The lookout point about 160 miles north of Los Angeles is popular with photographers and aviation buffs who gawk at jets flying in the steep, narrow canyon. Wire photo.

They are considered the best, of the best.

US Navy pilots, who can land on carriers, day or night. In a storm, on a small, rocking, narrow patch only 150 metres long.

But occasionally, things go wrong.

On Wednesday, the US Navy confirmed that the pilot of an F/A-18E Super Hornet that crashed at Death Valley National Park, had died.

The jet — assigned to the “Vigilantes” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 151, and based at Naval Air Station Lemoore — crashed into a cliff at high speed, injuring seven tourists, the Los Angeles Times reported.

On Friday, the pilot was identified as 33-year-old Navy Lt. Charles Z. Walker.

“The NAS Lemoore aviation family is grieving the loss of one of our own,” Capt. James Bates, commander of Strike Fighter Wing Pacific, said in a statement.

“Lt. Walker was an incredible naval aviator, husband and son. He was an integral member of the Vigilante family and his absence will be keenly felt on this flight line. Our aviators understand the risk associated with this profession and they knowingly accept it in service to our nation. The untimely loss of a fellow aviator and shipmate pains us all. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends.”

According to USNI News, Walker had reported to the squadron in February 2018, shortly after the Vigilantes had returned from a deployment aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), according to his official Navy biography.

Prior to the assignment, Walker had been assigned to the Strike Fighter Weapons School Pacific at NAS Lemoore. He had also been assigned to the “Dambuster” Strike Fighter Squadron 195 as part of the Navy’s forward-deployed Carrier Air Wing 5 based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.

The plane went down about 10 a.m. near an area often referred to as Star Wars Canyon, not far from the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Seven visitors suffered minor injuries after being peppered with fragments.

One person was taken to the hospital for further treatment. They were at Father Crowley Overlook checking out the view of the canyon, and they did not even know the military used the area, the National Interest reported.

While it is not common for military jets to fly low over national parks, it is a standard practice in Death Valley. “It’s one of the main attractions,” said Death Valley National Park public information officer Patrick Taylor.

In 2010, the National Park Service installed railings along the canyon because of the popularity of the location for plane-watching.

Like the Mach Loop in Wales, it is one of the few places where photographers can routinely take pictures of military aircraft from “above” as they fly past.

Witnesses said that the F/A-18 crashed at high-speed directly into a canyon wall. The aircraft exploded in a fireball, scorching the rocks. The pilot, they said, never ejected.

Tim Cassell was working at a nearby resort when the jet crashed, CBS News reported. He rushed to the scene to check for survivors.

“I turned around to look and we saw this gigantic mushroom cloud,” Cassell told CBS News. “All I saw was scorched rock and burning bushes.”

The pilot was identified as 33-year-old Navy Lt.
Charles Z. Walker. Handout.

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.

AP points out the chasm earned its nickname because mineral-rich soil and red, gray and pink walls resemble the home planet of “Star Wars” character Luke Skywalker.

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