Developmental and Operational History of the F-117 Nighthawk

Last revised January 18, 2005




This report on the F-117 stealth fighter concludes with an account of its developmental and operational history, or at least that part of it which has been released to the public.

The results of the Have Blue testing were sufficiently encouraging that William Perry, who was at that time Under-Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Carter Administration, urged that the Air Force apply this technology to an operational aircraft. During November of 1978, Lockheed was awarded a go-ahead contract to begin full-scale development of the project. This was a "Special Access", i.e. black, program, and the code name Senior Trend was applied to the project.

The Senior Trend aircraft came to be defined as a single-seat night strike fighter with no radar, but with an electro-optic system for navigation and weapons delivery. No air-to-air capability was envisaged.

The first five Senior Trend aircraft built by Lockheed were to be preproduction full scale development (FSD) aircraft. The Senior Trend aircraft had the same general configuration as the Have Blue test aircraft, but was much larger and heavier. The engines were a pair of non-afterburning General Electric F404-GE-F1D2 turbofans. These were derivatives of the afterburning F404-GE-400 turbofans which power the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.

In early June of 1981, the first Senior Trend service test aircraft (tail number 780) was delivered to Groom Lake for testing. On June 18, 1981, Lockheed test pilot Harold C "Hal" Farley made a successful first flight in number 780. During mid-1981 and early 1982, the other four FSD Senior Trend aircraft joined the program. They bore tail numbers 781 through 784 respectively.

The first production Senior Trend (#785) arrived at Groom Lake in April of 1982. It differed from the pre-production Senior Trend aircraft in having a pair of enlarged fin/rudder assemblies, with three facets rather than just two. Aircraft number 785 was ready for its first flight on April 20, with Lockheed test pilot Robert L. Ridenauer was scheduled to make the first flight. However, unbeknownst to anyone, the fly-by-wire system had been hooked up incorrectly (pitch was yaw and vice versa). Upon liftoff, Ridenauer's plane immediately went out of control. Instead of the nose pitching up, it went horizontal. The aircraft went inverted and ended up traveling backwards through the air. Riedenauer had no time to eject, and the aircraft flew into the ground. Bob Riedenauer survived the crash but was severely injured and was forced to retire from flying. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair, but some of its parts could be salvaged. Since this aircraft crashed prior to USAF/TAC acceptance, it was not counted in the production total.

When it came time for the establishment of the first operational unit for the stealth fighter, the Air Force was faced with a problem. Groom Lake was too small to be useful as the base for an operational unit. In addition, there were security concerns because an operational unit based at Groom Lake would involve many more people who could now see things that they should not be seeing. Therefore, the USAF decided to build a new secret base for the stealth fighter on the Tonopah Test Range, which sits on the northwestern corner of the Nellis complex. The facility is not perfect from a security standpoint, since it is overlooked by public land and is 32 miles from the town of Tonopah itself. However, the security surrounding the Tonopah Test Range was so effective that the new base was not public reported until 1985, after it had been operating for nearly two years.

The 4450th Tactical Group was secretly established as the initial operator of the stealth fighter. The cover for the 4450th was that it was a Nellis-based outfit flying LTV A-7Ds, which was not entirely inaccurate since the outfit did use these planes for support training. The group received its first production stealth aircraft on September 2, 1982. The 4450th moved to Tonopah in 1983, equipped with a partial squadron of stealth fighters plus a few A-7Ds. The group achieved initial operational capability on October 28, 1983, with a total of 14 production aircraft on hand. In order to avoid having the 4450th's aircraft seen by curious observers, all flying had to take place at night. During the day, the aircraft were always kept behind closed doors inside special hangars.

The stealth fighter turned out to be quite easy to fly, and it was concluded that no two-seat trainer version was required. However, there was a ground-based training simulator.

The Air Force considered using the stealth fighter in the invasion of Grenada during Operation Nickel Grass in 1983. However, the operation was so swift that the action lasted only a couple of days, and the combat debut of the stealth was put off.

In October of 1983 the US government considered using the stealth fighter in a retaliatory attack on Hezbollah terrorist forces based in southern Lebanon in response to the destruction of the Marine barracks in Beirut. In anticipation of action, the 4450th TG at Tonopah was put on alert. Five or seven stealth fighters were armed and had their INS systems aligned for attacks on targets in Lebanon. The plan was for these planes to fly from Tonopah to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where they would be put in secure hangars. They would then wait for 48 hours for the crews to rest before being given the order to take off for a nonstop flight to Lebanon. However, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger scrubbed the mission 45 minutes before the aircraft were to take off for South Carolina.

