One of the most iconic aircraft ever build, the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk or “Stealth Fighter” which in fact wasn’t a fighter but an attack aircraft. It was so secret it stayed hidden from the general public for 11 years, flying at night out of a dedicated airbase.
Aviamagazine looks into the development and operational history of this aircraft, starting with the Have Blue program, the years a Groom Lake, the units, the combat operations until retirement in 2008 and it’s life after retirement.
This in-depth factsheet also has a detailed overview of all 64 F-117s build, with their specific history and combat missions.
During the Vietnam War lots of US aircraft were lost to SAM (Service to Air) and AAA (Anti Aircraft Artillery) fire. It became apparent that during a confrontation with the Warsaw Pact heavy losses were expected as well. In 1974 DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) requested aircraft manufactures to pitch a design and eventually produce an operational stealth aircraft. Of the five invited companies, two came back with a serious proposal.
Lockheed wasn’t one of these manufactures, in fact they were not even invited by DARPA to compete. Because of experience with stealth characteristics on the A-12 (the predecessor of the SR-71) and connections with the CIA, Lockheed was eventually allowed to join the program.
The Lockheed engineers developed a computer program which could calculate the RCS (Radar Cross-Section) of several proposed models. After this, wooden models were made, of which the RCS was tested on real radars.
Mid 1975 DARPA invited Lockheed, Northrop and McDonnel Douglas to develop a XST (Experimental Survivable Testbed). The contract was awarded to Lockheed to build two manned demonstrators code name “Have Blue”.
“The competing Northrop design was not shelved and evolved into Tacit Blue which eventually became the B-2 Stealth Bomber.”
Skunk Works took up the job of designing and building the XSTs called HB1001 and HB1002. Ground tests of the first aircraft began 17 October 1977. Have Blue already looked similar to the final F-117 design, although the aircraft was smaller and some common parts were used. The landing gear was from the F-5 and the two J85 engines were taken from the T-2 Buckeye. The flight control was taken from the F-16 as the shape would make it very unstable and constant adjustments were needed to keep it in the air. Key difference to the later production model was the inward cantering of the tail fins, which were mounted on the side of the fuselage. The aircrafts surface was applied with RAM (Radar-absorbent material) and painted in a camouflage scheme.
16 November, HB1001 was ferried to Area 51 onboard a C-5. After four taxi runs the first flight was made 1 December 1977, piloted by Lockheed test pilot Bill Park.
HB1001 had made 35 test flight, when on 4 May 1978 the aircraft made a hard landing which resulted in a go-around and a jammed landing gear. After several tries one of the main landing gears remained locked and fuel was running out. It was decided to climb and bail out. During the climb the engine flamed out and Park was injured after ejection. The aircraft was lost.
At the time of the crash HB1002 was near completion. Some lessons learned were incorporated in the aircraft and it too was ferried to Groom Lake. HB1002 had an all gray finish and didn’t have the test boom as present on HB1001. First flight was on 20 July 1978.
During the 52nd flight this aircraft was also lost, when a hydraulic leak caused an engine fire. The pilot ejected safely.
Although both XSTs crashed, Have Blue was considered a success. The government decided to proceed with funding Stealth technology and Lockheed started design of a Full Scale Development (FSD) aircraft, code name Senior Trend.
The first five FSDs were build at the Skunk Works facility in Burbank and secretly transported to Area 51, the Groom Lake test facility. The first aircraft #780 was assembled onsite and first flew 18 June 1981, 31 months after the production go-ahead. The aircraft was painted in a desert camouflage scheme as the first flights were undertaken in daylight. After the 10th flight it was repainted gray. During the test period, the tail fins were adjusted for better handling of the aircraft. Larger fins were retro-fitted on the first two YF-117s. The first production aircraft #786, was accepted by the Air Force, 2 September 1982. 4450th Tactical Group out of Nellis AFB, was assigned with the operational development and testing using their A-7s as a cover story.
