Walker tribute unveiled near Rainbow Canyon

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Walker tribute  unveiled near  Rainbow CanyonJust shy of the one-year anniversary of the crash that killed a Navy test pilot, officials from the military and the National Park Service completed a project to pay tribute to Lt. Cmdr. Charles Z. Walker near the site of his accident.

On July 31, 2019, Walker was flying a Super Hornet near Rainbow Canyon in Death Valley. He crashed during an apparent training exercise near the Father Crowley Vista Point in Saline Valley, perishing in the accident and injuring several Crowley Point onlookers.

Rainbow Canyon, commonly called “Star Wars Canyon,” is part of the protected airspace used by China Lake and surrounding military bases — including Lemoore, where Walker was based. Hundreds of pilots have conducted thousands of exercises through the canyon, making it a popular place for tourists interested in seeing the low-flying jets.

In recent years, the popularity of the site has reportedly grown — drawing photographers and aviation enthusiasts from around the world. Those injured were reportedly foreign travelers gathered at the site. They were treated for minor injuries sustained from flying debris.

“This month, the park installed a new exhibit overlooking Rainbow Canyon to educate visitors on the military aircraft training history in the area,” said a Death Valley spokesperson.

“The exhibit includes a description of Lt. Cmdr. Walker’s dream of being a fighter pilot, his prestigious career, and his numerous service medals and awards.”

Military flights were briefly suspended during the investigation. According to Death Valley officials, crews also meticulously collected debris for nearly six months following the crash.

The site was closed to all visitors during the investigation and cleanup. The area re-opened to the public in February.

In March, an internal investigation in the DOD released a report that found Walker was flying “too fast and too low” in the terrain. “The flight profile created conditions where the processing time and subsequent reaction time required of the pilot made it difficult for the aircraft to exit the canyon safely.

“The findings of this investigation should be widely shared as an example of the unforgiving nature of naval aviation and the fact that a brief lapse in judgment can produce catastrophic results.”

Last year’s crash is the first known military fatality in that canyon since the Department of Defense began using it in the 1930s.

Military exercises have since resumed in that region.

“We hope this wayside exhibit will encourage visitors to honor Lt. Cmdr. Walker’s legacy and learn more about the military testing flights while visiting the overlook,” said Superintendent Mike Reynolds. “We are also grateful for the hard work of so many people in the hours, days, and months after the crash—from first responders tending to visitors injured by the explosion to crews removing debris from the area.”

Story First Published: 2020-08-07