s when you’ll find success, when preparation meets opportunity.
What Aircraft Use This Space?
The Panamint, Saline and Eureka Valleys in Death Valley National Park are part of the R-2508 Complex, jointly administered by the Edwards Air Force Base, China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Fort Irwin (Army). NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (Named Dryden Flight Research Center until 2014) is located at Edwards AFB. The 144th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, based in Fresno, came through while I was waiting. Apparently jets from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada come over on exercises, and one of the jets that passed me had a UFO logo on its tail, so it might have been out of Groom Lake (Area 51) on Nellis.
Although R-2508 stretches 140 miles north and south and 110 miles across, each dimension is only a few minutes across at 500 MPH. So it’s not all that large from the perspective of the pilots using it, and sub-sections include bombing and artillery ranges, so pilots have to navigate around closed sections on any given day. Nevertheless, it’s the largest overland Special Use Airspace (SUA) in the United States, so it’s a scarce and valuable resource for the armed services to have.
Why is the military using National Park airspace at all? This has been a topic of discussion for some time, and in 1977 it was agreed that the jets would stay above 3000 feet over Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Parks and Death Valley, a national monument at the time. The areas the jets used for low level flying were mostly administered by the BLM, and were in use by the military before the Death Valley National Monument became a national park via the California Desert Protection Act on October 31, 1994. That was also when it was expanded from 2 million acres to 3.4 million acres, adding the valleys being used by military aircraft.
Why Do Military Aircraft Fly Low?
An information sheet that I picked up at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest states:
“Today,one way a military pilot can survive in combat is to fly as close as possible to the ground to avoid detection by enemy radar systems. This skill is developed by flying at very low elevations over a variety of terrain.”
“Not only do the pilots fly very low in combat, but also very fast. This low and fast flying requires many hours of training time for pilots. They must train in a gradual step-by-step process down to a minimum low level of flight to gain the confidence and experience needed and then regularly practice this skill to make second nature the necessary split-second decisions.”
“In general, military flights can occur in the complex as low as 200 feet with several exceptions.”
A discussion of civilian use of the airspace appears here: Navigating “The Complex”.
|Water vapor condenses at the wingtips and over the wings of an F-18 in a high-G turn
#Air National Guard