The “F” designation used for the F-117 is somewhat misleading as it was normally used for fighters. As the F-117 is an attack aircraft the “A” designation or B (bomber) would have been more logical. It’s not the first time, as the F-111 is also an attack aircraft. A general later explained that this was done for marketing reasons. It was easier to attract top fighter pilots for the program, when the F was used.
Note the experimental pitot tube and small tail fins, later replaced. Also no RAM applied yet.
The Tonopah Test Range was chosen as the first operational location, as the F-117 program was still secret. The airport, in the early 80s not more than a landing strip, was extended to a full operational base. Hangars we build, each housing an F-117. The first 7 years all flying was done at night. Typically an F-117 would start up in the hangar, to drive out under cover of darkness.
By 1988 4450th TG was operating 59 aircraft out of Tonopah, still using the A-7 cover story. As they still only flew at night it was time to publicly announce the existence of the F-117. November 1988 a first (grainy) photo was released. 11 years after Have Blue!
In January 1990 it was decide that the F-117 force would be relocated to Holloman AFB in New Mexico. As Tonopah was so remote all people and equipment needed to be flown in, Holloman was more suited which reduced costs drastically.
All new infrastructure was created at Holloman, including the single F-117 hangars. Around June 1992 the aircraft and crew moved, slightly delayed because of the 1st Gulf war. They would stay at Holloman until retirement and storage at Tonopah started in 2006.
80-0786 / TR, F-117
80-0786 / TR, F-117
80-0786 / TR, F-117
The first unit to test the F-117 was specially created and operated from Groom Lake. They were called the Baja Scorpions. Baja representing “south” the place they were located at the Groom Lake complex. The scorpion, as it strikes without warning. While the officially designated 4450 TG moved to Tonopah in 1982, the Baja Scorpions remained at Groom Lake until the last F-117 was delivered.
The 4450th Test Group was involved in the program from the early stage. Pilots were flown to Groom Lake by the now famous “Janet” airlines from Las Vegas. The group consisted of 5 units: 4450th TS (I-unit) called Nightstalkers, 4451st TS Ghostriders (P-unit), 4452nd TS (Q-unit) Goat Suckers, Dragon Test Team (R-unit) and 4453rd TS (Z-unit) Grim Reapers.
After the F-117 was made public, the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing was reinstated at Tonopah. Operations were taken over from the 4450th TG and aircraft were divided over three squadrons: 415th TFS Nightstalkers (later 415th FS Nighthawks), 416th TFS Ghostriders (later 416th FS Knight Riders) and 417th TFS Bandits (flying the pre-production aircraft #780 – #784), later 417th FS Bandits.
415th TFS, Nightstalkers
416th TFS, Ghostriders
417th TFS, Bandits
Aircraft got the TR designation applied. Apart from the F-117A, the unites were operating the A-7D as a trainer (and cover story), which was replaced by the T-38A by the end of 37 TFW operations.
After the move to Holloman, the 49th Fighter Wing took over all operations from the 37th TFW. First the squadrons were transferred as is, but these were quickly replaced as well. 417th TFS becoming the 7th FS Screamin Demons, 416th becoming the 8th FS Black Sheep and 415th becoming the 9th FS Iron Knights.
7th FS, Screamin Demons
8th FS, Black Sheep
9th FS, Iron Knights
Especially the 7th has quite a history. Founded in 1940, it was involved in de Pacific war, New Guinea and The Philippines. It flew F-80 and F-84s in the Korean War and F-100, F-105, F-4 and F-15 in the Cold War, before transferring to the F-117. In 2008 they were equipped with F-22s.
The 57th Fighter Weapon Wing at Nellis operated various aircraft types, including the F-117. Detachment 1, the Dragon Test Team operated one or two F-117s from the Holloman inventory. The aircraft typically with WA tail code were flown from Nellis and Kirtland AFB, for numerous tests.
Detachment 5, of the USAF Weapons School also had a F-117 division organized in the 417th Weapons squadron. They didn’t operate own aircraft by used aircraft and resources from the 49th Fighter Wing.
