The F-117A Nighthawk is the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. The unique design of the single-seat F-117A provides exceptional combat capabilities. About the size of an F-15 Eagle, the twin-engine aircraft is powered by two General Electric F404 turbofan engines and has quadruple redundant fly-by-wire flight controls. Air refuelable, it supports worldwide commitments and adds to the deterrent strength of the U.S. military forces.
The F-117A can employ a variety of weapons and is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a state-of-the-art digital avionics suite that increases mission effectiveness and reduces pilot workload. Detailed planning for missions into highly defended target areas is accomplished by an automated mission planning system developed, specifically, to take advantage of the unique capabilities of the F-117A.
Streamlined management by Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, combined breakthrough stealth technology with concurrent development and production to rapidly field the aircraft. The F-117A program has demonstrated that a stealth aircraft can be designed for reliability and maintainability. The aircraft maintenance statistics are comparable to other tactical fighters of similar complexity. Logistically supported by Sacramento Air Logistics Center, McClellan AFB, Calif., the F-117A is kept at the forefront of technology through a planned weapon system improvement program located at USAF Plant 42 at Palmdale, Calif. The Air Force thinking today is that it will phase out the Nighthawks after 2018.
The first F-117A was delivered in 1982, and the last delivery was in the summer of 1990. The F-117A production decision was made in 1978 with a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, the "Skunk Works," in Burbank, Calif. The first flight was in 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision. Lockheed-Martin delivered 59 stealth fighters to the Air Force between August 1982 and July 1990. Five additional test aircraft belong to the company.
Air Combat Command's only F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group, achieved operational capability in October 1983. Since the F-117’s first Air Force flight in 1982, the aircraft has flown under different unit designations, including the 4450th Tactical Group and the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at Tonapah Test Range, NV; the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing, Nellis AFB, NV; the 410th Flight Test Squadron/410th Test Squadron, Palmdale, CA; and Detachment 1, Test Evaluation Group, also at Holloman, which falls under the 53rd Wing, Eglin AFB, FL.
The stealth fighter emerged from the classified world while stationed at Tonapah Airfield with an announcement by the Pentagon in November 1988 and was first shown publicly at Nellis in April 1990. The 4450th TG was deactivated in October 1989, and was reactivated as the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing.
In 1992 the F-117A Nighthawk made its new home at Holloman Air Force Base. The official arrival ceremony for the F-117 to Holloman AFB was conducted 09 May 1992. The 49th Fighter Wing (49FW) at Holloman serves as the only F-117 Home Station. The 49th Operations Group operates and maintains the F-117A aircraft. The 7th CTS "Screamin' Demons" serves as the transition training unit, preparing experienced Air Force pilots for assignment to the F-117A Nighthawk. The 8th and 9th Fighter Squadrons are designated to employ the F-117A Nighthawk in combat. Once an F-117 pilot has successfully completed training, he is then assigned to one of only two operational Nighthawk squadrons--the 8th FS "Black Sheep" and the 9th FS "Flying Knights." The 49FW provides full compliment of flightline maintenance capabilities as well as back-shop support. The F-117 deploys in support of contingency operations, as directed by National Command Authorities. Flightline maintenance support is deployed concurrent with the aircraft. Depending on the deployment duration, varying levels of back shop maintenance support may also be deployed.
The F-117A first saw action in December 1989 during Operation Just Cause in Panama. Two F-117A fighters targeted the field outside the Panamanian Defense Forces barracks at Rio Hato with BLU-109 2,000 lb. bombs to stun and disorient the troops quartered in those barracks in preparation for an assualt by US Army Rangers. Technical failures and communications mixups caused the pilots to miss their targets, dropping the bombs farther away from the barracks than intended.
The stealth fighter attacked the most heavily fortified targets during Desert Storm (January-February 1991) , and it was the only coalition jet allowed to strike targets inside Baghdad's city limits. The F-117A, which normally packs a payload of two 2,000-pound GBU-27 laser-guided bombs, destroyed and crippled Iraqi electrical power stations, military headquarters, communications sites, air defense operation centers, airfields, ammo bunkers, and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons plants.
Although only 36 stealth fighters were deployed in Desert Storm and accounted for 2.5 percent of the total force of 1,900 fighters and bombers, they flew more than a third of the bombing runs on the first day of the war. In all during Desert Storm, the stealth fighter conducted more than 1,250 sorties, dropped more than 2,000 tons of bombs, and flew more than 6,900 hours. More than 3,000 antiaircraft guns and 60 surface-to-air missile batteries protected the city, but despite this seemingly impenetrable shield, the Nighthawks owned the skies over the city and, for that matter, the country. The stealth fighter, which is coated with a secret, radar-absorbent material, operated over Iraq and Kuwait with impunity, and was unscathed by enemy guns.
