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Low Level in Death Valley; Rainbow Canyon, March 7-10, 2017

The Jedi Transition, part 1; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

The Jedi Transition in Death Valley is an area where it is possible to photograph military fighters up close in the low flying route. The Jedi Transition is a low flying route in the Rainbow Canyon which is also known as the Star Wars Canyon. This canyon owes its name to the famous Star Wars movies which were filmed here.

Low level flying is a way of flying which is very intensive for military fighter pilots. It requires a high degree of concentration due to the high speed close to the ground and the mountains. Low level flying can surprise the enemy during an attack by suddenly popping up; therefore this tactic is frequently trained in the United States. One of the longest and busiest low level routes in the United States is the Sidewinder Low Level Route. The Sidewinder is a low level flight path in the American Death Valley National Park in the eastern part of the state of California. The area has the shape of a horseshoe with the opening to the south. The total length of the Sidewinder trail is over 450 km long. In total, the route is defined in thirteen waypoints which are set in the on-board computer of the combat aircraft. The waypoints are based on visual landmarks which can easily been identified from the air. There are dams, watchtowers, mountain peaks and crossings of roads used to define the Sidewinder Route. Compared to the British Mach Loop in Wales is the Sidewinder Low Level Route off mountains. Between the beginning and the end of the Sidewinder Route is the naval test base Naval Air Warfare Center China Lake located. China Lake is surrounded by the Sidewinder Low Level Route and it has a huge area which is closed for the general military air traffic. This restricted area is designated in the aviation regulations as the R2505 area and contains very strict flight restrictions. Under the R2505 area is also much smaller R2506 area located which has the same restrictions.

The sidewinder mainly consists of large dry plains which are in connections with each other via low level air routes between the ridges. This structure ensures that the aircraft are rarely flying close to a mountainside when going through the Sidewinder. With this construction, also very large aircraft such as the B-1 Lancer, C-17 Globemaster III and the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress can fly safely through the Sidewinder Route to train their low level skills. However, most of the aircraft passing

through the Sidewinder are combat aircraft. In the the area of Death Valley are a large number of airfields located where combat aircraft are stationed. On the south of Death Valley are the testing airfields Naval Air Warfare Center China Lake and Edwards Air Force Base located. On these airfields are types like the F/A-18E/F/G Super Hornet/Growler, the F-35 Lightning II, the T-38 Talon, and the F-16 Fighting Falcon stationed. All these aircraft are flying regularly through the low level route. On the west of Death Valley are the airfields Naval Air Station Le Moore and Fresno Airport located. At Le Moore are almost all F/A-18s of the Pacific Fleet stationed and at Fresno are the F-15 Eagles from the California Air National Guard stationed. These units from these airfields are often using the Sidewinder area. Very occasionally aircraft from Nellis Air Force Base in the east are also using the Sidewinder area. During Red Flag at Nellis AFB, however, one should not expect increased activity in the canyon from this airbase.

Between waypoint C and Waypoint J of the Sidewinder Route, the fighter pilots are able to take a shortcut in the route through which the route will be shortened to a length of more than 275km. In most cases, the aircraft will fly this part of the route from west to east. The shortened passage in the Sidewinder route is known to many pilots and also under the photographers; it is the most popular part of the total low level route. This passage passes through a narrow canyon which is known as the Rainbow Canyon. This canyon is named after the fact that the rocks change in color depending on the angle of reflection of sunlight on the rocks. At the end of the 70s a few scenes of the world famous Star Wars trilogy were recorded in the canyon. The scenes on a dead planet in the movie were shot here, because the landscape of Death Valley and in the canyon is completely empty and consists exclusively of rugged cliffs. For this reason, the military pilots of American USAF and US Navy are designating the Rainbow Canyon affectionately as the Star Wars Canyon. The route which is passing through this canyon from the western part to the eastern part of the Sidewinder route is referred to as the Jedi Transition. The name says it all; pilots must be a heroic Jedi to go through this canyon. The Jedi are in the Star Wars movies the protectors of the Inter Galactic Republic and they will protect the inhabitants against evil. The pilots love to fly through the Jedi Transition, because it gives them a huge boost in their skills.

During most of the flight training, pilots start at their low level route at Waypoint A over the western dam at Lake Isabella. When the pilots are approaching Owens Lake at waypoint C, they must choose whether they fly the entire Sidewinder Route or they go through the Jedi Transition and cut off the route. The amount of pilots who make the choice to go through the Jedi Transition is every day different. On an average day, one can expect between five to fifteen passes in the Jedi Transition. There are days when more planes go through, but there are days that nothing goes through the canyon. The experience of local photographers is that most of the flight activities in this area take place from Tuesday until Thursday, but this is no guarantee for a lot of action. The majority of the aircraft which pass through are the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets of the US Navy. These aircraft are often derived from Le Moore and China Lake. These airfields are the large Super Hornet airfields on the Westcoast. Besides the Super Hornets of the Navy, there are also regular flights with F-15C/D Eagles of the California Air National Guard from Fresno through the Jedi Transition. Aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base are more rarely seen in the transition. Occasionally the T-38 Talons, F-16 Fighting Falcons and the F-35 Lightning II’s from Edwards AFB will fly through the Star Wars Canyon. Very rarely there are also visitors which fly along the Jedi Transition. However, the numbers of visitors are a factor that should not be taken into account.




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