Detachment 1, 79th Test and Evaluation Group (later 53rd Test and Evaluation Group) stationed at Holloman was unique as it owned a dedicated F-117 (#835) with OT tail code. This unit was also part of the Dragon Test Team. The open_in_new 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, also part of the later 53rd TEG conducted tests on the F-117 through the Dragon Test Team program.
The last unit to operate the F-117 was the 412th Test Wing at Edwards AFB. The 410th Flight Test Squadron traces its roots to Q-unit. The squadron moved to Palmdale instead of Holloman after the Tonopah years. It operated five F-117s (#782, 783, 784, 811 and 831). 1 August 2008, after 27 years the squadron was deactivated closing the book on the F-117 with a low fly-by of #831, before it flew to Tonopah for storage.
The F-117 came close to combat in 1983, when the aircraft was called into action to strike targets in Beirut after the destruction of US Marine barracks by the PLO. The F-117s (5 till 7) would fly from Tonopah to Myrtle Beach AFB onward to Lebanon. The mission was called off, 45 minutes before departure from Tonopah.
The F-117s fame came from the many combat operations it was involved in during the Gulf War. The “Stealth Fighter” was top of the headlines when it leads the first wave of attacks on Bagdad. Many don’t know that the first combat operation was just a year earlier, during operation Just Cause.
End of 1989, US president George Bush ordered that Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega should be removed from power, with force. The F-117 was assigned precision bombing strikes, to draw attention from ground operations. On the night of 20 December 1989, two F-117s, of the six (803, 813, 816, 817, 818 and 834) that departed Tonopah the day before, started the attack as part of operation Just Cause. Although Noriega was not captured, Panama was in US hands the next day.
Desert shield and Desert storm
2 August 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait. When diplomacy failed and Iraq was aiming for Saudi Arabia, the US launched Operation Desert Shield, to secure the world’s oil supplies. As part of the massive military buildup, 20 F-117s were deployed to King Khalid Air Base in Saudi Arabia also know as “Tonopah East”. Unlike other jets deployed, the F-117s were assigned individual shelters to protect from air attack. 15 January 1990, the UN resolution ordering Iraq to withdraw expired.
16 January 1991, The F-117s took off as the leading wave. Their mission, precision strikes on air defenses and Iraqi military installations, with Baghdad being the prime target. The city was defended by 4000 AA guns and SAM launchers.
At 02.51 one of the F-117s dropped the first laser-guided bomb, destroying a defense control bunker. Others attacked communication centers, the Air Force Headquarters and Saddam’s palaces. A second wave of F-117s hit Baghdad at 04.00, targeting air bases and command and control centers. A third wave just before dawn hit chemical and biological weapons bunkers. Although heavy fire in the sky above Baghdad, no F-117 was hit during the attacks.
A daylight attack with conversional aircraft on Baghdad failed, so from that point only F-117s and cruise missiles were used for attacks on the city. 21 January a nuclear research facility was destroyed. The Iraqi air force started to hide their aircraft in hardened shelters. So the F-117s were assigned to drop penetration bombs, scoring big successes. 27 January most of the US aircraft focused on Iraqi forces in Kuwait, leaving Iraq to the F-117s. They would continue strikes for the coming weeks. A month later two waves hit Baghdad again, damaging the Ba’ath Party headquarters.
45 F-117s operated by 60 pilots flew 1271 combat missions, dropping 2030 tons of bombs. April 1991 the first aircraft returned to Tonopah, with some staying in Saudi Arabia to help enforcing sanctions against Iraq. 13 January 1993, 6 F-117s attacked defense facilities in the South of Iraq, this after violations of the ceasefire agreement.
In 1999, the F-117 was back in active combat. 12 F-117s were stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy to assist in Operation Allied Force. This NATO controlled military intervention was put in place to protect the Albanian Population in Kosovo which were reprised by the Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. The Balkan war was already ongoing for 8 years at this point.
The F-117 were placed in the 8th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and attacked mostly air defense systems, often as part of a strike package together with B-2 bombers. The newly developed BLU-114 was used for the first time to strike Serbia’s power grid.
