It was a little after 10 in the morning when a black column of smoke began to rise above the creosote bushes that dot the western Mojave. Near the intersection of highways 178 and 14 in Southern California, motorists pulled to the side as they stopped to call 911 and take photos.
The fire was reported as being roughly 5 miles southwest of the town of Inyokern and 10 miles from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. As soon as first responders from the CHP and Kern County Fire Department began to arrive on scene, it became apparent that the fire had been started by a plane crash.
News of the crash was quickly picked up by Twitter :
Soon, the crashed aircraft was confirmed to have been from the Navy:
Information continued to trickle in over the next few days.
Naval Air Station Lemoore, where the crashed aircraft was based, explained that the aircraft was an F/A-18E on a training mission when it “experienced a mishap”. Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, roughly 10 miles to the northeast of the crash site, sent personnel to the site and assisted in the cleanup. NAWS China Lake’s relation to the training mission is unclear.
In the comments section of The Drive’s article on the crash, user dannocaz posted a photo purportedly showing the pilot safe on the ground with smoke and fire behind him. Another user, Johnfd54, replied with another photo and verified the authenticity of dannocaz’s photo. Both photos show the pilot uninjured and very close to the crash site. Importantly for our investigative needs, both photos also show a very small and well-contained crash site.
I have not been able to find any sort of official report on the crash, nor have I been able to narrow down the tail number of the aircraft involved.
The most complete statement I have been able to find comes from the Naval Air Forces, via United States Naval Institute News:
An F/A-18E Super Hornet from Naval Air Station Lemoore experienced a mishap at approximately 10:10 a.m. today during a routine training flight Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. The pilot ejected safely and was taken to a local medical facility for examination. The U.S. Navy is investigating with local authorities.Naval Air Forces
I was also unable to get a clear answer as to whether or not the aircraft had munitions onboard when it crashed.
This one turned out to be pretty easy. The date of the crash was immediately available, and news reports narrowed the location down to within a few miles, and from there it was just a matter of flipping through satellite images to find the burn scar that the fire left. I was able to narrow the location down to within a few hundred feet, and the search area was accessible via a dirt road and a little walking.
If you’re looking to start hunting for crash sites, this is a great search to start off with.
A very interesting clue I gathered from the satellite photos was the shape of the burn scar. If the plane had struck the ground at a low angle, the fuel would have spread out and ignited the brush in a V shape, with the point of the V at the point of impact. Here, however, the burn scar is almost circular, which seems to indicate that the plane was traveling either almost vertically or very slowly when it impacted.
On our way back from our first attempt to reach the Death Valley SA-16, Professor Plum, Tony Stark, and myself decided to see if my guess as to the F/A-18’s location was correct. It wasn’t very far from the road, and I figured a (hopefully) easy search would be nice after our defeat the day prior.
We were headed south, down the 395, and took a detour onto the 14. From there, it was only a few minutes until we were near the supposed crash site. Looking towards it, a number of grey shapes were visible in the distance. As soon as I saw them, I feared that they were dumpsters, and that anything we might have been able to find was already gone.
The last mile or two to the site was on an unmaintained BLM road. Mr. Stark’s car had the highest ground clearance and (hopefully) the least risk of bottoming out on any of the ruts we could see, so we left the other car parked alongside the highway and set off.
Sure enough, the grey shapes were dumpsters.
The dumpsters themselves provided immediate confirmation that we were indeed in the correct spot, and that I had done a good job in my sleuthing.
Interesting to note is the continued use of the word “mishap” to describe the crash.
NAVFAC Southwest – Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, Southwest – is “responsible for the public works, planning, engineering/design, construction, real estate, environmental services, and acquisition / disposal of facilities and real estate in a six state area on the West Coast.”
The dumpsters were also a sign that the site had been cleaned, and that – potentially, at least – nothing interesting was left. I was starting to get a little discouraged.
I had barely enough time to think back to Merlin’s first law – “there is always something left” – before the Professor called out, “I think I found something!”
As it turned out, debris littered the area.
The date scrawled on the dumpsters, 1/20/21, revealed that they had been sitting there for over two months by the time we arrived, and that the site itself had waited three months to be cleanup to be finished. “Finished” may not be the right word, considering how much was left in the soil.
It was tempting, but I didn’t open any of the dumpsters.
The dumpsters were towards the west of the site, lined up near the dirt road we had used to enter the site. To their east was on open space, devoid of any ground cover save for the scattered remains of a few burnt creosote bushes. All throughout the open space were tire tracks from heavy vehicles, and signs that the dirt had been dug up and turned – though, as the amount of tiny debris showed, not sifted with any great amount of care.
Towards the northeast of the area of disturbed earth, I found a small flag laying on it’s side, with the number “2.8” written on it.
This was the only such flag we found, and as such, I can’t put the number into any context.
A few feet away from the flag, we found a bolt that had been sheared off with great force. The metal surrounding the bolt had also been torn away from whatever it was originally attached to.
Nearby, what appeared to be a burnt circuitboard.
Another interesting find: honeycomb-backed plastic, with what appeared to be aluminum foil on one side.
A yellow line had been spray-pained around the area of dirt that had been disturbed. To one side of the line, the earth was solid, flat, and more or less pristine, aside from tire tracks. To the other side of the line, the ground dropped a few inches in height, and had obviously been turned.
Towards the southern end of the site, the Professor noticed this flap of rubbery material sticking out of the ground, and became intrigued when it didn’t move when pulled on.
We grabbed some flat stones from nearby and used them to begin digging around the flap. Soon we saw that it was attached to some metal below. The flap did eventually give way after a particularly energetic tug.
After a few minutes of digging with our impromptu shovels, we unearthed the largest section of aircraft we found for the day, comprised of a few large chunks.
There was what appears to be a BNC connector, an array of sheared bolts, and a curved section of metal two holes and a grey, vaguely rubbery coating on one side. Markings near the holes suggest that they are for levers with defined positions. The upper hole has positions “unlatch” and “latch”, and the lower hole has position “unlock” and at least one more. Text above the upper hole seems to read “plyon” and the spacing of the text present indicates at least one more word. Text to the left of the lower hole appears to be “caution / safety lock”.
Try as I might, I haven’t been able to identify where on the aircraft this would have come from. I even spent half an hour poring over an F/A-18 outside the Palm Springs Air Museum to no avail. This, combined with the “pylon” on the metal, leads me to believe that this is from some kind of underwing fuel pod.
Disappointingly, we were unable to locate any serial numbers or part numbers on any of the objects we found.
On the way out, I noticed some writing in red near the yellow line, on the non-excavated side. I wasn’t able to figure out what it says, but I’ve included a contrast- and color-adjusted photo of the text, as well as the original, just in case someone else can figure it out. If you manage to decipher it, please let me know.
We left the site more or less as we found it and headed down one of the many nearby dirt roads, with a cloud of dust trailing after us.
Part of me still regrets not opening any of those dumpsters.