Text & Pictures: Chris Tonthat (an i2i Production) ©sbap 2021
  

Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas, Nevada, is always a great event for military aviation enthusiasts. Typically this exercise takes place three times a year with RF YY-1 in January/February, RF YY-2 in March, and RF YY-3 in July/August. There was no exception for the recent RF 21-3 exercise. Despite some last minute changes to the list of participants, there were plenty of aircraft to catch and I wish I had a double to be at two locations at once to do so.

  
Day 1
 

RF 21-3 hosted only military aircraft from the USAF, USN, and USMC. As time marches on, USAF F-35 Lightning II has become the predominant fleet to take to the sky at Red Flag. There were still many F-16 Vipers in the air but noticeably the F-35s were almost everywhere with four visiting squadrons, and that doesn't include the local F-35 units yet. It was nice to see the USMC participated with two units flying the F/A-18C/D Hornet. Two USN units operating the EA-18G Growler came to play for its electronic warfare capabilities but unfortunately, the one F/A-18E/F Super Hornet unit cancelled at the last minute. Of course the USAF F-22A Raptor fleet was still the ultimate catch for the unique "camouflage" of each jet resulting from random repair patterns of the stealth coating. Local F-15C Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle units rounded out the fast jets along with the L-159E Honey Badger fleet operated by Draken International. The heavies participated included the B-52H, B-2, KC-46, KC-135, EC-130H, RC-135, E-3, and E-8. Unfortunately the B-2 unit decided to operate from their home base so the stealth bomber was never seen and the E-3 and E-8 were not operational during the last three days of the exercise. To keep a watchful eye on all the operating aircraft during the exercise, there were always a couple of HH-60 Pave Hawks cruising around in case of an emergency.

 
  Nellis AFB with Las Vegas as a backdrop and baked by the August heat
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
An F-35A from the 422d TES was the first to go up for the day
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
An 'OT' F-16C in the Have Glass V paint scheme
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
An 'OT' Warthog sortie to perform test and evaluation for the day
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another 'OT' Warthog with a similar load of weapons
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
From the Home of the Thunderbirds, the #8 aircraft taking off for a flight to Michigan to prepare for an airshow that weekend
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Strike Eagle from the 57WG taking off for the day with a heavy duty load
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-15C sortie with a lighter air-to-air package
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-15E belonging to the 17th WPS going up for a sortie
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A Draken International Honey Badger sortie to start the Red Flag exercise
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Draken International is one of the largerst operators of the L-159 series
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-35A operated by the 6th WPS
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another F-35A zooming overhead going north
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
This Have Glass V paint job is well worn
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Wraith" Aggressor
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Aggressor F-16C playing the role of a Sukhoi Su-57
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Rock on!
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another 64th Aggressor Squadron F-16C
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
An unsual look of this F-16C with an unpainted R/H wing
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A Viper driver loaded with notes and flight plans
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
It's still amazing to watch the B-52 taking off
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
It's worth a belly shot!
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-16D S/N 90-839 with Have Glass V paint scheme
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Keep on rocking!
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-16D banking north around Gate 7 area of the Motor Speedway
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A CAG bird EA-18G from VAQ-131 "Lancers"
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another VAQ-131 Growler ready to jam and slam
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
CAG bird F/A-18D from VMFA(AW)-533
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
An F/A-18C from VMFA(AW)-533 with a nice load of ground pounders
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Raptor and a pair of Vipers coming home
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-16C "Splintered" Aggressor
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
The belly shot because this F-22A made a tight final turn to land
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another short final approach resulting another belly shot of an F-35A
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
The first Air National Guard unit to operate the F-35A from Vermont
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Hill AFB F-35A
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Wraith" returning to base from the morning training
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Aggressor F-16C S/N 90-707 on arrpoach to 21L
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-16C "Su-57" Aggressor
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Navy pilots always do the carrier approach and shorten the landing pattern
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A KC-135 returning from the training to land on 21L
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Sixty years later this B-52H can still deliver a graceful landing
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
KC-135 deading out for the evening exercise
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
B-52H leaving a trail of smoke upon the evening sortie
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
First of two B-52s to join the second mission of the day
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
The second B-52H trailing the first
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
EC-130H Compass Call sortie
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
An RC-135V Rivet Joint launching to participate in the evening session
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Reflecting the golden sunset
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
An HH-60 circling the area in case of an emergency
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Dream Six" take off high and straight for the range
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-35A blasting off in full afterburner
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
 
Day 2
 
On the second day, my buddy and I made a journey to Coyote Summit near Rachel, Nevada, roughly 2.5 hours driving time from Las Vegas. Here is the middle ground where the Red Team and the Blue Team typically cross each other to commence the fight. In prior days and weeks, spotters were able to capture the officially-retired F-117A Nighthawks joining the exercise. The hope was to capture some low-level actions of Red Flag participants including the F-117A. After arriving at the summit and while gearing up for the hike, an F-35 came out of nowhere and screamed by no more than 100 feet AGL crossing the Extraterrestrial Highway and no more than 2000 feet away only to disappear behind another hill. I thought to myself at the time that this was going to be a good day and I had to make it up to the summit as fast as possible to catch more actions! Unfortunately, that was the only low-level action we observed (missed) all day long other than an HH-60 simulating a search and rescue mission from afar. On many occasions, jet noise could be heard surrounding the summit but the aircraft were nowhere to be found in the vast open area of the lifeless desert. Otherwise, the action was mostly up high with contrails painting across the blue sky of the military operations area. Although the trek to Coyote Summit yielded only a few photos, the experience gained can certainly be used to plan for the next Red Flag exercise adventure.
 
