Assignment No29: TopGun, CA ANG & Death Valley

Assignment No29: TopGun, CA ANG & Death Valley

Carl Wrightson re-lives the experience of a lifetime, including THAT day in Rainbow Canyon.

My second COAP assignment saw us travel out to the US on a trip that would cover 2,500 miles by road in just five days. With Rich, Steve and the group meeting up in San Francisco, the plan was to drive across to Fresno for the first of two visits to the California Air National Guard (CA ANG) and its F-15 Eagles followed by a visit to Star Wars/Rainbow Canyon in Death Valley National Park shooting them at low-level along whilst separately shooting two Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35As and a US Navy F-35C. We’d then move on to the US Navy ‘super base’ at NAS Fallon in Nevada to experience a day of both TopGun and carrier work up operations, before finally return to the CA ANG at Fresno as part of the unit’s monthly ‘Drill Weekend’.

Our first full day was to be on base with the 144th Fighter Wing of the CA ANG at Fresno Yosemite International Airport taking candid behind the scenes images of the squadron to put together a squadron operations book. However, as can happen in any operational environment with little forewarning and even after months of planning, we weren’t granted access to the base for the whole day, even with full high level clearance there was an issue at the last minute. Negotiations were ongoing in the background. 

We spent the morning taking shots from the end of Runway 29 as the F-15s taxied to take off and returned as we waited on news of our access. Albeit a fair distance away, we did manage to get shots of action on the ramp too. For the afternoon and returning aircraft coming in from the opposite direction, we shot from the end of Runway 11 before leaving for our four-hour drive to Lone Pine, CA., to shoot them during a low-level set-up.

The second day was a first for many of us; the eagerly anticipated trip to Rainbow Canyon, also known as Star Wars Canyon and The Jedi Transition at Panamint Valley, part of Death Valley National Park. After an early start, we arrived and began the walk from the off-road parking up boulder-strewn tracks. With a couple of breathers, we headed for the eastern end of the canyon ridge before it opened into the flat expanse of Panamint Valley, seen in the accompanying pics in the distance. At this point we had no idea we were to see a jaw dropping 84 passes during the day where you may be lucky to see four or five aircraft on a good day.

First up for a pre-arranged visit to the canyon to see us were the CA ANG F-15 Eagles, flying several passes both east and west. A personal highlight was an F-15 (that I found out from the pilot at the end of the week) turned out to be doing Mach 0.9 at 30ft. He was so, so close as he turned into his knife edge pass that we could feel the heat from his afterburners and smell the fuel in the valley. Incredible.

Following these, out of the blue, a Douglas A-4K Skyhawk flew though, complementing the F-35s that were about to arrive, since it normally simulates being an adversary against these.

Shortly after the two RNAFL F-35As and the US Navy F-35C arrived, the latter of which was on its first visit to the canyon and restricted to only flying above it. All three took turns running east and west one after the other. We had Frank Crebas/Bluelife Aviation with us for the day who was in radio contact with the pilots and a RNLAF crew chief who, with his team, was working till 23.30hrs the night before fixing one of the F-35As so they could make the trip across from Edwards AFB to the canyon for the shoot.

The pass of the morning had to be one of the F-35As popping up out of the canyon heading east at just 30ft above our heads with the pilot shouting “Smile!!!” over the radio. The sound and that rush of air physically moving us will stay for me forever.

The afternoon brought back the CA ANG F-15s for another set-up of several great passes, by which time we had moved locations to the west of Father Crowley Vista. From this vantage point, we could watch them coming in from the west and entering down into the canyon in front of us.

The afternoon runs of the F-35As included some individual passes followed by some great runs in pairs through the canyon as the sun dropped away. This created fantastic shadows down in the canyon, great as backdrops for the afterburners.

The next morning, we returned to a third location between the two of the day before. It was freezing. Literally freezing. In stark contrast to the previous day and with nothing planned for the day through the canyon. But we did bag an E/A-18 ‘Growler’ out of China Lake, which was a great bonus! So, at noon, we began the long five-hour drive up to Fallon with a quick stop off at Mono Lake at sunset ready for a full day at NAS Fallon on the Friday.

We arrived at NAS Fallon ‘The carrier of the desert’, early Friday morning to meet up with our base contact. This US Naval facility and ‘super base’ is home to many training schools, including TopGun, that make up the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC). We were here to spend the day on base to shoot the F/A-18 Super Hornets, F-5 Tiger adversaries, F-16 ‘Vipers’ and Israeli-built Kfirs take part in the TopGun training, but also to see the action of Carrier Air Group Seventeen (CVW-17), which had recently arrived. Its SFARP (Strike Fighter Advance Readiness Program) had recently started.

We spent the morning on the ramp watching the F-5 adversaries prep and taxi out, with F/A-18s rolling down the taxiway behind them. Snowcapped mountains were the backdrop on a cold but clear sunny day and the action was non-stop.

After lunch, we headed back to the base, this time to be taken out to the edge of the taxiway Bravo where it joined runway 31R. As soon as we got there, aircraft of every type came past us, stopping in front of us holding short of the runway, where they would then line up on the runway in front of us, sometimes four-abreast. The smell, the sound of the engines followed by the afterburners and that feeling of your insides moving around all afternoon was amazing, with a fair amount of freedom to roam up the runway edge for a good 200ft.

Staying till late afternoon as the sun dropped, we began to catch the waves coming back in, caught in the golden sunlight as they landed next to us. An utterly amazing day on the base which I’d have no hesitation in repeating.

Leaving the base, we started the 7-hour trip back to Fresno, hoping for the clearance issue to be overcome for the ‘Drill Weekend’ back with the CA ANG, but just after left Fallon we heard it was off after a day of “yes”, “no”, “yes” and finally a reluctant “no”.

The group decided to carry on back to Fresno, where we spent Saturday again at the end of the runway with the final wave coming back late afternoon with the lowering sun.

Saturday ended with us finally getting on to the base for an evening in the company of the F-15 pilots in their bar with pizza, beer, great company and stories. Such an experience to get to talk to them before we left. The whole unit was as disappointed as we were but we ended a week of many highs on that high before travelling back to San Francisco the next day. We did manage to sneak in a short trip to Castle Air Museum in Merced en-route to San Francisco, again worth a visit.

Long days and an epic week that none of us will ever forget with experiences that will live for us forever. Fantastic COAP trip to end 2016 on. Roll on 2017!!