In September 2017, a classified mishap claimed the life of the Red Hats’ commander, Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz.
Many news outlets carried the story that Schultz had been killed flying a classified type near Area 51.
Beyond the fact the aeroplane belonged to AF Materiel Command, the USAF released no other details of the accident and has since responded with “no records found” to FOIA requests for information about the loss.
In the weeks that followed the accident, online magazines reported an interview by Russian website, Radio Moscow, that claimed Schultz had been in contact with a Russian test pilot, Magomed Tolboyev.
In the interview, Tolboyev sullied Schultz' name, suggesting that Schultz had died trying to find and exceed the aerodynamic limits of a Russian-designed Su-27 Flanker.
However, this could not be further from the truth – Schultz died as he lived: with integrity and professionalism.
Day of the Mishap
Schultz had not been scheduled to fly the day he died, Tuesday 5 September, 2017.
But the pilot who had been due to fly the fateful sortie – a Su-27UB FLANKER C flight with a US Navy VX-9 weapons systems officer in the back seat – had been signed off as DNIF (duties not including flying) for medical reasons.
As the Red Hats commander, Schultz took his place.
The 45-minute local area proficiency sortie went according to plan until the return to base, when Schultz lowered the landing gear and discovered that one of the main gear was showing as unsafe.
After going through the checklist and attempting to rectify the issue using traditional means, Schultz decided to try a touch and go on one of Area 51’s dry lakebeds to see whether it might lock the gear down.
Schultz gently let down on the lakebed. To those on the airfield, the touchdown made clouds of dust rise into the air like geysers spouting sand but looked otherwise uneventful.
But in the cockpit, things looked much different.
Despite a gentle descent to the desert floor, the Flanker’s unsafe gear leg collapsed on touchdown and at least part of it was ripped off.
In an instant, the 20,000kg jet settled to the ground, dragging a wingtip and yawing so dramatically that the aileron and horizontal stabiliser now also dug into the hardened sand.
At this point, a controlled ejection was the only remaining option, and the Flanker was in any case now almost out of gas.
The WSO ejected first, receiving minor injuries, but otherwise surviving without issue.
But, tragically, Schultz’ bailout sequence failed and he was killed.
In the months that followed, the Red Hats mourned the loss of their leader, but there was so much media interest in the high-profile loss that their activities had to remain low-key.
Three years later, “folks from other programmes at the test site” created a special Red Hats patch for the unit.
The Air Force posthumously awarded the Red Hats commander with the Distinguished Flying Cross specifically for getting the Su-27 airborne again after it settled onto the desert floor and almost tumbled.
Doc Schultz’ loss is not extraordinary in the overall history of classified foreign military exploitation, but it is the first mishap (that we know of) since 1988 and the first flying fatality since 1982.
And yet the accident reportedly set the scene for high-level conversations with the Air Force about the future of the Red Hats, leading to its eventual closure in early 2022.