A second squadron was later formed. The 9th EFS had 12 additional F-117s, of which one would be shot down (see #806 in our Airframe overview). It was replaced by a 13th aircraft. The 9th EFS operated out of Spangdahlem, Germany. The Aviano based Stealths moved to Spangdahlem as of May 1999. Combat operations were halted on 10 June. A valuable lesson was learned, as half of the sorties were cancelled due to weather-related issues. The nighthawk needed improvements on all-weather capabilities.
During the late 90s, the F-117 was again send to the Gulf region. In a period from 1996 till 1998 they supported Operation Southern Watch from Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait. First as a reaction to the so called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) allegiantly owned by Saddam Hussein and later the “Global War on Terrorism” and Iraq being part of the “Axis of Evil” this escalated into another Gulf war.
12 Holloman F-117As (block 2) were deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, as part of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. Combat operation begin in the early morning of 20 March 2003, called Operation Iraqi Freedom, by the West referred to as the second Gulf War. Like the first war, the F-117s lead the attack, performing so called decapitation strikes on key targets. A bunker was attacked believed to house Iraqi leadership, including Saddam Hussein. This was the first time the new EGBU-27 was used. Again, Iraqi defense was completely off guard, making the attack a big success, although Saddam wasn’t killed. The GPS guided EGBU-27 became the weapon of choice. 80 missions were flown during the operation, which ended 14 April 2003.
The F-117 features two bomb bays side-by-side with a single door, which opens inwards. Each bay is 4.7 meters< (15ft) long and has a retractable rail for mounting weapons. This unique solution helps groundcrew with installation and the release of the weapon directly into the airstream.
Weapons carried includes the Paveway family (GBU-10 C/D/E/F, GBU-12 and GBU-27 especially designed for the F-117.)
Later during its carrier, the weapon of choice was the EGBU-27 900kg bomb. Enhanced version of the well-known GBU-27 Paveway III bomb, Adding GPS capabilities to the laser guidance system.
JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) was also supported, extending the range of weapons a lot. The JDAM is a GPS/INS guided kit to be added to a conventional “dumb” bomb.
WCMD (Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser) a tail kit, to be added to a whole family of cluster bombs. The CBU-105 was used during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
88-0843 / HO, F-117
SDB (Small Diameter Bomb) or GBU-39 is a 110kg (250lb) precision guided bomb. Because of its small size, more could be carried. Unique feature on this ordinance are the extended wings during flight.
Throughout its career the F-117 was updated several times. Most of these updates were focused on weapon systems, flight control systems and cockpit equipment.
First big update was called Offensive Capability Improvement Program (OCIP) I. The weapons system was updated and the three missions computers replaced with one IBM Loral. This also introduced the capability of carrying the GBU-27 Paveway III. The update was fitted on aircraft between November 1987 and June 1992.
OCIP II, A new cockpit was fitted. The FLIR display was replaced with a digital moving map display. Two full color LCD displays replaced the Monochrome MFDs. A new flight management system was also included. A Pilot-activated automatic recovery system (PAARS) was fitted. #831 was the first aircraft to test the modifications, December 1st 1988. Between April 1990 and March 1995 aircraft were fitted with the OCIP II package.
Block 1 modification included the update of the Infrared Acquisition and Designation System (IRADS). Replaced circuit boards and sensors called the F3 turret, was first tested August 1992. Installation begin October 1994 and was completed late 1996.
OCIP III, featured update of the inertial navigation system (INS) by a new Honeywell H-423. It was linked to a new GPS unit from Rockwell Collins. The control display navigation unit (CDNU) was replaced as well as the weapon system computers. The first test aircraft flew from Palmdale December 1994.
1998 the Stores Management System Processor (SMP) was upgraded. It now included the possibility to carry new weapons like the EGBU-27, JDAMS and WCMDs.
In 2004 a smart weapons integration project was started, called Block 2 modifications. The F-117 was now able to deliver two GBU-31s.
Other upgraded were done over time to its RAM, exhaust system and communication and data-link systems.
It was the F-22 that marked the end of the F-117. As budget was needed to fund additional F-22s, it was decided that the F-117 would be retired by October 2008. The F-117 training unit (FTU) was closed in 2006. The first six aircraft were retired 12 March 2007, flown out of Holloman to Tonopah for storage.
