Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

The entry into service of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is a pivotal moment in aviation history. As the world’s first operational stealth aircraft, it ushered in a complete paradigm shift in air warfare. It was the first in a line stealth aircraft which includes the Northrop B-2 Spirit, Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lighting II, and the upcoming replacement for the B-2, the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider. As retired United States Air Force F-117 pilot, LT. Col. Scott Stimpert says, “Post F-117, no credible air combat design does not include low observability as a key performance parameter”.

The initial prototype for this low observable aircraft, codenamed Have Blue, was constructed in 1977 by the Lockheed Advanced Development Projects Division, better known as “Skunk Works” at a cost of $37 million. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Skunk Works the Nighthawk contract less than a year after Have Blue’s first successful flight. After its initial flight in 1981, the first F-117 unit achieved operating capability in October 1983. During its first 10 years of classified operation, the aircraft flew exclusively under the cover of night.

The technology that makes the Nighthawk largely undetectable by radar is known as “faceting”. The surface of the airframe is divided into triangular facets, scattering radar at odd angles, and preventing it from being reflected to the receiver. The entire surface of the F-117 is also covered with radar-absorbing material. The exhaust nozzle was also made to be “slit-shaped” in order to minimize the volume of exhaust and increase the speed at which the hot exhaust mixed with cool night air, reducing its infrared signature.

The Nighthawk’s weapons technology consists of two weapon bays, one for each of its 2000-pound laser-guided bombs. It is fitted with an accurate targeting system and a thermal imaging sensor that generates TV-quality images of distant objects.

The Nighthawk first saw combat action on December 19, 1989, during Operation JUST CAUSE, the US invasion of Panama to overthrow military dictator Manuel Noriega. That night, two F-117’s released 2000-pound bombs on Panama Defense Force (PDF) barracks. The Nighthawk was again used in 1990-1991, during Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. This was in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of its oil reach neighbor Kuwait. During DESERT STORM, the F-117’s were used to target critical Iraqi command and control installations, key communication centers, and storage, production, and research facilities for nuclear and chemical weapons. Many of these Targets were in along the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad, Iraq’s capital. During the Gulf War, the F-117 flew 1271 combat sorties with zero losses.

In 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commenced Operation ALLIED FORCE, an air campaign to stop Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic’s murderous attacks on Kosovo. NATO air forces conducted 400 sorties during this operation using 24 F-117s. One was shot down of the Serbian town of Budanovci, the only Nighthawk ever lost in combat.

The F-117 Nighthawk’s impact on aviation warfare is legendary. It not only cemented the role of stealth technology in future combat aircraft, but it also redefined their capabilities.  Join us at Evergreen and see this technological marvel for yourself.