40 years of the Nighthawk - Skies Mag (2024)

40 years of the Nighthawk - Skies Mag (1)By Jamie Hunter | June 15, 2021

Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 30 seconds.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the maiden flight of the remarkable Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter, the U.S. Air Force’s famous “black jet” which is virtually invisible to radar. Preceded by a pair of sub-scale demonstrator aircraft known as Have Blue, the first of five development YF-117As (serial 79-10780) took to the air for the first time on June 18, 1981, in the skilled hands of Lockheed test pilot Hal Farley. A product of the famous Lockheed Skunk Works, the program was a top secret “black” project, but remarkably the initial flights were carried out from the clandestine test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, in broad daylight.

Lockheed built 59 production aircraft in addition to the first five development jets at its Burbank facility, which were airlifted to Groom Lake to be assembled and flown, with the first operational F-117 accepted by the USAF on Aug. 23, 1982. While testing continued at Groom Lake, the 4450th Tactical Group was quietly established at the re-developed Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield as the super-secret operator of the USAF’s new stealth fighters. The unit also operated A-7D Corsair IIs, which neatly acted as cover for the real role of the unit, which was to introduce the Nighthawk into service.

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Operation Just Cause — the U.S. invasion of Panama — served as the operational debut of the F-117 in December 1989, when Nighthawks were called upon for their bombing accuracy when they attacked targets linked to Panama’s General Manuel Noriega. However, it was Operation Desert Storm that was to truly stamp the F-117’s mark in aerial combat, as it took a lead role in one of the most important chapters in the history of military aviation.

The USAF publicly unveiled the F-117 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in April 1990, soon after the 4450th Tactical Group had become the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing and opened up daylight operations for its three squadrons of Nighthawks. (The F-117 pilots had previously been heavily restricted to flying nocturnally in order to keep the Nighthawks away from prying eyes.) Shortly after, in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which sparked one of the largest military mobilizations ever. Some 18 F-117s from Tonopah’s 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron were hurriedly deployed to Khamis Mushait in Saudi Arabia, followed by a second squadron in December. Then in the early hours of Jan. 17, 1991, F-117s were sent to downtown Baghdad as part of the first wave of strikes of Operation Desert Storm, unleashing laser-guided bombs on Saddam Hussein’s regime with lethal accuracy.

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The F-117s provided an incredible level of support to allied operations throughout the campaign, striking a range of targets, and providing critical capabilities, such as the ability to employ the GBU-27 “bunker-buster” bomb. The deployed Nighthawks accumulated some 1,271 combat sorties with an incredible mission capable rate of over 85 percent. 37th Tactical Fighter Wing commander, Col Alton Whitley, led his F-117 team back to Nellis AFB on April 1, 1991, to a hero’s welcome.

As a further move to bring the F-117 into mainstream USAF operations, it was decided to move the fleet from the still secretive Tonopah to Holloman AFB in New Mexico, with the relocation completed during 1992. A trickle of small upgrade programs followed to help keep the F-117s relevant, but by the time the aircraft went back into combat during Operation Allied Force in 1999, it was a force that had been somewhat neglected in terms of funding in comparison with the emerging F-22 Raptor.

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It was during Allied Force that the USAF suffered its sole combat loss of an F-117 using the radio callsign “Vega 31” when LCol “Dale” Zelko was shot down over Serbia by aS-125 Neva/Pechora Surface-to-Air Missile. The wreckage of Zelko’s F-117 was captured by Serbian troops, while the pilot himself was plucked to safety after a tense cat-and-mouse chase between the Serbian ground forces and the U.S. combat search-and-rescue teams.The F-117’s combat swansong was in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Again the Nighthawks went to downtown Baghdad on the opening night of March 20, this time operating from Qatar. The F-117s flew nearly a month of combat operations before returning to Holloman.

It was after this conflict that included new co*ckpit upgrades and the addition of GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions. A plan to add further weaponry including the Small Diameter Bomb was abandoned as the F-117 was slated for retirement, with the USAF insisting that the F-22 could effectively replace the Nighthawk in service — despite the Raptor’s lack of laser-guided weapons and ability to self-designate ground targets.

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When the F-117s were officially retired in 2008, 52 aircraft were placed into storage. A final farewell was made on April 22 when the last four flyable jets made a stop at the Lockheed Martin “Skunk Works” at the Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, as they made their way from Holloman to their original home at Tonopah for storage.

The F-117s are officially being kept in Type 1000 flyable storage in accordance with a government agreement that called for the aircraft to be maintained in a form that would enable them to be recalled to active service in times of crisis.

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A video recorded near the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) in July 2010 revealed an F-117 flying near Tonopah, and subsequent imagery from outside Tonopah confirmed the type’s continued operations here, but without any formal acknowledgement from the USAF. Then on Feb. 26 to 27, 2018, two different Nighthawks were photographed operating at low level in the R-2508 range complex near Death Valley in southern California in broad daylight. While the aircraft were devoid of markings, one carried a fin band with the wording “Dark Knights.”

Continued sightings indicate that a handful of F-117s are still operating from the very same hangars they flew from in total secrecy in the 1980s, possibly as a unit known as the “Dark Knights.” Sightings suggest they are flying missions in support of flight-testing and training in the areas of southern Nevada and California. They have even flown over downtown Los Angeles with supporting tanker aircraft en route to and from the ranges off Southern California, apparently supporting U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group pre-deployment workups. In October 2020, F-117s were clearly photographed as two aircraft stopped-off at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and one jet visiting Nellis AFB. Significantly, the jets were sporting TR tailcodes as per their original stint at Tonopah.

