Magonia 82, August 2003.
It was a hot day in the late summer of 2002. I was in a bookstore in Palmdale and saw a copy of Nick Cook’s The Hunt for Zero Point. (1] As I read Cook’s story of secret anti-gravity technology, Nazi flying saucers, Black airplanes, shadowy sources, and sinister cover-ups, all told in a breathless first-person account, I realized that ufology had returned to its roots. Not simply the technological nuts and bolts of the 1950s, but back to the books of Donald Keyhoe and their atmosphere of ’saucer-noir.’
As the name suggests, the structure and tone mirrored hard-boiled detective novels of the 1930s. Raymond Chandler put it simply. “The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth.” In search of that truth, the hero must travel “down these mean streets,” on a journey which leads to official lies and obstacles at every turn. 
Cook’s journey begins at the F-117A crash site near Bakersfield, California. His guide was Sheriff’s Deputy ‘Amelia Lopez’, who had witnessed the crash when a law student on a camping trip with friends near the Kern River. She had just got into her sleeping bag early on the morning of July 11, 1986 when the sonic boom from the F-117A hit their campsite, sending a shower of embers from the fire. The horizon was then lit up as the aircraft slammed into Saturday Peak some ten miles away. The group headed for the crash site, but had gone only five miles before being confronted on a trail by an Air Force ‘red team’, flown in by helicopter to secure the site. Lopez was thrown to the ground, had a boot on her back, and a gun held to her head. When they were finally released, the group went back to the camp site, where ‘Lopez’ talked to a reporter. A decade later, Cook tracks ‘Lopez’ down from the newspaper report, and she reluctantly agrees to show him the crash site. 
Cook and Lopez arrived near the crash site in the early evening, then headed up a slope. They crossed an old, broken-down barbed wire fence, and entered the brush. They reached the crash site just as the sun was setting. It was about 2,000 feet below the summit of the mountain. Here, Cook wrote, “the ground was even and covered with a crusty layer of dirt. The plants and trees were younger than the vegetation we’d passed on the way up. But that was the only real clue that something had happened here.” Lopez then comments that “I read they sieved the dirt for a thousand yards out from the impact point …. A few weeks after they left it was like nothing ever happened here.”
Cook continued that “there was no physical evidence – no fragments amidst the thin soil and the rocks – to suggest anything out of the ordinary had occurred… But they left something behind, something you couldn’t see or touch – and it was that trace, that echo of past deeds, that brought me here …. it told me there was a secret out there and that it was so big no one person held all of the pieces. I knew, too, that whatever it was, the secret had a dark heart, because I could smell the fear that held it in place.” As they went back down the hill, Cook concluded. “Through half-closed eyes, I could almost reach out and touch it.” 
As I read Cook’s hard-boiled soliloquy on that hot summer day, I realized it had a few loose ends, such as the missing flag pole. In July of 1986, the 4450th Tactical Group operated three squadrons of F-117s at an airfield at the Tonopah Test Range (TTR) in northern Nevada. The group’s cover was as an avionics and evaluation unit for the A-7 aircraft. During the day, the F-117s were locked away in hangars, which were not opened until one hour after sunset. Two waves of training missions were flown each weeknight, the “early-go” and the “late-go.” The F-117s had to complete their late-go missions, land back at TTR, and be in their hangars with the doors closed one hour before sunrise. The pace of operations at TTR, combined with the nighttime schedule, took a toll on the F-117 pilots, and this was the root cause of the Bakersfield crash. 
Maj. Ross E. Mulhare was scheduled for a late-go mission on the morning of Friday, July 11, 1986. As he prepared for the flight, Mulhare told a colleague that he was tired and “just couldn’t shake it.” His call sign for the flight was Arie1 31. Two other F-117s were also flying the same planned route, at intervals behind his aircraft.
