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[In Memory of a fallen pilot.()]

Aircraft Losses

Major Ross E. Mulhare (USAF)
Bandit #198 (Jan 7, 1986)
Killed July 11, 1986
F-117A #81-792
Cause: Spatial Disorientation

[] Air Force Major Ross E. Mulhare died in the crash of F-117A #81-792 on July 11, 1986 near Bakersfield, Calif. Major Mulhare, 35, was a native of Fall River, Mass., and was married and had four children. There had just been a celebration among the pilots one week before the crash on Mulhare's birthday-the 4th of July. He was assigned to the 4450th Test Squadron (Nightstalkers), 4450th TG.

Mulhare was killed when his F-117A crashed into a hillside 2,280 ft above sea level near the Kern River, 14 miles northeast of Bakersfield, California at about 1:50 A.M. Major Mulhare was killed instantly, his aircraft disintegrating upon impact. Reports later declassified indicate that the crash was so severe that "structural breakup was almost absolute". It took firefighters 16 hours to extinguish the 150 acre fire from the crash. Local and federal officials and firefighters at the scene were told by Air Force investigators not to discuss what they had seen or heard at the crash site, signed statements swearing them to secrecy, and were not allowed near the immediate area of the wreckage, which was cordoned off by the USAF (guards with automatic rifles) and was declared a national security area/national defense zone. This made commercial or civilian overflights within five miles at altitudes less than 8,500 feet illegal and authorities warned civilian pilots not to fly directly over the crash site because of this. (However, people did do just that.)

The Crash

Before taking off, Mulhare complained to a fellow pilot that he had grown increasingly tired, and "just couldn't shake it." He lifted off at 1:13 am on one of the last sorties of the night. Mulhare, who used the call sign ARIEL 31 that night, proceeded to the eastern portion of the San Joaquin Valley in California. The sky was clear and the moon illumination was 14 percent. Flying under standard instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions through a moderately trafficked area, Mulhare's plane was not "stealthed up". His navigation lights were switched on, and the radar enhancers made his aircraft appear on radar. The internal transponder was making the F-117A appear to be just another Tonopah A-7D on a training flight. All radio transmissions were routine, and after a turn to the southeast towards the weapons range at Edwards AFB, Mulhare called Los Angeles (LA) Center and requested and received permission to descend to 17,000 ft. At 1:44 AM, he canceled IFR with LA Center. His subsequent acknowledgement of receiving the message was the last transmission from ARIEL 31. The aircraft promptly vanished off of a score of civilian and military radars at 1:45 AM.

According to the crash report (which is officially "missing" according to the USAF Saftey Center-Aviation Safety Division), analysis of the fire pattern, crater, and scatter pattern of parts indicated that ARIEL 31 was in a "high velocity" dive of "no less than 20 degrees and probably in the neighborhood of 60 degrees" and was not tumbling. Interviews with nearby campers ascertained that the F-117A's engines were running at the time of impact, and an examination of what remained of the ejection system indicated that Major Mulhare had not attempted to bail out. It is believed that he had become spatially disorientated during the southeast turn and descent, and flew his plane into the ground. Although Mulhare was an experienced pilot, he had limited time in the F-117A-53.5 hours. Today all new Bandits strive to get over the 100 hour mark. All three fatal crashes involved pilots with less than 100 hours of time flying the F-117A.

Mulhare's father, Edward A. Mulhare of River Edge, N.J., said on July 12, 1986 that his son trained other Air Force pilots "by playing the devil's advocate in the air, by flying like the Soviet pilots fly."

Mulhare said his son's work was so secret that "he didn't talk to anyone, including his wife, about it, and had to have a lie-detector test every three months to prove it."

"I just wanted people to know that we consider our son a hero who was doing exactly what he wanted to do, despite the danger involved,'' Mulhare said before boarding a flight to be with his son's family at Nellis AFB.

In response to reporter's questions Edwards Air Force Base (closest AFB to the crash site) spokesman Don Haley said "The Air Force has no comment on what type of aircraft it was, where it came from, what it was doing and its mission." Haley said the Air Force was taking special precautions in releasing information about the crash. Air Force officials investigating the crash said the aircraft "was not an F-19." Gen. Michael McRaney, head of public affairs for the Air Force, also said the plane was not a bomber.

Recovery Operations

Shortly after the crash the safety officer of Nellis AFB got the word of the crash, and a recovery team from Nellis began to respond. They were called back due to security reasons. Within 48 hours, a team made up of 4450th TG members responded to the crash site. (For more information on typical recovery team operations, please see the "ACCOUNT OF CRASH SAR OPS" page).

