Contract Red Air Jet Crashes at Nellis, Killing Pilot

Officials are still investigating the cause of the fatal Mirage F1 crash on the south side of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, around 2:30 p.m. May 24. The Mirage was owned and operated by Florida-based Draken International, which has flown adversarial air against pilots training at Nellis since 2015.

The pilot’s name has not yet been released. No one else was on board at the time of the crash, according to a release.

“Draken has received news of a downed aircraft out of Nellis AFB and the tragic loss of one of our pilots,” the company said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people and families affected by this event. We are doing everything in our power to assist them in this time of need, and we are working closely with federal, state, and local authorities. Draken US is also cooperating with investigating agencies to determine what led to this tragic accident.”

It’s not clear whether Draken’s fleet is now grounded. An Air Combat Command spokesperson told Air Force Magazine, “there’s no immediate operational impacts that we’re aware of,” and referred any addition questions to Draken. A company spokesperson said no additional information is available at this time.

Draken originally started flying so-called “Red Air” missions at Nellis in 2015, using L-159 Honey Badgers and A-4 Skyhawks. The company recently started introducing French-built Mirage F1s, acquired from the Spanish air force, and Atlas Cheetahs, acquired from South Africa. The first F1 adversary air flight was just over a year ago, when F1s challenged USAF F-15E Strike Eagles on March 18, 2020.

In June 2018, Draken won a $280 million contract, which runs through December 2023, to continue flying at Nellis. Draken contractors fly from 18 to 24 adversary air sorties a day at the base, “supporting the USAF Weapons School, operational test missions, Red Flag exercises, Formal Training Unit syllabus rides from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, as well as combat readiness training out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah,” according to a 2018 release.

In addition, the company is under contract to provide adversary air in support of the F-15E FTU at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, and the F-16 FTU at Kelly Field, Texas. The company also supports exercises at locations such as Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; Edwards Air Force Base, California; Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona; MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina; MCAS Miramar, California; and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland

Draken aircraft currently are assigned to provide Red Air support for Air Mobility Command’s Mobility Guardian 2021 exercise in Michigan. They flew on May 24, but did not fly the day after the crash. Air Force Magazine is embedded with USAF forces during the exercise.

The company owns 22 F1s, 12 supersonic Cheetahs, nine Aermacchi MB-339s, 27 MiG-21s, 21 L-159s, 13 A-4s, five L-39s, and one T-33, a company official previously told Air Force Magazine.

The last time a contractor-owned and operated adversary aircraft crashed while supporting USAF operations was in February at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Two Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC) Mirage F1 pilots were treated for non-life threatening injuries at the time. In 2018, the Hawaii Air National Guard also temporarily suspended Exercise Sentry Aloha after an ATAC Hawker Hunter crashed in the waters a few miles off the coast. The pilot safely ejected and was rescued by a civilian sailboat.

Draken and ATAC were among three companies awarded contracts in July 2020 worth up to $433.6 million to provide 5,418 annual sorties of adversary air at five bases. Tactical Air Support also received a contract. The awards are part of a potential $6.4 billion Combat Air Force/Contracted Air Support indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract that could include up to 40,000 hours of adversary air at 12 fighters bases, plus 10,000 hours of close air support at nine bases.

The service has authorized a total of seven companies to bid on contracts, and Nellis is expected to be the next big award. In addition to Draken, ATAC, and Tactical Air Support, other companies include Top Aces Corp., Air USA, Blue Air Training, and Coastal Defense.

“The CAF/CAS contract remains in the base year execution phase, with requirement adaptations ongoing as anticipated,” an ACC spokesperson said. “However, any mishap of this magnitude always has an impact on the flying community. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with the family, friends, and our partners at Draken during this time.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 2:06 p.m. on May 26 with additional information from the Air Force. We also corrected an earlier version, which incorrectly stated when the last contract adversary air crash took place. It was February 2021 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.