Mulhare took off from TTR at 1:13 a.m. PDT, in F-117A serial number 81-0792. The night was clear, with no Moon. He flew northwest to the town of Tonopah, Nevada, then turned southwest and climbed to an altitude of 20,000 feet. He was in radio contact during the flight with air traffic controllers at the Los Angeles and Oakland Centers. Mulhare’s transmissions and the aircraft’s transponder signals indicated that he was flying an A-7. Mulhare then crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains, and turned south along the edge of the San Joaquin Valley. Mulhare received a controller’s permission to descend to 19,000 feet. Nearing Bakersfield, Mulhare turned southeast, requested a descent to 17,000 feet, and then cancelled his instrument flight plan at 1:44 a.m. The F-l17 then slipped into a steep dive, at an angle of 20 to 60 degrees, apparently due to Mulhare’s fatigue and disorientation. With its twin jet engines at full power, the F-117 accelerated towards the ground. 
Below, Andy Hoyt, his sister Lisa. and her sixteen-year-old son Joey had parked at a rest stop when they saw the descending vehicle. Hoyt said later that, “It seemed like it was something other than an-airplane. Believe it or not, I thought it was a UFO.” He was unable to get a good look at it, telling a reporter, “All I saw were three red lights and a dark image behind them like an upside-down triangle,” which disappeared behind a hill opposite them. Suddenly, a pair of explosions “lit up the sky like it was daylight out.” The F-117 hit the ground at 1:45 a.m.; killing Mulhare instantly. 
The first on the scene were a Kern County Sheriff Department search team. The crash sparked a fire in the Sequoia National Forest, which burned 150 acres before being contained by morning. The Air Force cordoned off the crash site, and the firefighters were not allowed within the area. They were also required to sign forms agreeing not to discuss what they had seen. The surrounding area was declared a National Defense Area. This prevented access by unauthorised personnel on the ground, and closed the airspace above it. Although Mulhare was identified as the pilot; no details about the aircraft were released. This fuelled press speculation that an “F-19 stealth fighter” had crashed. 
“It seemed like it was something other than an airplane.
Believe it or not, I thought it was a UFO”
The crash site itself was nearly inaccessible, even though it was located only 15 nautical miles from Bakersfield. The F-117 had impacted on a steep and rugged wall of the Kern River Canyon. The slopes were covered with thin grass, with only a few clumps of light brush, and a few scattered maple, oak, and pine trees. Cattle trails meander through the area. Although the impact point was directly opposite the Live Oak Picnic Area, the slope is such that the crash site could not be see from the rest stop. State Highway 178 runs along the floor of the canyon; but the crash site was on the opposite slope, and direct access was cut off by the Kern River.
Rather than trying to cross the river, then climb up the steep slope, the Air Force recovery crew approached from the rim of the canyon. A small bulldozer cut a winding trail down a ridge to a point above the impact point, where a helicopter pad was levelled out. Search crews and investigators were brought in by UH-1 helicopters flying from Meadows Field at Bakersfield. The sight which greeted them was stunning. The F-117′s impact had dug a pit in the ground, and debris was thrown out in a fan-shaped pattern that covered well over a hundred yards, across a steep slope, over a ridge, and down the other side. What the recovery crew did over the next month later became a subject of controversy. A retired Lockheed official, now deceased, stated that the recovery crew went out a thousand yards beyond the last piece of debris. dug up the soil, and then sifted through every cubic foot for any debris. Once all traces had been removed, debris from a F-101 that had crashed at Groom Lake in the 1960s was scattered around the area. His comments were later repeated in books and articles. 
The recovery operation was completed on Wednesday, August 6, 1986, when the ground personnel were withdrawn from the area. The following afternoon, Thursday, August 7, the access restrictions on the crash site were lifted. A press conference was held about a mile from the site. All that remained, an Air Force spokesman told a group of reporters, was a scorched patch of ground. The next morning, the crash site had its first civilian visitors. 