One of those 4450th TG memers recalled years later:

"I spent 11 days there picking up pieces of the jet. They were scattered over a pretty wide area, but it could have been worse. The jet hit the ground at a high rate of speed and bounced up before exploding. The only thing that saved the pieces from being scattered farther was that it hit in a depression between two higher areas.
A couple notes on what it was like out there: The grass, bushes and even wildlife had been burned in the ensuing fire. It was hot and dry there and we were issued bandanas to were to keep the sun off of us. I still have one and like to think of it as part of my official uniform. We were paid the highest allowable per diem due to the conditions. We ran across several rattlesnakes, still alive and not too happy to be bothered. Most ended up on the wrong end of a gas powered weed eater with a large metal blade." (One offical later stated that hundreds of rattlesnakes were killed)

An article in Aviation Week a week after the crash examined some of the operations that were taking place at the crash site, including the use of explosive charges. It was speculated that they were to remove embedded aircraft sections. However, in actuallity the webmaster has learned that the EOD team that blew up a large boulder did so not to dislodge a piece of the aircraft, but to remove the outline of the aircraft.ŠIt seems the aircraft (top secret at the time) pancaked on the outcropping and left an outline that was clearly visible from the air.

In a fashion typical of the popular media, Newsweek ran a story that contained several serious inaccuracies. The report indicated that over 72 stealth fighters were in operation and that any debris from the crash could be analyzed and information obtained that "the Kremlin would love to get its hands on." As a result of this, the article claimed, Pentagon officials "wondered if they'd have to keep the entire area cordoned off--forever." Another false rumor is that the USAF scattered pieces of an old F-101 Voodo at the crash site.

Public land once again

In fact, the area was not kept cordoned off forever but rather to until August 11, 1986. A television crew investigated the site on August 12, 1986,the day after the Air Force departed. They found numerous aircraft fragments, the largest of which was 2.5 x 1.5 inches. The pieces were turned over to the Air Force.

Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis Hike to Number 792 Crash Site

Two months later on October 18th, 1986, Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis hiked to the site, and found a component 7 inches in diameter, with a weight of 6 pounds. They turned this over to the Air Force after photos of Marvel with the part were published in the L.A. Times.

Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis wrote the following account for www.f-117a.com:

We flew Bill Marvel's airplane over the top of the restricted area within days of the report of the "secret" aircraft's crash near Bakersfield, California. Since the restricted area's location was public knowledge and since it had an upper altitude of about 7000 feet, it was a simple matter to locate the site and fly over it just above the upper limit. We stored the location in the airplane's navigation equipment and circled to see a number of jeeps, trucks and bulldozers on the ground in very rugged terrain. This equipment was on a ridge line; we did not see anything down in the canyon where impact occurred, nor did we know at the time where, exactly, the aircraft struck the ground. It was clear the vehicles were dropped in by helicopter as no roads existed anywhere near the site.
Right after the restricted area was cancelled, we returned to the site using the previously-stored location in Bill's airplane's navigation equipment. From the air we sketched a rough map of where the crash site was with reference to where we could park a car. Using the airplane for both direction and time/distance information allowed us to refine the map to determine which direction we had to travel and which canyons we had to follow to reach the site.
This was pretty coarse. Parking the car, for instance, was something that sounded like, " go past the second right turn after the road hits the canyon and then look for the huge boulder on the left. Park anywhere you can near that and find a place to cross the Kern River."
Fortunately both of us are backpackers and are at home in the boonies. We had little difficulty finding the site but had a real problem crossing the Kern River. In fact, a ranger we encountered told us that several people had died earlier trying to cross it in the violent currents that comprise most of its length in that area. Because of that we had to scratch the trip the first weekend we tried and came back a week later, on October 18, 1986 with a rubber boat. With the boat and some searching, we found a deep, slow area of the river we could safely cross. Once we did that, the 117 crash site was ours to find and explore.
The hike up was a couple of hours and when we found it we were surprised how well the AF did in cleaning up the wreckage. There were a lot of very small parts, but nothing that we thought revealed anything about the nature of the airplane. The entire area was burned, and we were not sure how much of that was the result of the crash as opposed to the AF intentionally burning off more to find any scattered components.
When we were in the impact area, we heard the deep drone of a helicopter approaching and hid under some burned trees. It was a military chopper, and lowered its landing gear for an apparent landing on the same ridge we had seen from the plane. We were concerned that maybe we had tripped some type of motion or acoustic sensor that may have been left behind, but also knew the area was no longer considered restricted. Those concerns abated when the helo raised its gear and left the area. We continued our search.
We spent a good two hours combing the area, climbing all of the local hills looking for anything that might have been left behind. In doing so we determined the direction the plane had to have been traveling at impact, as well as the main impact area. Based on that we did a more concerted search "downrange" from the point where it hit the ground. It was then that Bill stubbed his boot toe on something and a part of it sticking out of the ground was shiny. A little digging produced the component that was later pictured in the Los Angeles Times after we notified them of our successful adventure.
Finding nothing further, we hiked up to an American flag that was waving on a flag pole near the crash site. We thought that possibly some sort of military guard might have been stationed there and called in the helicopter when he saw us. However, the flag was all by itself and there was no one but us in the area. We decided it must have been left there as a tribute to the pilot who was killed in the crash, since there was no evidence anyone was staying there.
Our trip out was the reverse of the one in, and our boat was still there to take us back across the river and to the car. We were tired but pleased that we had found something from the plane that supposedly did not exit.
A day after Bill's picture and that of the 117 part appeared in the L.A. Times, the paper called to notify Bill that they had been asked by investigators at Edwards AFB to have him call them so that they could make arrangements to pick up the component. Since Bill is a USAF Academy graduate and had no reason to hide anything, he called the number the Times gave him to comply with the AF's request. He talked to a full colonel who drove the same day from Edwards to Bill's house in the L.A. area to recover the part. Bill's wife, Marti, served coffee to the three of them before the officer drove back to Edwards. While nothing of any concrete nature was revealed by the colonel, he did make a point of saying that the area had been infested with rattlesnakes and that they killed hundreds of them. We did not see a single one, due in all likelihood to the fact it was much cooler in October than it had been in July. The colonel also said that the restricted area was created so no one could see anything of "this strange airplane." Bill took the comment as confirmation that the plane was, indeed, the "stealth fighter."
[Photos by Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis]