On April 4, 1986, during Operation El Dorado Canyon, the United States attacked Libya in retaliation for state-sponsored terrorism. During the initial planning for the raid, the use of the still-secret stealth fighter in the operation was seriously considered. However, once again, the operation was short-lived and the stealth fighter was not used.

In spite of the extreme security, some bits and pieces of the stealth fighter story did manage to leak to the press. In October of 1981, Aviation Week reported that an operational stealth fighter was in development. Several people reported catching some fleeting glimpses of a rather odd-looking aircraft flying at night out in the western desert. More and more stuff leaked to the media, so that all through the 1980s it had been sort of an open secret that the USAF was operating a "stealth fighter" which was invisible to conventional radar. However, questions directed to the Pentagon by the press about the stealth fighter were met either with official denials or by a curt "no comment", which only served to whet peoples' curiosity even further.

The official designation of the rumored stealth fighter was assumed by just about everyone to be F-19, since that number had had not been assigned to any known aircraft. The novelist Tom Clancy placed the stealth fighter (named "F-19 Ghostrider" by him) in a key role in his technothriller novel "Red Storm Rising", published in 1986. The Testors plastic model airplane company marketed a kit which purported to the true configuration of the "stealth" fighter.

In the meantime, training continued out in the Nevada desert. On July 11, 1986, Major Ross E. Mulhare flew into a mountain near Bakersfield, California while flying production aircraft number seven (tail number 792). Major Mulhare seems to have made no attempt to eject and was killed instantly, his aircraft disintegrating upon impact. A recovery team was immediately dispatched to the crash site, and the entire area was cordoned off. Every identifiable piece of the crashed plane was found and removed from the area to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. The doomed aircraft had reportedly carried a flight data recorder, which is sort of unusual for a USAF fighter. Even though not much was found that was any bigger than a beer can, the flight recorder was supposedly recovered intact. The cause of the crash has never been officially revealed, but fatigue and disorientation during night flying has been identified as a probable cause.

Some rather odd stories and rumors began to circulate about this incident in an attempt to explain the high amount of secrecy as well as to throw the media or the merely curious off the track. One cover story that appeared was that Major Mulhare was flying a Soviet MiG 23 when he crashed. There was a report that the recovery crew had dug and sifted the soil to a distance of 1000 yards from the last recognizable debris and to a depth of 6 feet to make sure that noone snooping in the area afterwards would ever find any piece of the aircraft. Another story was that in order to mislead any possible scavengers, the recovery crew had taken the remains of a crashed F-101A Voodoo that had been at Groom Lake for over twenty years, broke them up, and scattered them throughout the area.

On October 14, 1987, while flying production aircraft number 30 (tail number 815), Major Michael C. Stewart crashed in the Nellis range just east of Tonopah. He too apparently made no attempt to eject, and was killed instantly. Again, the official cause was never revealed, but fatigue and disorientation may have both played a role. There was no moon that night, and there were no lights out on the Nellis range to help the pilot to distinguish the ground. Reportedly, the mission included certain requirements that were deleted from the final accident report. It is possible that Stewart was going supersonic when he crashed and that he had become disoriented during high-speed maneuvers and had simply flown his plane into the ground.

These two accidents, along with a need to better integrate the still-secret stealth fighter into its regular operations, forced the Air Force to consider flying the aircraft during daytime hours. This would in turn force the Air Force to reveal the existence of the aircraft. This announcement was originally scheduled to take place in early 1988, but internal Pentagon pressure forced a ten-month delay.

On November 10, 1988, the long-rumored existence of the "stealth fighter" was finally officially confirmed by the Pentagon, and a poor-quality photograph was released. The stealth fighter had been kept secret for over ten years, the security and deception being so effective that all descriptions which had "leaked" to the media were completely inaccurate.

On the same day, the Air Force confirmed that the official designation of the stealth fighter was F-117A, which surprised just about everyone. The official designation of the stealth fighter had long been assumed by just about everyone to be F-19, since that number had apparently been skipped in the new fighter designation sequence which was introduced in 1962. In addition, it had always been assumed that the designation F-111 had been the last in the old series of fighter designations which been abandoned in 1962 when the Defense Department restarted the whole sequence over again from F-1. This led to a seeming endless round of rumors and speculation about aircraft designation gaps and secret projects, which continue to the present day. If the stealth fighter was not designated F-19, then just what was F-19? If the F-117A was part of the old F-sequence, then what happened to F-112 through F-116?