On Friday, August 8, KERO-TV Channel 23 reporter Karl Schweitzer, cameraman Carlos Espinoza, helicopter pilot David Richards, and an earth scientist flew to the site, landing at the dirt pad. Schweitzer said later that they had not expected to find any debris, believing that the Air Force had removed every trace. Instead, they discovered countless small fragments within 100 to 150 feet of the landing pad. He and Espinoza filled three plastic food storage bags with pieces in 20 minutes.
Schweitzer described the fragments as pieces of plastic and circuit boards, various metal fragments, some non-metallic mesh, and “a piece of shiny metal shaped like a nozzle.” Most of the debris was about an inch in size, while the largest was two-and-a-half inches by one inch. Richards said that the debris he saw looked like stainless steel nuts and tubing, metal fragments, and composite material. The scientist found none of the debris was radioactive. KERO showed the recovered debris on their Friday newscasts.The news crew found something else, as well. Overlooking the impact point, atop a rocky mound in the middle of the gully, a twenty-foot tall pole with a U.S. flag had been set up by the recovery personnel as a memorial to Major Mulhare.
The Air Force contacted KERO on Saturday, August 9, the day after the broadcast. Helicopter pilot Richards was also contacted on the same day, by an individual who identified himself as being with the Air Force. Apparently suspicious of the approach, Richards then called the FBI, and turned over the debris that he had collected to its personnel. He explained that, “I didn’t want to inadvertently turn it over to any foreign agents,” The following Monday, August 11, an Air Force public affairs officer from Edwards AFB, Lt. Col. Jerry Guess, came to the station to collect the three bags of debris. He said that the debris would be examined, but there were no plans to return to the crash site for an additional search. 
The crash site soon received two additional visitors, Bill Marvel, a former Air Force Captain, and Dave Lewis. If Cook’s description of the site was a trip down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets, Marvel and Lewis’ visit was more akin to the adventures of Indiana Jones. Their quest began only two days after the crash. They flew over the site, above the 8,000 foot restricted altitude, and marked the location. They could see trucks and bulldozers on the rim of the canyon, but not the actual crash site. Then, in early September, soon after the restrictions were lifted, they made a low-level pass to map out the route they would use for the climb.
They made the first attempt to reach the site in early October, but they were unable cross the fast-flowing Kern River. They were told by the Forest Service that a search was still underway for five people who had drowned while rafting. (Since 1968, over a hundred people have died in such accidents on the Kern River.) Eventually finding a possible crossing point, they decided to try again the next weekend.The pair returned on October 18. The spot on the Kern River was not too wide nor had too swift a current, and they crossed in a rubber raft. Once safely across, they began the hike up the steep slope, through v-shaped gullies. When they reached the general area of the crash, they heard the drone of an approaching military helicopter, and they hid under burned bushes. The helicopter had its wheels down, as if about to land. Marvel and Lewis thought they might have tripped a sensor. The helicopter hovered for several minutes, then raised its gear and flew off.
Marvel and Lewis spent some two hours combing the area for debris. They were able to find the impact point, reconstruct the direction the aircraft had been headed, and the size of the debris field. The fragments were tiny bits of aluminium and titanium. Then, Marvel caught the toe of his boot on a large buried object. This proved to be an engine component, seven inches in diameter and weighing six pounds. Marvel said later, “We never expected to find anything that big. Maybe it was totally covered over with dirt when the Air Force was in there scouring every inch, and then maybe the rain washed away enough dirt for me to see it.”
Marvel and Lewis then climbed farther up the slope, to the flag pole. They still though the crash site would be monitored, and suspected the guard who called in the helicopter might be there. When the pair reached, the flag pole, they found the site was deserted. They were the only people at the site. 
