The US Air Force Panicked When Its Top-Secret Stealth Fighter Crashed Into the California Wilderness

Photo Credit: 1. Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The San Francisco Chronicle / Getty Images (Contrast & Saturation Increased) 2. Thomas J. Pitsor / USAF / Getty Images

In July 1986, a Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk crashed in Sequoia National Forest – not that the US Air Force wanted anyone to know. As the incident began making headlines nationwide, the military went to great lengths to keep the identity of the aircraft a secret, going to far as to replace the wreckage with that of a McDonnell F-101A Voodoo.

What officials failed to realize is that they were actually increasing public interest in their attempts to keep everything classified.

Mysterious crash in Sequoia National Forest

Burned sequoia trees in Sequoia National Forest
Sequoia trees damaged by wildfires that occurred in Sequoia National Forest in 2017. (Photo Credit: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The San Francisco Chronicle / Getty Images)

On July 11, 1986, the US Air Force conducted a test flight of the F-117 Nighthawk, which, at the time, was still a top-secret project. At around 2:00 AM that morning, the aircraft crashed while flying over Sequoia National Forest, killing the pilot and triggering a 150-acre brush fire. The blaze was eventually brought under control by firefighters from Kern County and the US Forest Service.

Immediately after the incident, the Air Force cordoned off the area around Kern River Canyon, establishing a restricted airspace. This was to prevent anyone from viewing the scene and potentially gaining intel on the new aircraft being developed.

In a statement, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office said, “The whole area has been restricted, including the air space above the crash site. There will be military aircraft in the area, and anyone entering the area will be dealt with appropriately by the Air Force.”

A statement from the Air Force was equally as vague, only revealing that a US military aircraft had crashed in a general area of Sequoia National Forest and that a board of officers had been appointed to investigate the incident. “That’s the guidance we’ve been given from Washington,” said Staff Sgt. Lorri Wray. “We can’t give out any details.”

All a Pentagon spokesperson would reveal, when asked, was that the aircraft was “not a bomber.”

Replacing the F-117 Nighthawk with an F-101A Voodoo

McDonnell F-101A Voodoo parked on a runway
To keep the development of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk a secret, the US Air Force replaced the wreckage with that of a McDonnell F-101A Voodoo. (Photo Credit: USAF / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

US Air Force personnel worked diligently to pick up the debris from the F-117 Nighthawk, after which the downed aircraft was replaced by a crashed F-101A Voodoo, which had been stored at the mysterious Area 51 in Nevada. The former had been out of service with the Air Force since 1972 and the Air National Guard since ’82.

The crash immediately sparked public attention, with many assuming the aircraft had originated from Edwards Air Force Base, California, located approximately 65 miles from the crash site. The speculation arose due to the fact that aircraft tested out of the base are often more-advanced than those one would typically see take to the skies. These include prototypes, new bombers and ordinary aircraft that have been modified.

Among those tested there have been the Northrop F-20 Tigershark and the Rockwell B-1 Lancer.

Sources incorrectly reveal the aircraft was an F-19

Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk in flight
Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk. (Photo Credit: Images Press / Getty Images)

In an article published by the Associated Press on the day of the crash, International Arms Combat editor Andy Lightbody shared that unnamed sources had told him the aircraft was an F-19. The largely-hypothetical aircraft, which the US Air Force has never confirmed actually exists, has long been a topic of legend among those with an interest in military aviation.

The idea that the US military was developing a classified stealth aircraft with the designation “F-19” came about following the announcement for the F-20. As its predecessor was the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, many assumed a new fighter would have been given the next number in the sequence. Since that wasn’t the case, speculation arose regarding a top-secret project.

The Air Force quickly dispelled these rumors, saying the discrepancy was the result of Northrop specifically requesting that the Tigershark have the F-20 designation. Despite this, there are some who believe the F-19 to have been in development, with the task of manufacturing the fighter given to Lockheed.

Unveiling the F-117 Nighthawk

Prototype for the Lockheed Martin Have Blue parked near a building
Lockheed Martin presented the Have Blue to DARPA for consideration as the US Air Force’s next stealth fighter. The prototype eventually became the F-117 Nighthawk. (Photo Credit: US Air Force / DARPA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk came about in the 1970s in response to a study conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which found that aircraft manned by the United States were unexpectedly vulnerable to adversary forces. This led the agency to hold a competition for a new stealth fighter design, which Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works won.

A few years after the contract was awarded, in 1981, the F-117 underwent its first test flight, with deliveries to the US Air Force occurring the following year. Despite becoming operational just two years later, the stealth fighter was kept shrouded in secrecy, with the military only revealing its development to the public in 1988. Two years later, civilians were given their first glimpse of the aircraft.

Only 64 were built during the F-117’s service life, of which five were prototypes. Along with seeing service during the Gulf War, the aircraft featured in the Yugoslav Wars, during which one was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM). The stealth fighter was retired in 2008 and replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

Despite this, a fleet of F-117s are kept in airworthy condition.

F-117 Nighthawk specs

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk dropping a GBU-27 Paveway III mid-flight
Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk dropping a GBU-27 Paveway III laser-guided bomb during an exercise. (Photo Credit: MSGT EDWARD SNYDER / Defense Link / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Designed to deflect radar, the F-117 Nighthawk featured angled panels coated with radar-absorbing material, making the aircraft virtually invisible on-screen. It was capable of reaching a maximum speed of Mach 0.92, thanks to its two General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofan engines, and had a range of 1,070 miles.

The F-117 was equipped with two internal weapons bays with one hardpoint each, which allowed it to carry an array of explosives: the B61 nuclear bomb, the GBU-31 JDAM INS/GPS guided munition, the GBU-10 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, the GBU-27 Paveway III laser-guided bomb and the GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, all with varying types of warheads.

Other important features were that the F-117 had a V-tail and was air refuelable. Additionally, it was operated through the use of quadruple-redundant fly-by-wire flight controls, which had been derived from those used by the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F/A-18 Hornet, the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle and the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress.

More from us: Blohm & Voss BV 141: The Asymmetrical German Aircraft That Shouldn’t Have Been Able to Fly – But Did

Flown primarily by the US Air Force, the stealth fighter was operated by the 412th Test Wing out of Edwards Air Force Base; the 4450th Tactical Group and 37th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Tonopah Test Range, in Nevada; and the 49th Fighter Wing out of Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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