Low Flying – Fighter Style

During October, November 2013 and March 2014, I went to Death Valley in California to photograph aircraft flying in the R-2508 Complex and the sidewinder low fly system. The most famous aspect of this system is Rainbow Canyon/Star Wars Canyon or to give it its official name, the Jedi Transition. The R-2508 Complex is a huge area controlled by Edwards AFB and has inputs from NAWS China Lake, NAS Lemoore and Fresno ANGB. To find out why the area is used, I asked a few of the pilots and public affairs officers to shed more light.

All images by Alan Kenny

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LT Martin flies EA-18G Growler XE-500 through the canyon as the sun had set behind the mountains in November.

LT Patrick ‘Fab’ Martin
VX-9 ‘Vampires’ Operational Test Director

T ‘n’ B: Why do VX-9 train at low level and what benefits does it provide?

Fab: VX-9 flies in the low level environment to keep a high level of proficiency in the basic skill set required to fly the aircraft as low as 200 ft above the ground and at speeds exceeding 500kts. Depending on the type of mission, flying low and fast provides aircrew an additional tactic that contributes to the lethality and survivability of both the aircraft and aircrew.

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F/A-18F Super Hornet VX-9 Vampires ‘XE-260’

T ‘n’ B: Do you just train low level locally or also when on you’re on detachment?

Fab: We fly low level missions both locally and on detachment when airspace and mission requirements present the opportunity.

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F/A-18F Super Hornet VX-9 Vampires ‘XE-250’

T ‘n’ B: Do you fly low level at night and if so, what equipment do you use to enhance the training?

Fab: VX-9 do not fly low level at night, although when we do fly at night, it is common for aircrews to utilise night vision goggles to increase situational awareness.

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EA-18G Growler VX-9 Vampires ‘XE-501’.

LT Jeff “Bathmat” Burch
VFA-122 ‘Flying Eagles’ Public Affairs Officer

As a multi-role, all weather fighter/attack aircraft, the F/A-18 Super Hornet can perform a variety of missions to include low level operations. Here at VFA-122, we conduct the initial flight training for new pilots and Weapons Systems Officers (WSO) to expose them to all the capabilities of the Super Hornet.

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F/A-18E Super Hornet VFA-192 Golden Dragons ‘NG-401’.

Low level flight is just one portion of our syllabus and consists of four simulators and four training flights. Additionally, as part of the strike syllabus, new pilots and WSOs learn how to deliver ordnance from low altitude.

VFA-122 Flying Eagles are based locally at NAS Lemoore, so regularly use the canyon for low level training.

We train for low level flight for a multitude of reasons, one of which might be to reduce our signature.

F/A-18E Super Hornet VFA-122 Flying Eagles 'NJ-250'
F/A-18E Super Hornet VFA-122 Flying Eagles ‘NJ-250’

The F/A-18 Super Hornet is equipped with a Radar Altimeter to help aircrew determine their altitude above the terrain. Low level flight is conducted at a variety of altitudes and airspeed, all of which is mission dependent, and each is based upon a risk/reward evaluation.

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F/A-18E Super Hornet VFA-137 Kestrels ‘NE-206’

A Show of Force is a tactic that JTACs will use the F/A-18 for if required. Frien
dly or enemy troops are often marked, for example by smoke, to help distinguish between the forces.

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F/A-18E Super Hornet VFA-192 Golden Dragons ‘NG-401’

LT Glenn Diller
VFA-97 ‘Warhawks’ Public Affairs Officer

Low level flight training is a mandatory part of every Naval strike fighter aircrew’s training. It begins in the Intermediate phase of flight school in the T-45 and there are required syllabus low level events in Advanced training and at the Fleet Replacement Squadrons. We train at low altitudes to build our comfort in that environment in the event that we need to execute a low level strike.

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F/A-18E Super Hornet VFA-151 Vigilantes ‘NG-307’

Absolutely. NVG’s do give us the ability to conduct low level flights at night. However this can be very hazardous, especially in mountainous terrain, as low light levels and shadows can combine to obscure ground features and pose a very real risk of flight into terrain.

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F/A-18F Super Hornet VFA-41 Black Aces ‘NG-113’

For the second part of your question, inclement weather and low level flying do not mix. There have been too many weather related controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) mishaps over the years. We always take a look at the weather along our low level routes during flight planning to assess the potential for encountering unsafe conditions. Additionally, we always brief an emergency escape maneuver that will hopefully allow us to safely and expeditiously escape any unexpected weather we encounter along the route.

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461st Flight Test Squadron F-16B BLK15  ‘ET 210’ from the Royal Danish Air Force. This is used as a chase aircraft in the F-35 programme.

John Haire
Public Affairs Edwards Air Force Base

All squadrons at Edwards train at low level except the ones that fly RPA aircraft, and stealthy aircraft. So given that, the 461st does not train at low level.

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F/A-18E Super Hornet VFA-14 Tophatters ‘NG-203’

In the testing of aircraft and systems, they need to be exposed and tested to the environment in which they plan to be used. Tactically, aircraft will fly at low level to minimise their exposure to enemy radar to delay their detection and increase survivability. Also, in a combat situation, aircraft may be driven to fly at low altitudes, to avoid radar detection and acquisition by some of the modern enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.

Test support aircraft also need to be proficient at low level flying if required to provide safety/photo chase of low altitude flying test aircraft. Also, in the support role as an airborne target, the test may require the target to fly at low level. An example of this would be testing a radar’s ability to detect aircraft in ground clutter.

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461st Flight Test Squadron F-16B BLK15 ‘ET 210’.

All aircrew whose mission requires low level flying will maintain a basic proficiency by accomplishing it at least once every 6 months. However, test requirements may drive up the need for more low-level flying.

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F/A-18C Hornet VX-31 Dust Devils ‘DD-102’

The entire R2508 complex is available for low-level training;however, some areas have altitude restrictions for facilities/operations, National Parks, towns, or noise sensitivity. Edwards AFB, in collaboration with other users of R2508 from China Lake NAS, Lemoore NAS, and Fresno ANG, created a single low-level route for training. This route is entirely in R2508, and was created to avoid National Parks, noise sensitive areas, and inhabited areas. Also, another benefit of a single, joint use route is to reduce the mid-air collision potential. Procedures are in place for all users to keep their situational awareness high through radio calls and position reports.

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461st Flight Test Squadron F-16B BLK15 ‘ET 210’.

Alan Kenny 2014

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