Marvel told the Los Angeles Times about the adventure. As with KERO, the Air Force contacted Marvel, asking that he return the debris. Marvel never expected to be able to keep it, and offered to fly it up to Edwards AFB or deliver it to the Air Force station in El Segundo, where he had worked as a spacecraft engineer in the early 1970s. The Air Force did not want anyone else to touch it, however. and Colonel Guess made a special trip from Edwards to Marvel’s home. During the visit, he said that the recovery crew had killed some fifty rattlesnakes and numerous scorpions during the operation. Colonel Guess added that there would be no further contact from the Air Force. 
As I continued reading The Hunt for Zero Point I kept thinking about the prologue. Cook’s description of the crash site and the loose ends kept nagging at me. Marvel’s photos and account, the newspaper articles, aerial photos, and the declassified accident report painted a very different picture of the F-117 crash site than Cook’s rather bland description. Nothing was said about crossing the raging Kern River, or having to struggle up a steep and rugged slope fit only for mountain goats. Cook wrote that he and ‘Lopez’ crossed an old, broken-down barbed wire fence, yet there is no such fence at the crash site. When they reached the site, no mention was made of the flag pole. Cook specifically said that there were no fragments, which was counter to what the KERO crew as well as Marvel and Lewis reported.
I smiled as I put the book back on the shelf and headed out the door. The summer heat baked the parking lot. In the distance, the brown hills loomed above the city. There were a couple of things I had to track down to be sure that my suspicions were correct. Once I had the information, there was only one conclusion possible: Cook and ‘Lopez’ went to the wrong place!
- Nick Cook. The Hunt For Zero Point: One Man’s Journey to Discover the Biggest Secret Since the Invention of the Atom Bomb. London: Arrow, 2001.
- Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Vantage Books, 1988, p.18.
- Cook, The Hunt For Zero Point, p.x, xi. Cook notes that he deliberately blurred Lopez’s identity.
- Ibid, p xi-xiii.
- James Goodall, F-117 Stealth in Action, Carrollton, Tex: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1991, p.3038.
- William B. Scott, “F-117A Crash Reports Cite Pilot Fatigue, Disorientation,” Aviation Week and Space Technology (May 15, 1989), p.22, and Bill Sweetman and Jim Goodall, Lockheed F-117A. Osceola, Wisconsin: Motorbooks, 1990. p.81, 82.
- “Man saw stealth’ jet crash,” undated newspaper clipping from the F-117A 81-0792 accident report. It is not clear from the story if Andy Hoyt and the others were at the Live Oak Picnic Area or the Upper Richbar Picnic Area. The latter is about a mile up stream, and around a bend in the Kern River from the crash site.
- “Pentagon seals off plane crash site,” San Diego Union (July 12, 1986) A-1, “Crew works to salvage secret plane,” San Diego Union (July 13, 1986) A-2, and “USAF Aircraft Destroyed in Crash Believed to Be Stealth Fighter,” Aviation Week and Space Technology (July 21, 1986) p.22, 23.
- Aerial photos, topographic maps of the area, and the debris field map in the FA 17A 81-0972 accident report.
- Goodall, F-117 Stealth in Action, p. 16. Had such an excavation been made, it would have covered an area of nearly a square mile, and the site would have resembled a strip mine. No such evidence is visible in Marvel and Lewis’ photos, or later aerial shots. The claim that F-101 debris was left at the site is also false. The fragments of composite materials recovered by the KERB crew are consistent with what is now known about the F-117′s design.
- “Probe Ends at Site of Mystery Jet Crash,” undated newspaper clipping.
- David Holley, “TV Crew Finds Debris at AF Jet Crash Site,” Los Angeles Times (August 12, 1986), and “TV station hands over wreckage from mystery crash to Air Force,” Los Angeles Daily News (August 12, 1986).
- A first-hand description of Marvel and Lewis’ climb, as well as photos of the river crossing, slope, the crash site, flag pole, and the recovered debris are at www.f-117a.com
- Bob Williams, “Captain Marvel Finds What Does Not Exist Part of Stealth Mystery,” Los Angeles Times (November 27, 1986).