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Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk: World’s First Stealth Aircraft

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk: World’s First Stealth Aircraft

The world’s most closely kept secret

The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is a stealth attack aircraft produced by Lockheed’s Skunk Works in response to a request made by the United States Air Force to produce a stealth fighter that would be invisible to radar. The United States Air Force called it the black project and kept it a secret unknown to the government departments, military personnel, defense contractors and the public at large. Even though the maiden flight for the F-117 was on June 18, 1981, in Groom Lake, Nevada. The black project remained as one of the world most closely kept secret. And on November 10, 1988, at a press briefing the, Assistant Secretary of Defense Mr. J. Daniel Howard finally revealed a photo of the legendary stealth fighter, for the world to see.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Mr. J. Daniel Howard finally revealed a photo of the legendary stealth fighter

Sophisticated navigation

The F-117 single-seat aircraft equipped with twin non-after-burning engine and quadruple-redundant fly-by-wire flight controls reached its operating capability on October 1983. The F-117 sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a digital avionics suite provided extraordinary fighting skills, able to penetrate any types of combat threats and attack difficult targets with high accuracy. The F-117 nicknamed the Nighthawk, Black Jet, Bat plane, and Ghost are powered by 2 x General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofans, 10,600 lbf (48.0 kN) each. And can reach a speed of Mach 0.92 (617 mph, 993 km/h) with a range of 930 NM (1720 km) Its length is 65ft 11 inches or (20.09 meters), and the height is 12 ft 9.5 inches or (3.78 meters) with a wingspan of 43 ft 4 inches or (13.20 meters).

F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter aircraft flies over Nellis Air Force Base.

High-accuracy inertial navigation

The Nighthawk has no radar and navigates using GPS and high-accuracy inertial navigation (INS) using a computer to sensor the motions (Accelerometers) and Rotation (Gyroscope), to calculate the position, orientation, and velocity of a moving object without the need for external references. The automated planning system can perform strike missions and weapon release, by picking a thermal infrared image connected to a laser that locates the range and fires laser-guided bombs to its target. The internal bay of the F-117 can carry 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) of weapons such as laser-guided bombs, penetration bombs, Direct Attack Munitions and GPS/INS guided standoff bomb.

An F-117 conducts a live exercise bombing run using GBU-27 laser-guided bombs.

The first F-117 mission

The first operation of the stealth fighter was in 1989 where two F-117A dropped two bombs in Rio Hato Airfield, Panama during the US invasion, called Operation Just Caused. It again participated in Iraq, called Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Where it flew over 6,905 flight hours, achieving 1,300 sorties with 1,600 direct hits on high- value targets in Iraq. In 1999, the US Air Force together with NATO took part in an air strike, called, Operation Allied Force against Serbian military position in Kosovo, Yugoslavia, where the first F-117A valued at 43 million USD was shot down on 25 March 1999. The pilot managed to eject and land safely on the ground and was rescued by an American military search-and-rescue only hours after the plane went down. A Second F-117A was wiped out during the same campaign, allegedly on 30 April, 1999. And the last mission, called Operation Iraqi Freedom was in Iraq in 2003.

Wreckage of downed Yugoslav MiG-29 in Ugljevik on March 25, 1999.

The Retirement of the F-117

The loss of the secret technology to the Russians that allows the F-117 to evade detection was a big shock causing the USAF to go back to the drawing board to improve tactics, another aircraft like the F-22 Raptor began to take the role of the F-117. In 2005, the F-117s were only used for light missions with minimal collateral damage and during times when the pilot needed to verify if the correct target had been successfully struck down. The USAF planned to retire the F-117 in 2011, but due to the budget decision they advance the retirement date to October 2008 to free up an estimated $1.07 billion in order to buy more F-22s and B-2 Spirit. In 2006 Air Force closed the F-117 Formal training unit (FTU) and the last F-117 retired on August 1, 2008. Most F-117 retired to their original hangars at Tonopah Test Range, and five were laid to rest in museums, even though the retirement was official, an F-117 was seen flying in the Nellis Bombing range in 2013.

F-117s stored at Tonopah Test Range

If you love this magnificent aircraft, they are on display at the following museums.


What’s next? The TR-3B Flying Triangle

The F-117 was an aircraft light-year ahead of its time, it was an aircraft that provided capabilities never seen before in the 20th century making the biggest impact on modern warfare. Stealth is now a commonplace word. I wonder if stealth technology will ever be replaceable? There are rumors going around about a new government top secret project called the TR-3B Flying Triangle, which is part of the black project.

There has been thousand of sighting reports of the flying triangles spotted in the skies and considered as hogwash by officials. I guess we will never know the truth until the next secretary of defense pulls out a photo at a press conference, and reveals what some of us have seen hovering over our roofs. Has anyone here ever seen a mysterious flying triangle in the skies?

MCAS Miramar Airshow 1998 – F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter

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