A Lonely Monument
 

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PETER MERLIN AT THE MEMORIAL WITH THE FIRST FLAG DEC. 28, 1986
Before departing the crash scene on 6 August 1986, personnel from the 4450th Tactical Group erected a simple monument to memorialize Ross Mulhare. Because Mulhare was born on the fourth of July, Independence Day, they felt that an American flag would be the best memorial. The monument consisted of a cemented rock cairn that served as a base for a 20-foot flagpole topped with a brass eagle. The cairn was built on a hilltop on a rocky spur in the middle of the canyon, just a short distance above the impact point. There is no record to tell what words were spoken to dedicate the memorial. After the last USAF helicopter departed, on 6 August, silence returned to the charred, debris-strewn canyon. It was broken only by the crack and snap of the Stars-and-Stripes waving proudly in the breeze.

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WADE COOKSEY AT THE AIRCRAFTS POINT OF IMPACT DEC. 28, 1986
The first outsiders to visit the site were members of a news crew from KERO-TV in Bakersfield. They flew in by helicopter on 8 August and were the first to report the presence of the flag. Other visitors followed. Bill Marvel and Dave Lewis hiked to the site on 18 October. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bill recounted his adventure and remarked on the flag.

Peter Merlin first visited the F-117A crash site on 28 December 1986. He and Wade Cooksey planned their trek by studying maps and plotting the airspace restrictions that had been in place during the accident investigation. Pete overlayed the restricted airspace boundary on an aeronautical sectional chart, the type used by pilots to navigate. The center of the restricted zone fell in a steep tributary of Kern River Canyon. Next, Pete transferred the approximate location to a more detailed topographic map.

To reach the site, Pete and Wade crossed the Kern River and hiked up the steep canyon to the crash scene. By now, fresh green shoots of grass had begun to sprout on the blackened earth. In contrast, the impact point stood out as a white indentation of pulverized granite. The airplane had struck the ground at a steep angle, blasting debris hundreds of feet in all directions. Nearby trees were still charred black. A smoky odor competed with earthy scents. Water burbled from a spring below the crash site and the flag flapped gaily in the breeze. A hawk soared overhead.

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THE REMNANTS OF THE FLAG AS WE FOUND IT ON SEPT. 12, 1999
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TONY MOORE AND JEFF HUDSON REPLACE THE FLAG SEPTEMBER 12, 1999
Pete returned for a solo expedition on 18 October 1987. The summer sun had burned the tall grass a tawny yellow. The impact point was not yet grown over and remained a stark white patch on the mountainside. The American flag was still there, but it was faded and tattered by the wind. Surely it would last much longer.

Pete revisited the site with Mark Miller on 4 August 1990. To their surprise, they found a brand new flag in place. This was most likely the third flag to grace the site, probably replacing on that had been placed in July 1988. The impact point was no longer well defined. Grass had begun to cover the scar.

On 1 August 1992, Pete took Tony Moore and Eric LeVeque to the crash site in Kern River Canyon. They forded the mighty Kern and climbed a steep ridge adjacent to the tributary canyon. By now the impact point was almost completely overgrown and no longer served as a landmark. Approaching the site, they spotted the flag, hanging limp, on a shortened pole. The brass eagle was missing. The pole was shorter too, having broken and been crudely repaired. The flag, however, was brand new.

Pete took photographer Marc Solomon to the site on 30 January 1993. They found the flag badly tattered by the wind. This was probably the last flag placed by the Air Force. By now, the F-117A unit (the 4450th Tactical Group had become the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing) had moved to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Mulhare's colleagues had transferred or retired. There was no one left to replace the flag at Mulhare's crash site.

When Pete revisited the crash site on 1 January 1998, he found the flag completely destroyed. Shreds of it were scattered about the canyon. He decided it was time to do something about it.

On 12 September 1999, Pete returned to the site with Tony and several friends. Pete unfurled a new flag while Tony attached it to the pole. Once again the Stars and Stripes flew proudly over the canyon, a lonely monument to a Cold War hero.

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