The true answer is not yet known, but I think that the most likely explanation is that the 117 number is NOT in the old F-sequence that ended in 1962 but instead originated from the logbooks used by the Stealth pilots when they were flying out of Groom Lake and Tonopah, two of the black planes' bases. Those are the same airfields that supposedly secretely operated Soviet- bloc aircraft such as the MiG-15, MiG-19, MiG-21, and MiG-23 that the US had "acquired" by various means from such sources as Egypt, Israel, Romania, etc. In the pilots' flight log, these aircraft were distinguished from each other by three-digit number signs (generally 11x). After a while, these log entries came to be sort of unofficial designations for these aircraft, and even later, F-prefixes began to be attached to these designations. The F-112 to F-116 are often speculated to be Soviet aircraft such as Su-22, MiG-19, MiG-21, MiG-23, or MiG-25. There is even a rumor that there exists a F-116A, which is a US-built version of the MiG-25 constructed to see what kind of threat the MiG-25 could be if the Soviets were able to build it using Western techniques. There is also thought to be an F-118, which might be a MiG-29 that was purchased before the fall of the USSR. Since the stealth fighter was operating in the same general area in Nevada, it came to be known by the log entry number of 117. The number 117 became so closely associated with the stealth fighter that when Lockheed printed up the first Dash One Pilot Manual, it had "F-117A" on the cover. Since the Air Force didn't want to pay millions of dollars to re-print all the manuals, the aircraft became the F-117A officially.

It is possible (although not proven) that the F-117 may have even been initially designated F-19 in the early stages of the project, and might well have continued to be known as the F-19 had this mistake not been made. A similar mistake was made when LBJ announced the existence of the "Blackbird". It was supposed to have been designated RS-71, but LBJ announced it as SR-71 and noone had the guts to tell LBJ that he had goofed. The designation stuck.

This still left the question of the missing F-19 unanswered. Perhaps the F-19 refers to some other "black" project, as yet unrevealed. Perhaps the F-19 does not exist at all, the designation having been deliberately or accidentally skipped. Shortly after the official revelation of the F-117, an Air Force spokesman answered questions about the "missing" F-19 by stating that the F-19 designation had been deliberately skipped in order to prevent confusion with the Soviet MiG-19. If you believe this explanation, I've got a bridge for sale :-).

It is now known that the real reason for the apparent gap was that the F-19 designation was deliberately skipped in order to let Northrop receive the designation F-20 for its advanced version of the F-5 fighter. Apparently, Northrop thought that the F-20 designation would make for good advertising copy for its new fighter (a slogan such as "The F-20--the first of a new series of fighters" immediately comes to mind), and the Air Force agreed. A similar sort of thing happened during World War 2, when the designation P-74 (and perhaps P-73 as well) were not assigned so that the Fisher Body division of General Motors could get the designation P-75 for its E agle heavy escort fighter ("The French 75 in World War 1 --- The Fisher P-75 in World War 2").

The 4450th Tactical Group was disbanded in October of 1989, and the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing was established in its place. The 37th TFW had three squadrons, the 415th, 416th, and 417th. The 415th and 416th squadrons flew production F-117As, whereas the 417th flew the pre-production F-117As. The 417th also operated some LTV A-7Ds for chase and training, but T-38A and AT-38B aircraft eventually replaced them.

On December 19, 1989, just 13 months after the Pentagon had disclosed the existence of the F-117A, it was used in combat for the first time. This was in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama intended to dislodge and arrest General Manuel Noreiga. At the beginning of the invasion, six F-117As flew to Panama from Tonopah. Their mission was to drop 2000-pound bombs near the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) barracks at Rio Hato. The purpose of these bomb drops was to stun and disorient the PDF troops living there so that the barracks could be stormed and the troops captured with minimal resistance and casualties. The pilots were instructed to drop their bombs no closer than 50 meters from two separate PDF barracks buildings. On the night of December 19, two lead F-117As each dropped a conventional 2000-pound bomb at the Rio Hato barracks. The bombing attack seems to have achieved its goal, since the barracks were quickly taken with minimal resistance.

However, it was revealed three months later that one of the bombs had missed its target by a considerable amount. It seems that there had been some mis-communication in the final stages of the mission planning, and the pilot had been given the wrong coordinates for the target. However, the media jumped on this event and concluded that the F-117A had been a failure on its first mission.

On April 21, 1990, stung perhaps by the press criticism, the Pentagon released more information on the F-117A. More photos of better quality were released, and at Nellis AFB there was a public display of two F-117As.

