The F-117 Nighthawk — the U.S. Air Force’s greatly touted stealth attack aircraft — is gone. At least, we think it’s gone — can one really be certain with a stealth airplane? The aircraft, which won combat honors during operations over Panama, Serbia, and Iraq, was officially retired in late April after a 27-year service life.
“It was a mistake to retire them,” said Dr. Richard Hallion, former historian of the Air Force and special assistant to that service’s secretary. Hallion explained to this writer that the large number of F-16 and F-15 fighter-type aircraft flown by the Air Force are not stealthy and the number of F-22 Raptors, which do have stealth characteristics, are too few in number to meet the U.S. need for low-observable strike aircraft.
Cited by the Air Force as the world’s first operational aircraft designed to exploit low observable — stealth — technology, the F-117A entered service in 1982. Through 1990 Lockheed built 59 aircraft at a Burbank facility.
The F-117 first flew in combat during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 that led to the capture of dictator Manuel Noriega. F-117s were also flown in the air campaign over Serbia in 1999, and were among the first aircraft to strike targets in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One F-117 was shot down by Serbian anti-aircraft fire on 27 March 1999. Serbian forces launched Soviet-provided “Neva-M” missiles (NATO designation SA-3 Goa) to down the F-117A serial number 82–806. The pilot ejected after the aircraft was struck and was subsequently rescued by Allied forces.
According to then-NATO commander General Wesley Clark and other NATO officials, Serbian air defenses found that they could detect F-117s with their radars operating on unusually long wavelengths. This made the aircraft visible by radars for short times.
The wreckage of the F-117 was not immediately bombed due to possible media fallout from news footage showing civilians around the wreckage. The Serbs were believed to have invited Russian personnel to inspect the remains, inevitably compromising the U.S. stealth technology.
Some of the wreckage is reportedly on display at the Museum of Yugoslav Aviation close to Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport.
During the 1991 air campaign against Iraq, the F-117 was the only coalition aircraft to fly over Baghdad. (The Navy’s ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles also “flew” over Saddam’s capital city.)
F-117s flew combat missions only at night, hence their name Nighthawk.
The F-117 was born at the Lockheed “Skunk Works” in Burbank, California, the same design facility that produced the ultra-secret U-2 and SR-71 spyplanes. A production decision was made in 1978 and the first flight was made on 18 June 1981. The single-seat F-117’s low-observable characteristics were derived from both its bat-like shape, with twin turbofan engines “buried” in the “boxy” fuselage. Capable of in-flight refueling, in 1992 F-117s flew non-stop from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, to Kuwait, a flight of approximately 18–1/2 hours — a record for single-seat fighters that still stands.
Although designated as a “fighter,” the F-117 had no air-to-air capabilities. It was an attack aircraft that could carry some 4,000 pounds of bombs or missiles in an internal weapons bay.
The first F-117s were retired in December 2006. The surviving aircraft will be stored in hangars at a secret location in Nevada. Their special storage is based on retaining the secrecy of their special features rather than any consideration of someday reactivating the planes.