The panoramic view of Coyote Summit in the middle of nowhere Nevada
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Over looking the parking area off of the Extraterrestrial Highway
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A harsh reminder of this unforgiven desert land
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-22A up high in the deep blue sky
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Performing a high-G turn
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Travelling high and fast
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
HH-60 Pave Hawk practicing aggressive maneuvers
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Beating the HH-60 back to Nellis to capture its arrival
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Honey Badgers coming home after other training with the local F-35s
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Catching a nice afternoon sun
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Local 57 WG F-35s coming back from training
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Reflecting the warm afternoon sun
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
The last local F-35A coming home for the day
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
KC-135 going out for the evening mission
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
B-52H trailing the tanker
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
The second B-52H heading toward the sunset
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
KC-46A taking off from 21R
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A KC-135 heading toward the setting sun
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Growler engines still glowing red hot after shutting off the afterburner
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Raptor coming out to play before dark
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Shark" Aggressor F-16C banking hard right after taking off from 21R
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A Growler lighting up the night sky with the afterburner
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
 
Day 3
 

Back at Nellis AFB, launching and recovering of aircraft were captured from morning to night, including during the colorful golden hours. The sky was mostly clear with the exception of the air pollution that typically hovers over the area during this time of the year, which gave way to spectacular sunsets. As always, the challenge was to find out which direction the launch or recovery was going to take place, and which aircraft. It was fun to race back and forth between the North Las Vegas Blvd and East Cheyenne Ave to catch the actions. Along North Las Vegas Blvd, it is a must to run between the Motor Speedway entry gates to catch the aircraft in the final turn for the landing. Guess it right and get a great shot. Guess wrong and get another belly shot (although some belly shots can be very cool). Nevertheless, the fun just never got old!

 
Catching an F-15E coming home from an early morning sortie
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Last day of RF 21-3 started with a Raptor roaring off 21R
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A Raptor taking a short cut taking off from 21R
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Only one B-52H launching on the last morning
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Climbing away nice and clean under a gorgeous blue sky
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
C-130J with lots of impact protective tape applied under the belly
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A 422d TES A-10 taking off in between RF 21-3 launches
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A USMC KC-130J heading back home to MCAS Miramar
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
L-159E with desert camouflage
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
 Honey Badger banking to head north after taking off from 21R
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another L-159E heading to the range
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-15C banking against the sun while climbing
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
First catch of the elusive "Tiger Tiger!" from the 79th FS
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Have Glass V Aggressor
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Splintered" outbound for the Red Team
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
79th FS Viper specialized in SEAD missions
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-16D Aggressor joining the fight
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
This B-52H is heading home early to Barksdale AFB
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)

A 158th FW F-35A taking off
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
F-35As from Hill AFB and Vermont ANG unit
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Belly of a Honey Badger
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
79th FS F-16C coming home from last sortie of the day
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another Tiger coming home
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
On final approach to 21R
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
No two Raptors will have the same paint scheme
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
This Raptor is banking hard to line up for the landing
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
S/N 09-180 Raptor adjusting for final approach
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another F-22A approaching 21R
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Raptor proudly representing the 149th FS
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Raptor reflecing the desert ground
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Strange design of the agressive Raptor
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
On final to land on 21L
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another F-22A banking over the Motor Speedway to line up on 21R
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Another F-22A with unique touch-up patterns
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A view from 4 o'clock low position
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Shark" on final approach ahead of two F-35s still in landing pattern
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
421st FS of the 388th FW
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Directly over the Motor Speedway
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
34th FS "Rude Rams" F-35A
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Black Widows" Lightning II formation
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
421st FS "Black Widow"
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Vermont ANG F-35A formation
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
S/N 17-5239 from Hill AFB
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Vermont ANG Lightning II...So new and so clean!
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
388th FW F-35A
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
VAQ-138 "Yellow Jackets" Growler
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Be ready to hustle between Gates 4 to 6 to catch the US Navy aircraft landing
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
VMFA-115 "Silver Eagles" F/A-18C
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Silver Eagles "06"
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
A VMFA(AW)-533 "Hawks" F/A-18D
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
C-130J landing on 21L
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Tiger Tiger! All For Freedom" coming straight in for a landing
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
Unfortunately landing on 21L
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
"Splintered" was the last aircraft to land to close out RF 21-3
(Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)
 
Final thoughts
 

People asked why I would torture myself to do this in the heart of August when the temperature is well above 100°F (38°C). 
Frankly the temperature was more like 115°F (46°C) and even after the sun went down, it was still at least 104°F (40°C). How hot is that? Let's put it this way, it was so hot that the soles of my boots delaminated! However, that is the fun part of being a spotter, right? Right! It is difficult to explain the adrenaline of chasing aircraft to get that perfect shot that only another aircraft photographer would understand. Spot on!



Lastly, now that I have been to Red Flag at all three different times of the year, I would recommend the March exercise to anyone planning to attend a future Red Flag. Besides the comfortable temperatures, I believe the position of the sun in March produces the best lighting conditions for photos with respect to the available spotting locations. See you there at RF 22-2! I will be between Gates 7 and 8 along Las Vegas Blvd to catch aircraft launching on Runways 03L/R.

 (Chris Tonthat© * an i2i Production)

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