F-117 Display at Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Decommissioning continues in seven waves, with the last on 22 April 2008. 4 aircraft remained in the air with the 410th FTS, until the last of these 4 was also retired on 11 August 2008.
In 2014 the Air Force admitted that the aircraft are kept in a Type 1000 storage. This means that aircraft are kept in a flying condition until called into active service.
#803 “Unexpected guest” was the most resent F-117 to be put on public display. After demilitarization and removal of its RAM it was painted in its original 416sqn “Ghost Riders” scheme showing the ‘TR’ designation on its tail. It was unveiled at the Ronald Regan Presidential Library December 7, 2019.
Life after retirement
From time to time there are sightings of flying F-117s in the Tonopah area. How many aircraft remain in storage is unclear. The aircraft will be demilitarized at a rate of four a year. Why some are still flying remains a mystery. It is suggested that they are used for testing new sensors or systems for upgrading the F-22 and F-35. Others suggest they are used as unmanned drones as one was seen with a new bulge behind the cockpit, a possible satellite receiver.
F-117 #824 flying in Panamint Valley
26 and 27 February 2019, a F-117 was caught flying low level over the flats of Panamint Valley, part of Death Valley NP. The jet #824, still carrying faded 49OG markings, confirmed by detailed photo’s was chased by two F-16s.
There are rumors stating the F-117 was deployed to the middle east in 2017 for covert operations in Syria or Iraq. Up to now, there is no prove to back these stories.
After February 2019, on multiple occasions F-117s were noted in the Panamint Valley. In one sighting the F-117 was carrying a fin band with the name “Dark Knights”. This fueled rumors there is a new operations squadron formed, flying out of Tonopah. The aircraft also featured a fainted ED tailcode. 784, 811 or 831 are potential candidates.
Late 2019 a single F-117 was seen as an aggressor together with a F-16s, F-15s and a F-22. It looked like a B-1 was also taking part in this exercise of the Nellis range.
Unclear is if the F-117 is back in some sort of active duty. In 2020 aircraft were seen in public places, with a deployment of two to NAS Miramar. Also a F-117 with big "TR" titles on the tail and 4450th TG insignia visited Nellis. No serial was visible on this aircraft. It used the callsign "Knight".
The reason the aircraft are in the open again, 12 years after retirement is unclear, but the most probable cause would be: its taking up some kind of aggressor role in exercises.
Have Blue Code name for the proof of concept demonstrators build by Lockheed which preceded the F-117. Two were build and were roughly 40% of the size of the later production model F-117.
YF-117A Also known as FSD (Full Scale Development) aircraft. 5 were build and used as test aircraft for the “Senior Trend” program. Three ended up preserved. Seen out airframe overview for details on the different airframes.
F-117A Production version of the F-117, first delivered in 1982.
F-117N In the early 90s Lockheed proposed an upgraded, carrier capable version called the Seahawk. Most characteristic change was the changed angle of the wings, providing more lift. Also the cockpit would have a “bubble” canopy for better sight during carrier operations. The Seahawk would also feature the General Electric F414 engine for better performance and more trust. The proposal was no success as the Navy had no use for single purpose aircraft.
F-117B Another proposal was the upgraded land based B variant also known as the F/A-117X. It would have featured most of the F-117N characteristics and an addition of an afterburner to the engines. The proposal was made to both USAF and the RAF, again without success.
||Length: 20.09m (65ft, 11in), Wingspan: 13.21m (43ft, 4in), Height: 3.90m (12ft 9.5in).
||2 General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofans, providing 48 kN (10,600 lbf) trust each.
|Fuel and load
||23.800 kg (52,500 lbs) loaded weight.
||993 km/h (617 mph) Mach 0.92.
||13,716 m (45,000 ft)
||1720 km (930 nmi), unrefueled
|Crew and equipment
||1, 2 internal hardpoint, carrying GBU-10, -12, -27, -31 or B61.
In part 2 we will look into the history of each airframe ever build.