The last production F-117A was delivered to the Air Force on July 12, 1990.

It was to be in Operation Desert Storm that the F-117A was to prove its mettle. In response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the 415th TFS of the 37th TFW was deployed to Saudi Arabia on August 19, 1990. The 416th TFS followed in December of 1990. In January of 1991, a portion of the wing's 417th TFTS was also deployed to Saudi Arabia. In spite of the massive Coalition buildup, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq stubbornly refused to withdraw his troops from Kuwait. On January 17, 1991, the Coalition began an air offensive to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait. In the early morning hours, the F-117As of the 37th TFW initiated the air war against Iraq. Mission planners had assigned critical strategic Iraqi command and control installations to the F-117A, counting on the aircraft's ability to hit precisely at well-defended targets without being seen. Other vital targets included key communications centers, research and development facilities for nuclear and chemical weapons, plus hardened aircraft shelters on Iraqi airfields. On the first night of the war, an F-117A dropped a 2000-pound laser-guided GBU-27 Paveway III bomb right through the roof of the general communications building in downtown Baghdad. In another attack on the communications building next to the Tigris River, another GBU-27 Paveway III was dropped through an air shaft in the center of the roof atop the building and blew out all four walls. During the first three weeks of the air offensive, F-117As obliterated many hardened targets with unprecedented precision. The 37th TFW flew 1271 combat sorties and maintained an 85.5 percent mission-capable rate. The 43 F-117As of the 37th TFW dropped more than 2000 tons of precision ordinance and attacked some 40 percent of the high-value targets that were struck by the Coalition forces. Not one F-117A was hit, shot down, or lost to mechanical failure. There is no evidence that the F-117A was ever detected or tracked by Iraqi radar installations, either ground or airborne. The F-117's concealment, deception, and evasiveness proved that it could survive in the most hostile of environments, and its laser-guided bombs struck with extreme accuracy.

Most of the F-117As deployed to Saudi Arabia returned home to Nellis AFB in April of 1991, but a few remained in Saudi Arabia.

The F-117A has been out of production for almost 15 years now, but the Senate Armed Services Committee did for a time express an interest in acquiring 24 additional F-117As. However, the Air Force claimed that the F-117A was now "obsolete technology", and that it did not need or want any more of them.

In 1994, there was some thought given to building a navalized version of the stealth fighter to replace the cancelled A-12 project. This would produce a new set of challenges for designers. The aircraft would have to have catapult attachment points and arrester hooks and still be capable of maintaining the integrity of its stealthy exterior. Afterburning engines would presumably have to be fitted to make carrier launchings with heavy payloads feasible, which would require that the complex exhaust system be completely redesigned. In addition, the stealth RAM that covered the surface would have to be able to stand up to the corrosive effects of salt air. If this project had been funded, it would have been given the designation F-117N. However, ultimately the project was not proceeded with.

The F-117 also participated in Operation Allied Force, the NATO attempt to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in the former nation of Yugoslavia. In the opening phase of the operation, aimed primarily at Yugoslavia's integrated air defense system, NATO air forces conducted more than 400 sorties. During the first two night attacks, allied air forces 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 March 27, 1999, apparently struck by a surface-to-air missile. A US search and rescue team picked up the pilot several hours after the F-117 went down outside Belgrade. This was the first and so far the only F-117 to have been lost in action. On April 1, 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.

Although the F-117A has been called Frisbee, Nighthawk, and Wobblin' Goblin, for a long time there was no official name for it. Pilots often nicknamed the F-117A the "Black Jet". However, the name Nighthawk was eventually chosen to be the official name.

F-117A number 781 is now on display at the Wright-Patterson AFB Museum at Dayton, Ohio. This was one of the five full-scale development machines. I saw it there in June of 1992. In the interest of security, the RAM covering was replaced by a layer of black paint, and the narrow slotted exhaust ports were faired over to prevent anyone from peering inside to see the details of how the exhaust was constructed. Two F-117A FSD aircraft are still flying, the other two are in storage.

Sources:


  1. The F-117A Stealth Fighter, Steve Pace, Tab Aero, 1992.

  2. F-117A Stealth Fighter, Andy Sun, Concord Publications Co., 1990.

  3. F-117 Stealth in Action, Jim Goodall, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1991.

  4. Lockheed F-117A, Bill Sweetman and James Goodall, Motorbooks International, 1990.

  5. E-mail from Peter Merlin on spurious stories about the crash of 792.