On July 11, 1986, a military airplane crashed at 2:00 AM in the Sequoia National Forest in California, killing the pilot and causing a 150-acre brush fire. It was a crash the United States Air Force didn’t want anyone to know about.
The reason was because the airplane that had crashed was the secret Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. The F-117 was on a test flight when the incident occurred and was a top-secret project. The Air Force immediately cordoned off the area of Kern River Canyon, where the crash had happened, and restricted the airspace above it in an effort to keep prying eyes off the remains of the new aircraft.
The response from the Air Force was vague, as they stated only that a military aircraft had crashed in the Sequoia National Forest. The statement from the Kern County Sheriff’s Office was similar, saying that a military aircraft had crashed in the area, and the whole area had been restricted, including the airspace above the crash, by the Air Force. The Air Force wouldn’t give any additional details about what had happened to the press, only saying that the aircraft wasn’t a bomber and wasn’t armed.
Air Force personnel began cleaning up the crash site and the debris of the F-117 Nighthawk while armed personnel patrolled the perimeter keeping unauthorized visitors away. Investigators started collecting pieces of the debris and examining the site to determine the cause of the crash. The dirt around the crash site was dug through and then sifted during the cleanup to find any pieces of classified equipment. The cleanup team even detonated an explosive charge to free parts buried in the hillside.
The Air Force then brought in a crashed F-101A Voodoo, an aircraft that had been out of service with the Air Force since 1972 and with the Air National Guard since 1982. The crashed Voodoo had been in storage at the secretive Area 51 in Nevada for more than 20 years, and it was broken up and put in place of the F-117 debris. Almost a month later, the Air Force said it had withdrawn the armed guards, and the area was no longer restricted.
The next day after the area became unrestricted, a reporter and photographer from KERO-TV in nearby Bakersfield, California, went to the site by helicopter. They thought they wouldn’t find any pieces of the wreckage after the Air Force’s extensive cleanup, but instead, they located many pieces of debris. They gathered three bags of pieces they found and later showed them on the station’s evening newscast. They then turned the bags over to an Air Force public affairs officer.
The secretive nature of the incident only increased the public interest in what had happened. Many speculated that the flight had originated from Edwards Air Force Base in California, which was only about 80 miles away from the site of the crash and a known area for testing new, advanced aircraft.
Further speculation arose on what kind of aircraft had crashed when rumors circulated that it was a secret aircraft known as an F-19, the existence of which had never been confirmed by the Air Force but was believed to be a new type of fighter.
News agencies had already begun reporting that the plane was believed to be one of Lockheed’s top-secret stealth fighter jets and were calling it an F-19 since the Air Force had skipped this design number, going from F-18 to an F-20 fighter aircraft. The Pentagon did acknowledge that it was working on a stealth bomber, which would later become the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, but never that the aircraft that had crashed was a new stealth fighter.
The F-117 Nighthawk program started in the late 1970s after Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works won a competition for a new stealth fighter design. In 1981, the F-117 had its first test flight and was delivered to the Air Force the following year.
The aircraft was still kept a secret until 1988 when the development was made aware to the public, though no one knew what it looked like until 1990. A total of 64 Nighthawks were built, and it saw action in the Gulf War and Yugoslav Wars. The aircraft was retired in 2008 and replaced with the F-22 Raptor, though a fleet of F-117s is still maintained today.
Sources: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, War History Online, Air & Space Forces Magazine