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Silence Clouds Mystery Plane Crash Inquiry

July 13, 1986|ERIC MALNIC | Times Staff Writer

Air Force investigators continued to search a scorched mountainside near Bakersfield Saturday for clues in the crash of what is believed to be a stealth jet fighter so secret that the Pentagon will not officially acknowledge its existence.

"They will work all night long and all weekend if they have to until they get the job done," said Don Healy, a spokesman at Edwards Air Force Base.

Security remained tight, with armed Air Force guards patrolling the perimeter of the remote, brush-covered site in the Sequoia National Forest where the plane crashed at about 2 a.m. Friday.

Officials Saturday lifted an extraordinary news blackout long enough to identify the lone crewman killed in the crash as pilot Ross E. Mulhare, 35, an Air Force major attached to the 4450 Air Tactical Group at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas.

Officials said Mulhare, a native of Fall River, Mass., leaves his wife and four children. The officials declined comment on whether he ejected from the plane before it crashed or whether his body was recovered at the crash site.

Lt. Col. John Kuminecz, a public information officer at Nellis, refused to discuss reports that the secret plane is based there, continuing a policy that has left details about the flight--including the type of plane that crashed, the field from which it took off, its destination and its mission--shrouded in mystery.

However, congressional sources in Washington have said the downed craft apparently was an F-19 stealth fighter, developed by the Lockheed California Co. at its military aircraft research and development arm--the super-secret "Skunk Works" in Burbank.

Electronic Features

The F-19 is said to utilize electronic and aerodynamic innovations designed to make it virtually undetectable by radar and infared sensing devices.

The Air Force has never acknowledged the existence of such a plane, but published reports indicate that several dozen have been produced in the past five years and most of them are now based in a carefully guarded, isolated enclave at Nellis.

Test flights--usually made at night, when operational missions would be flown--are said to be largely confined to lonely reaches of the Nevada desert near the Nuclear Testing Site that stretches for 100 miles between Tonopah and Indian Springs.

But the Air Force is known to make some test flights of experimental aircraft between Nellis and Edwards, the Air Force test facility in the Mojave Desert about 65 miles southeast of the crash site.

'Big, Black Spot'

One knowledgeable Air Force source said the plane that crashed Friday morning reportedly exploded in the air before plunging into the mountainside. The explosion, which he said was witnessed by a pilot in a chase plane, would explain why there was so little wreckage at the crash site.

"There was just a big, black spot on the side of a hill," said a U.S. Forest Service employee who said he got within a quarter-mile of the crash site.

The Forest Service employee was part of a team of 150 federal and Kern County firefighters rushed in to battle a brush fire started by the crash. The blaze blackened about 150 acres of grasslands and chaparral before it was brought under control.

Air Force security personnel quickly sealed off the few dirt roads leading into the area. While part of a national forest, the area is used primarily for cattle grazing and is seldom visited by tourists.

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