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It’s clear that the USAF has released some jets from its storage program to be decommissioned. A number of aircraft have been transported by road from Tonopah, having been donated to various air museums. Meanwhile, the USAF will only say thatpilots from the Air Force Test Center still fly them for limited research activities. There is no formal acknowledgement regarding their continued operations and actual role.

A tantalizing Facebook post earlier this year said that plans were afoot for an F-117 flypast over Palmdale to mark the 40th anniversary of the maiden flight. Sadly, that plan appears to have been dropped. Yet 40 years from that first flight, a very special band of aviators and experienced maintainers will raise a glass as they toast a remarkable landmark. Some may even get the wheels in the wheelwells for a landmark flight for what was originally dubbed the “Wobblin’ Goblin,” which still flies on today.

40 years of the Nighthawk - Skies Mag (2024)


Why was F-117 retired? ›

The USAF retired the F-117 in April 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the F-22 Raptor. Despite the type's official retirement, a portion of the fleet has been kept in airworthy condition, and F-117s have been observed flying since being retired from combat.

Is the F-117 still operational? ›

The United States Air Force officially “retired” the F-117A Nighthawk from active service in 2007—yet, the single-seat, subsonic twin-engine stealth attack aircraft developed by Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works division has continued to be flown periodically.

How many F-117s were made? ›

The Pioneering F-117 Nighthawk

The F-117 Nighthawk was the world's first operational stealth aircraft. Between 1981 and 2008, Lockheed Martin produced 59 operational F-117s and five developmental prototypes, but the aircraft weren't publicly acknowledged until 1988.

What is the nickname of the F-117? ›

Captain Salata maintains that its handling is similar to that of other Air Force aircraft. “We take offense at the term 'Wobbly Goblin. ' We just call it 'the Black Jet. ' ” The F-117 has no official nickname, though “Nighthawk” is in popular use among crews and maintainers.

Was an F-117 ever shot down? ›

27, 1999, during the fourth night of Operation Allied Force (OAF) over Serbia, a U.S. Air Force F-117 Nighthawk (#82-0806), flown by Lt. Col. Darrell P. Zelko, was shot down while returning to Aviano airbase, after a strike mission against a target near Belgrade.

Is the F-22 being retired? ›

F-22 Retirement in 2030 Unlikely as USAF Looks to Spend $7.8 Billion on It Before Then. The Air Force seems to be rethinking its plan to start retiring the F-22 around 2030, as its spending plans for the air dominance fighter go well beyond that date, according to the service's fiscal 2025 budget request.

What is the fastest fighter jet? ›

According to BBC Science Focus, the NASA X-43 was the fastest aircraft ever made, with an extraordinary speed of Mach 9.6, or 7,366 mph. Coming in second place is the NASA/USAF X-15, with a max speed of 4,520 mph. However, the fastest fighter jets still in service is the MiG-25 Foxbat, reaching 2,190 mph.

Are there any F-111 still flying? ›

The operational career of the F-111 came to an end on December 3, 2010 at RAAF Amberley near Brisbane, Australia, as a crew in an F-111C (serial number A8-125) of the Royal Australian Air Force touched down for the aircraft's last landing. The RAAF had operated the F-111 since 1973.

How long was the F-117 kept secret? ›

The aircraft achieved initial operational capability in 1983 but 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.

What is the secret aircraft of the United States? ›

The largely forgotten Model 853-21 Quiet Bird is a prototype stealth aircraft that predates the first flight of the Have Blue – F-117's precursor – by nearly 15 years. The effort began as a study into developing a low-observable aircraft to serve as an observation plane for the U.S. Army.

Have blue vs F-117? ›

While superficially similar to the later F-117, the Have Blue prototypes were smaller aircraft, about one quarter the weight of the F-117, with a wing sweep of 72.5° and inward-canted vertical tails (inverse V-tail).

What is the most powerful F jet? ›

The F-35 strengthens national security, enhances global partnerships and powers economic growth. It is the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft in the world, giving pilots an advantage against any adversary and enabling them to execute their mission and come home safe.

Why is the F-117 black? ›

The F-117 is painted black because it was predominately used in night attack missions during combat and that color was thought to be able to blend more into the night sky on those missions it flew.

Is the F-117A stealth bomber? ›

The result was the F-117A, the world's first operational stealth aircraft. The first F-117A flew on June 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.

Is the F-117 coming back? ›

In September 2022 the Air Force Test Center published a Request For Information (RFI) about a possible 10-year contract for maintenance and logistics support services for the F-117A fleet at the TTR airfield, acknowledging that the U.S. Air Force is willing to keep the aircraft flying at least until 2034.

Why are F-117 flying again? ›

So, why is the F-117 still flying? “16 years after being officially retired, F-117s are still flying not only for training purposes as adversary aircraft and cruise missile surrogate, but also for research, development, test and evaluation, possibly related to next generation programs,” The Aviationist reported.

What are the flaws of the F-117? ›

Its aerodynamics could sometimes force the wing and tail sections to come apart, an inherent flaw in the airframe design. It also had technological limitations. The F-117A doesn't carry radar because it helps lower its emissions and increases stealth.

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