Answer: Tucked away in the western edge of Death Valley National Park, Rainbow Canyon — or Star Wars Canyon, as some call it — is an aviation mecca.
The military connection to Rainbow Canyon goes all the way back to World War II when training flights were practiced there during the second world war. Planes travel through the canyon at 200 to 300 miles per hour and get close enough to photographers and spectators that they can see the pilots’ facial expressions.
Tucked away inside Death Valley National Park in Inyo County, California, there lies a canyon on the park’s western border. The official name of the gorge is “Rainbow Canyon” although its nickname has a slightly more interstellar ring to it. Also referred to as “Star Wars Canyon” the cleft earned its nickname because “its mineral-rich soil and rocky walls in shades of red, gray and pink draw to mind a landscape in a galaxy far, far away — Tatooine, the home planet of “Star Wars” character Luke Skywalker” the Las Vegas Review-Journal writes. For context, it sits approximately 130 miles from Sin City and 160 miles north of Las Angeles. Most famously, the canyon is commonly used by the United States Air Force and Navy for fighter jet training and is frequented by photographers who, from the canyon rim, are able to photograph jets flying beneath them. In fact, according to CNN, it is the only national park where US military jets can fly.
Credit: Thure Johnson, Rainbow Canyon fall, Flickr
The military connection to Rainbow Canyon goes all the way back to World War II when training flights were practiced there during the second world war. Planes travel through the canyon at 200 to 300 miles per hour and get close enough to photographers and spectators that they can see the pilots’ facial expressions. These modern-day Star Wars characters are fully aware of this, of course, and sometimes surprise the audience with gestures and other signals. Fighter planes such as the F-15, F-18, and F-22 aren’t the only aircraft to make their way through the canyon walls. At least once, a C-17 Globemaster cargo plane was observed and foreign combat aircraft such as the Israeli F-16I Sufa, Eurofighter Typhoon, and even the Sukhoi Su-30 MKI have been photographed or filmed making passes through the canyon as well.
Those who make the trek to the canyon describe the spectacle as a one-in-a-lifetime experience and may even recommend bringing a pair of earplugs. The Review-Journal quoted a woman saying that “it [was] the loudest thing [she] had ever heard” in her life. Not only that, but she also noted: “it was a scary experience since [she] was holding onto the rope and not anything else.” A truly awe-inspiring day she noted. Tragically, accidents do happen in the canyon. On July 31, 2019, a 33-year-old Navy lieutenant was killed when the fighter jet pilot crashed. The Navy identified the pilot of the F/A-18E Super Hornet that crashed as Lt. Charles Z. Walker and called him “an incredible naval aviator, husband, and son.” While the cause of the crash is under investigation, it’s a potent reminder of both the force and fragility of these fighter jets. Our hearts go out to Lt. Charles Z. Walker and our best wishes are being sent to other pilots who put on a proud display for not only Americans but people all over the world.