Dave Lewis readying the inflatable boat we used to cross the Kern River. The week before we searched for two hours for a place to cross safely. The water was either too deep and wide or too fast. We located this spot and opted to return the following weekend for the trip to the crash site.

[Photos by Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis]

It took a couple of hours to reach the site. Here is Dave Lewis shedding some of the long sleeve clothing we wore to start out before the climb warmed us up. As you can see, the area consists of intersecting canyons and terrain that is steep and covered with brush. The going was slow in some areas.

[Photos by Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis]

This is the view from the American flag into the crash site canyon. Keep in mind that this entire area was covered with heavy brush prior to the accident. The bottom of the canyon shown is about 200 feet down a steep slope.

[Photos by Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis]

This is the American flag on its pole as viewed from the impact area. It is much steeper than it appears, but we climbed to the flag to see if anyone was there. The site was abandoned, as the entire area is remote and not served by any roads.

[Photos by Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis]

Bill Marvel shown with the component he found by accident when his boot hit an object buried in the dirt. He noted that a part of it was shiny. Some digging revealed the rest of the part, which we took with us. Bill's photo and a close up of the part were later printed in the Los Angeles Times. As a result the Air Force requested its return and Bill complied.

[Photos by Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis]

Here are close up views of the component recovered along with a six inch ruler to show the relative size of everything. No one has ever told us what part of the plane it came from, but it does have a turbine-like center in the top and bottom views. However, in the center view, showing the other side, some of it is painted white and looks like a part of a wheel associated with the landing gear. Why a wheel would have a turbine inside it makes us question if it is a wheel at all. As we said, we have no concrete information on what the part is from.

Tribute to a fallen Bandit

Apparently there were two tributes to Maj. Mulhare made. The first, an American Flag was left flying on a small hill that overlooked the crash site after the 4450th TG members had departed.

The first people to report the presence of the flag were newsmen from KERO-TV in Bakersfield. They visited the site by helicopter on 12 August 1986, the day after Air Force restrictions were lifted. Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis also reported the flag.

It appears that the flag was replaced every few years. The last new flag was apparently placed in July 1992. By January 1998, that 4th flag was completely destroyed. The pole was much shorter by then also.

The Rock

There is a second tribute - a rock covered in a clear laquer with an engraved plate from either Mulhare's or Stewert's crash site. It was kept in the 416 TFS, later the 416 FS. at Tonopah Test Range. Rumor has it that it was located at Tonopah and not at the actual crash site because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wouldn't allow it to be put where the jet crashed. It is currently unknown which F-117A crash this rock was from. Rumor also has it that the rock is currently in the 9th FS headquarters at Holloman AFB. (The webmaster has not been able to confirm this information)


On Sun. Sept. 12, 1999, eight intrepid individuals made the long hike to where the USAF placed the American flag that once stood overlooking the crash site. They found that the original flag pole was a steel pipe, toped with a wooden pole, capped with a metal eagle. The pipe was screwed together at a joint in the middle. That joint has failed due to metal fatigue. They refitted the wood section into the pipe, and drilled holes for metal fittings. Unfortunately, the eagle was gone. These eight men brought with them a new sturdy American Flag and raised it over the site where Maj. Mulhare lost his life over 13 years ago. It had been seven years since the last American flag was raised by the USAF.

Active Duty

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