They appeared at first as tiny, fast-moving dots on the distant horizon.
They were too far away to identify, only a faint distant roar betrayed their presence in the otherwise-empty, silent desert valley. “Military”, I thought to myself. “They must be military. Nothing else would move that fast or fly that low.”I watched them for a few seconds before they disappeared behind some hills and the silence returned.
I was at Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park, a spectacular location made all the better by its inaccessibility. I was the only human being within fifty miles. It takes over an hour to drive the ten miles of rough road from the end of pavement to Eureka Dunes, but it’s worth every bumpy, dusty mile.
Approximately 15 kilometers wide, the valley is a flat playa bounded on both sides by rugged mountains. Near the eastern edge of the valley is a huge dune field containing California’s highest sand dunes, and that’s why I was there. I love photographing sand dunes.
I’d forgotten about the jets and was walking across the campsite to tend to my nearly-ready breakfast when suddenly an ear-splitting roar broke the desert silence. I looked up and could hardly believe my eyes. Barely a quarter mile away, an F-18 fighter exploded from behind the dunes and turned directly towards me. Then, a second jet appeared in the same knife-edge turn and it followed the first.
There was no doubt that they were targeting me. I stood transfixed and amazed as they approached head-on, getting lower and lower as they closed in on my position. First one, then the second jet blasted directly overhead, each following the exact same track, passing barely three hundred feet above me. At their closest approach I could see right into the cockpits, the pilots clearly visible. The sound was beyond description. I stood transfixed, I screamed out loud with excitement and somehow, weakly, I waved.
They crossed the playa and began a long, slow climbing circle away from me, bright yellow flame visible in the exhaust as they added power. It appeared that they were flying a circular path with me as its center. “WOW!”, I said aloud as they disappeared once more behind the dunes.
Suddenly, I realized what their circling path meant. “They’re coming back!” I could hardly believe it. The first pass was only the rehearsal. I was going to get a “take two”!
I ran back to my van, grabbed my camera and was still fumbling with settings when they emerged again on the exact same path, running straight at me. Their second pass was even lower than the first and I had probably less than ten seconds to shoot before they passed directly overhead again, but I managed to get off a half dozen shots, some of which were actually in focus.
And then they were gone.
After four low passes by F-18s directly overhead, I was shaking with excitement and ringing-ears deaf. I stood there in the now silent desert, amazed and grateful. I’d just had my own private Eureka Dunes air show.