F-117 fighters deployed to the Gulf several times during the late 1990's to support U.S. attacks against Iraq designed to deprive Saddam Hussein of his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and to force his compliance with the UN monitoring regime. F-117 fighters deployed to the Gulf during Operation Desert Fox to upgrade the strike force's capability to attack high-value targets. But the 18 hour flight from the F-117s' home base to Kuwait meant that the operation was over before the F-117 aircraft arrived in the Gulf.
On 22 January 1997 Lockheed Martin delivered the first F-117A with the "RNIP-Plus"-navigation system from Honeywell after it had been overhauled in Palmdale (California). The F-117A now operates with laser gyroscopes and a GPS receiver, giving the aircraft a much higher precision than the inertia platforms did, which were previously used and which could show deviations of several hundred meters during a flight. Apart from this, the old system was more expensive to maintain.
In the opening phase of Allied Force, aimed primarily at Yugoslavia's integrated air defense system, NATO air forces conducted more than 400 sorties. During the first two night attacks, allied troops in the air and at sea struck 90 targets throughout Yugoslavia and in Kosovo. F-117 Nighthawks from the 8th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base NM participated in air strikes against targets in the Balkans during NATO operations. One F-117 fighter was lost over Yugoslavia on 27 March 1999. A US search and rescue team picked up the pilot several hours after the F-117 went down outside Belgrade. Serbian air defenses managed to string together a series of brief sightings, perhaps starting as early as the F-117's takeoff in Italy, to project the F-117's course and loft an anti-aircraft missile at the F-117 when it was most vulnerable. On 01 April 1999, Defense Secretary William Cohen directed 12 more F-117 stealth fighters to join NATO Operation Allied Force, to join the total of 24 F-117s that were participating in NATO Operation Allied Force.
In December 2001, TRW and Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Company completed a series of success F-117 flight tests evaluating the ability for commerical off the shelf (COTS) technology combined with COTS emulation technology to execute the existing F-117 Operational Flight Plan (OFP). TRW's Reconfigurable Processor for Legacy Applications Code Execution (RePLACE) emulates legacy hardware on more modern hardware, allowing that modern hardware to run legacy applications without changes. This technology offers the potential for low-cost, low-risk, incremental upgrades to aircraft processing power. In the F-117 demonstrations, the technology performed flawlessly, requiring no updates, generating no anomalies, and surprising the evaluators.
The FY2003 budget continues to fund the Single Configuration Fleet (SCF) effort to develop a single, optimized low observable configuration for the F-117 fleet. Previously, the F117A fleet had two major radar absorbing material (RAM) coating configurations, costly and labor intensive panel access technology, and five leading edge configurations. The configuration developed for SCF features new leading edge technologies, spray-on coatings, new sheet RAMs, and new panel access technologies. Standardizing the configuration will preserve radar cross-section performance, reduce maintenance requirements, and eliminate the separate procedures each aircraft required previously. The SCF development contract was awarded June 1996, and all development and flight testing completed March 1999. Conversion began late 1999, with first deliver early 2000. Conversion will run through FY 2006.
In an effort to improve the combat effectiveness of the stealth fighter, test experts from the F-117 Combined Test Force at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., are working to expand what it brings to the fight. On April 2 2002, developmental test experts in Palmdale teamed up with their operational counterparts from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., to complete the second phase of a demonstration project designed to provide the F-117 and its pilots with the ability to receive and transmit mission and target data in real-time from the air. Phase one tests, completed in October of 1998, allowed a pilot to receive live-threat information and manually replan a mission from the cockpit. The second phase completed the test cycle by demonstrating the transmission of real-time mission and target data out of the cockpit and into the hands of command and control forces on the ground.
Until this testing, the potential time-critical combat capabilities of the F-117 had not been explored. The target data technology works by allowing the aircraft to receive and transmit tactical information on targets or pop-up threats via satellite communication. The fighter's ability to send and receive text and images enhances its combat flexibility yet does not compromise its stealth configuration.
The F-117 was officially retired in April, 2008. The final four stealth fighters took off from Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works plant in Palmdale on April 22, 2008. The F-117 was sent to be in a "recallable state of storage" in Tonopah, Nevada.