A Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet Has Crashed In Death Valley's Famous Star Wars Canyon (Updated)

The ravine is a Mecca for aviation photographers and aerospace enthusiasts looking to see high-performance military aircraft blast by at high-speed.

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U.S. Navy

A Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet has gone down near Naval Air Weapons Stations China Lake in California. The condition of the pilot is unknown and search and rescue operations are already underway. 

NAWS China Lake is the Navy's premier weapons and aircraft test and development base in the western United States. It is surrounded by the sprawling R2508 Complex, which includes 'Star Wars Canyon,' that supports testing and training from numerous bases in the region, including Edwards AFB, Plant 42, Fort Irwin, and others. NAWS China Lake is also the epicenter of the recent powerful earthquakes that struck California in early July, 2019. In these past War Zone articles, you can read all about the base and what it is like to work there.

We will update this post as more information comes available.

UPDATE: 1 pm PDT— Multiple reports are coming in to us that the Super Hornet slammed into the canyon wall just below the parking area at the famous 'Star Wars Canyon,' also known as the 'Jedi Transition' and 'Rainbow Canyon.' The site is a Mecca for aviation photographers that capture military aircraft rushing through the steep canyon on low-level training sorties. We have done dozens of posts on this amazing place and the photos and videos are captured there. We have been told that there were some injuries in the parking lot, supposedly they were burn-related. 

As always, details are subject to change as this is a rapidly developing story. 

We will continue to update this story in real-time as more info comes to light.

Update: 1:25pm PDT—

A couple of perspectives from Google Earth of the parking area in relation to the canyon:

Google Earth
Google Earth

The aircraft belonged to VFA-151 'Vigilantes' based at NAS Lemoore in California. Still no word on the pilot. 

Some great video of jets making runs through the canyon and a great cockpit video of a Hornet blasting through the canyon. The Star Wars Canyon portion of the second video starts at about 2:30 in:

UPDATE: 5:09pm PDT—

The LA Times has a supposed image of the jet just before it crashed as well as another picture with a huge scorched scar on the side of the cliff where it hit. 

UPDATE: 7:26pm PDT—

Some info from a witness nearby:

The crash sent dark smoke billowing in the air, said Aaron Cassell, who was working at his family's Panamint Springs Resort about 10 miles (16 kilometres) away and was the first to report the crash to park dispatch.

“I just saw a black mushroom cloud go up,” Cassell told The Associated Press. “Typically you don't see a mushroom cloud in the desert.”

...

Cassell said he heard jets roaring through the area and then saw the cloud of smoke.

“It looked like a bomb,” Cassell said. “To me that speaks of a very violent impact.”

A jet that was following the downed craft pulled up and began circling, Cassell said. He didn't see any parachute.

His father drove up to the area after the crash and saw a large black scorch mark and shattered parts of the jet scattered throughout the area between the parking lot and lookout, Cassell said. A nose cone from the jet was the size of a bowling ball and the rest of the debris was no larger than a ball cap.

UPDATE: 1:40am PDT—

This Fox26 report has some photos from the crash site and even some video of those that were hurt. It is very possible they were European aviation enthusiasts visiting the site based on the location and their accents. So glad they weren't more badly injured in the terrible incident. The pilot is still unaccounted for. 

The Jedi Transition is off-limits to aircrews while search and rescue efforts are underway. It will be very interesting to see if it ever really opens up again to low-level traffic, and if so, what restrictions will be put in place. 

UPDATE: 1:21pm PDT—

We are very sad to report that the Navy has concluded that the Naval Aviator died when the jet impacted the canyon wall.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com