Star Wars Canyon
The R-2508 Complex is a vast region of airspace composed of Military Operating Areas, restricted areas and Air Traffic Control Assigned Airspace. It exists to allow military aircraft to conduct training in a protected environment, including but not limited to: stealth observability testing, refuelling, supersonic flight and low altitude maneuvering. Aircraft involved in training missions that require sustained flight below 1500’ above ground level (AGL) operate along the thirteen points, Alpha through Mike, that make up the Sidewinder Low Level route. A portion of the route is over Death Valley National Park and more specifically, the Jedi Transition is a connection that offers aircraft a shortcut between Point Charlie and Point Juliet, the last part of which winds through Rainbow Canyon.
Rainbow Canyon, also known as Star Wars Canyon, is conveniently located along California State Highway 190, a three and a half hour drive from Las Vegas and four hours from Los Angeles. It is also a short flight from many busy Navy and Air Force bases, including NAS Lemoore, NAWS China Lake, Edwards AFB and Nellis AFB. While there was never a published schedule for aircraft operating through each day, the combination of civilian access and military jets led to the ultimate aviation photography location in North America. I was lucky enough to visit the Canyon eight times between September 2018 and June 2019 and while the pictures speak for themselves, I also enjoyed the beautiful drives to and from the area and meeting some wonderful people from all over the world who share the same passion for aviation that I do.
Unfortunately, everything changed in an instant on the morning of Wednesday July 31, 2019. A flight of two Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornets belonging to Strike Fighter Squadron One Five One (VFA-151) launched from Naval Air Station Lemoore, CA to conduct a training mission in the R-2508 Complex including a low level exercise. At the controls of the lead Super Hornet was Lieutenant Charles Walker, who entered the canyon from the west at approximately 630 mph in full afterburner. At 9:43 am, Lt. Walker lost his life when his jet impacted the southern wall of the canyon below Father Crowley Vista Point. An internal investigation conducted by the Navy concluded that the result of the crash was due to the aircraft flying too fast and too low with respect to the surrounding terrain. A Notice To Airmen (NOTAM) was produced by Edwards AFB shortly after the accident that closed the Jedi Transition, followed later by another NOTAM stating flight below 1500’ AGL was not permitted, a restriction that is still in effect.