Ex-Air Force Capt. Bill Marvel of San Pedro says he is fascinated by anything cloaked in secrecy.
And what could be more secret than an aircraft that doesn't officially exist--even when it crashes into the side of a mountain?
"I just felt an insatiable curiosity about it," said Marvel, referring to the Air Force plane, believed to be a top-secret stealth jet fighter, that crashed and burned in rugged terrain near Bakersfield in July, killing the pilot.
"Here is something that's not supposed to exist, yet it does. It flies through the air, it uses fuel, it has a pilot. I had to get up there and take a look."
So the 40-year-old Marvel, in a feat worthy of his comic-book namesake, located the crash site in his private plane, backpacked into the Sierra Nevada with a buddy and found what he believes is a part from the phantom jet's engine.
That happened after the military, working behind an extraordinary news blackout, had spent nearly a month scouring the site for pieces of the aircraft, identified by congressional and other sources as Lockheed's radar-evading F-19 stealth fighter.
The aircraft reportedly exploded before plunging into a mountainside, leaving little wreckage for the searchers to find.
Marvel, who once worked on super-secret military projects himself, said his piece appears to be from a jet engine. He said it weighs about six pounds, measures seven inches in diameter and appears to be made of titanium, aluminum and steel.
"So now I know," he said. "It still doesn't exist, but you can hold it in your hands."
The Air Force wants to take it out of his hands as soon as possible. Lt. Col. Jerry F. Guess said last week that he would make a special trip down from Edwards Air Force Base to pick up the component.
Marvel, who said he didn't expect to keep his chunk of metal anyway, offered to fly it up to Edwards or deliver it to the Air Force station in El Segundo, where he worked years ago as a spacecraft engineer.
"But the colonel was pretty insistent," said Marvel, who left the Air Force in 1976 to go into real estate. "He didn't want anybody else to touch it."
Guess said Marvel's object would have to be examined by Air Force experts "before we really know what he's got. But if it is from the aircraft, it might help determine the cause of the crash."
Marvel said he had no difficulty in locating the remote crash site on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, despite an Air Force order, issued immediately after the accident, banning flights lower than 8,500 feet in the area.
All he had to do, he said, was call the Federal Aviation Administration and say he planned to fly over that general area.
"They told me where the restricted airspace was," he said, "and that was the same as telling me where the plane crashed."
Two days after the crash, Marvel said, he and Dave Lewis, 42, of Manhattan Beach took off from the Hawthorne Airport in Marvel's four-seat Grumman Tiger.
"Dave and I have been friends since our Air Force days," Marvel said. "We both desperately wanted to be pilots, but we didn't have the 20-20 vision you need to fulfill that dream. So we became engineers."
Flew at High Altitude
Marvel said he made a high-altitude pass over the crash site, storing the exact location in his navigation computer, then returned in early September after the military restrictions were lifted for a low-level flight to map out a route for reaching it on foot.
"We couldn't find a safe way across the Kern River the first time," he said. "The Forest Service told us they were still looking for the bodies of five other people who tried their luck on the rapids and didn't make it." The missing people apparently were rafting the Kern River and not involved in a search for the crash site.
In mid-October, the two friends returned again with an inflatable boat. After crossing the river, Marvel said, they backpacked for two hours to the crash site.
"There was an extensive burn area at the bottom of this canyon," he said, "and up this hill a ways, there was a 20-foot-high (American) flag, planted in the middle of nowhere. It must be a memorial to the pilot who died."
At first, the pair found only tiny fragments of titanium and aluminum, Marvel said. Then, as they expanded their search, Marvel found the larger piece, embedded in the dirt.
"I'll tell you, we were excited," he said. "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 just enough dirt for me to see it."
During their search, Marvel said, an Air Force helicopter suddenly flew in low and appeared about to land.
"We hid real fast," he said.
But after hovering for a few minutes, the chopper raised its landing gear and flew off, he said.
Marvel said he and Lewis never had any intention of compromising military security.
Moved by Curiosity
"It's just our curiosity about something that's surrounded by such incredible secrecy," he said. "And the fact is, they couldn't find that missing piece, but we did."
And if the piece fits into the Air Force puzzle of what went wrong, that will be an extra source of satisfaction, Marvel said.
Marvel and the public probably will be kept guessing about whether the piece fits or helps unravel the mystery crash. In line with Air Force policy, Guess declined to discuss the alleged existence of anything called stealth.