The story of when USAF replaced the debris of a crashed F-117 with those of a crashed F-101 Voodoo to keep the Nighthawk Secret

The story of when USAF replaced the debris of a crashed F-117 with those of a crashed F-101 Voodoo to keep the Nighthawk Secret

By Dario Leone
Jul 6 2023
Share this article

The crashed F-101 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 Nighthawk debris.

The Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk was developed in response to a US Air Force (USAF) request for an aircraft capable of attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radar. By the 1970s, new materials and techniques allowed engineers to design an aircraft with radar-evading or “stealth” qualities.

The result was the F-117A, the world’s first operational stealth aircraft.

The first F-117A flew on Jun. 18, 1981, and the first F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group (renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989), achieved initial operating capability in October 1983.

Nevertheless, the Nighthawk was kept under the strictest of secrecy for many years. It wasn’t until 1988 that the program was publicly acknowledged, and not until 1990 that it made its first formal public appearance. By this time, the aircraft had been operational for seven years.

As we have already explained, by July 1986, trade journals and writers had turned out a number of articles on what some called the “F-19” stealth fighter, one of the most legendary fictional aircraft. Models of the F-19 started to appear in the eighties and were available from four manufacturers: Revell, Monogram, Italeri and Testors. All of them claimed that their models originated from a kit based on photos of an existing aircraft taken around Area 51, but it bore no resemblance to the real thing. That fact undoubtedly pleased those working on the secret program.

Fireworks over Baghdad: when the F-117 stealth fighters dropped the first bombs of Operation Desert Storm
An F-117A aircraft from the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (37th TFW) moves in for a midair refueling during Operation Desert Shield.

On Jul. 11, 1986 35-year-old Maj. Ross E. Mulhare, assigned to the 4450th Tactical Group, took off from Tonopah Test Range in Nevada and flew his F-117 into California airspace on what would prove to be his last flight. Mulhare, a 1974 graduate of the Air Force Academy, told his friends and members of his family in New Jersey that he flew F-5E fighter airplanes in mock combat missions against pilots from Tactical Air Command.

Air & Space Forces Magazine reports:

‘Shortly before his flight, Mulhare was overheard telling a colleague that he was tired and “couldn’t shake it.” Despite his physical condition, Mulhare took off at 1:13 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time–such late night flights were intended to prevent discovery of the airplane’s unique shape–and proceeded westbound into the eastern portion of the San Joaquin Valley. He flew down the eastern side of the valley toward Bakersfield.’

At about 1:45 a.m., at about 17 miles northeast of Bakersfield, Mulhare’s airplane went into a steep dive and smashed into a hillside just inside the Sequoia National Forest. Mulhare was killed.

The story of when legendary ace Robin Olds put on a Thunderbirds-style show with four F-101s to get off of the promotion list for brigadier general to become a combat wing commander in Vietnam
McDonnell F-101C Voodoo 

The physical damage to the aircraft was such that one of the crash investigators described it as “without exception … the worst crash I have worked.” He went on to observe that while there was only light fire damage to the airframe, “the structural breakup was almost absolute” and that ” ‘shattered’ may best describe the aircraft after impact.” As a result, identification of special components was frequently impossible.

According to Knowledge Stew, the crash caused a 150-acre brush fire.

The USAF was vague about the incident. Actually, the head of the service public affairs said the airplane had only one crew member and “was definitely not a bomber.” Air Force officials at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) acknowledged that Mulhare had not been a member of the base’s aggressor squadrons, which emulated Soviet air combat tactics in order to train USAF pilots. An Air Force spokesman also acknowledged that Mulhare was a member of the 4450th Tactical Group but said that all information about the unit was classified, and he could not discuss any of it.

The Kern County sheriff’s office, whose jurisdiction included Bakersfield, did relay some further information from the Air Force–telling reporters that the “whole area has been restricted, including the airspace above the crash site” and that “there will be military aircraft in the area and anyone entering the area will be dealt with appropriately by the Air Force.”

Air & Space Forces Magazine says:

F-117A print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-117A Nighthawk (Stealth) 49th OG, 8th FS “The Black Sheep Squadron”, HO/88-843, Holoman AFB, NM – 2008

‘At the crash site investigators collected evidence and evaluated the remains of the aircraft for clues to the cause of the tragedy. Then came the task of cleaning the site and leaving no pieces of the highly classified aircraft for scavengers, the media, or others to find. A clean-up team moved out a thousand feet from the last of the recognizable debris and then dug and sifted all the dirt in the area.

‘On Jul. 23, controlled explosive charges were detonated on the hillside to free pieces of the aircraft buried as the result of the crash.’

Then, according to Knowledge Stew, the Air Force 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 the area was no longer restricted.

The very next day, a reporter and photographer from Bakersfield’s KERO-TV were transported to the crash site by helicopter. They later said they didn’t expect to find anything because they assumed the Air Force had cleaned the area thoroughly. But to their great surprise, they found countless pieces of debris scattered within 100 to 150 feet of a dirt helicopter landing pad built by the Air Force. They filled three bags with the material, and it was displayed on the station’s Friday evening news broadcast. They then turned the bags over to an Air Force public affairs officer. An Edwards AFB spokesman said the debris would be examined as a precaution, but that there were no immediate plans to return to the crash site to recover more.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and RuthAS Own work via Wikipedia

F-117 Model
This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

Share this article

Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
Share this article

Share this article
Back to top