It has become one of the most recognizable shapes in the aviation world. A black, futuristic ghost tearing through the sky often undetected. Even today, 39 years after it first took to the sky, it still feels like an aircraft that has somehow slipped through a portal into our world. A plane that is still steeped in mystery and the first to use stealth technology. Its name is the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk – but most of the world knows it, as the Stealth Fighter.
This is an aircraft that stands alone. Yes, others now carry similar technology but nothing can match the alluring power of the F-117 Nighthawk. A sleek, revolutionary design that looks like something out of Robocop. Because of its covert production, it is a story that is steeped in intrigue, and one that fascinated the world until its official unveiling.
This may be one of the most extraordinary aircraft the U.S has ever produced, but the story of the F-117 Nighthawk begins with a Soviet mathematician by the name of Pyotr Ufimtsev. His groundbreaking paper released in 1964, Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction, would change the way we think about aircraft design. He showed that an aircraft’s radar return did not depend simply on its size as had been previously thought, but on its edge configuration. He found that even large aircraft could significantly lower their radar visibility by altering their structure.
However, the paper, which was submitted to the Moscow Institute for Radio Engineering, went no further than the theoretical stage. Ufimtsev was completely right, but such changes in the 1960s would have seriously affected an aircraft’s aerodynamic ability. Who cares if the plane can be seen by radar or not, if it can’t even fly. Ufimtsev’s paper was simply ahead of its time.
But it didn’t have to wait long. In the early 1970s, Lockheed analyst Denys Overholser came across the paper, and by this point, computer technology had progressed to a level that something like what Ufimtsev had envisioned a decade before, might now just be possible.
A BLACK PROJECT
One of the most enticing aspects of the F-117 was the mystery that it emerged from. A black project is a secretive military or defence project, typic ally unacknowledged by the U.S government. The development of the F-117 fell into this category – one of the blackest of black projects. Even inside the walls of the Pentagon, few people knew about its production.
Development of the F-117 began in 1975, using a model aircraft that was referred to as the Hopeless Diamond – taken from the HOPE DIAMOND, one of the world’s most expensive jewels. In 1976, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued Lockheed Skunk Works a contract to construct two sub-scale working models.
The Lockheed Skunk Works in Burbank California, an official pseudonym for the Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP) has been responsible for a dazzling array of aircraft over the years, many of which we have already featured here on Megaprojects. Including the U-2, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, and of course the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. It’s doubtful there is a better aviation development department anywhere on the planet.
The codename ‘Have Blue’ was used for what would go on to become the F-117, and by the end of 1977 two aircraft had been completed, under budget, for $35 million ($149 million today). These models included the jet engines of the Northrop T-38A, the fly-by-wire systems of the F-16, the landing gear of the A-10, and the environmental systems of the C-130. They were two ragtag aircraft pieced together, but HB1001 and HB1002 proved that this new technology worked.
Now, I know I just said they worked, but they did also both crash during development. Nevertheless, the Defence Department liked what they saw, and the program was expanded, now under the code name ‘Senior Trend’.
At Skunk Works, a computer program named “Echo”, was used to design an aircraft with flat panels, called facets. These were then arranged in such a way as to scatter over 99% of a radar’s signal energy – it came to be known as “painting” the aircraft.
The first F-117 that we would recognize today was flown at Area 51 on 18th June 1981 and was developed and trialled over the coming years.
Rumours in the media began to circulate about a mysterious stealth fighter, known as the F-19. Completely inaccurate models were created and paraded on television, even computer games got in on the act. The public was hooked, but they didn’t even know what on.
In July 1986, an F-117 crashed in SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, killing the pilot and starting a forest fire. As firefighters began converging on the area, the full power of the U.S government swung into action. A helicopter gunship circled the area, as armed guards on the ground prevented anybody, including firefighters, getting anywhere near the crash site. The wreckage of the F-117 was later replaced with an F-101 Voodoo that had been kept at Area 51. But the fact that I’ve just told you about that shows they obviously didn’t do a great job at covering it up.
The government only acknowledged its existence on 10th November 1988 with a single grainy image, but it wasn’t until April 1990 that two F-117s arrived at Nellis Air Force Base and were officially presented to a crowd of tens of thousands. The ghosts had finally emerged. A total of 64 F-117s have been built, with 5 Full Scale Development (FSD) aircraft designated with the same “YF-117A” designation. The final F-117, number 59, was delivered on 3rd July 1990. Their flyaway cost, meaning simply production, was $42.6 million ($91 million today).
Let’s begin with what the F-117 are not. Many wrongly assume that the Stealth Fighters are completely invisible to radar – which is completely wrong. Their design dramatically reduces their chances of detection, but invisible they are definitely not – as we shall see in the next section.
They are also not great to fly and have even been given the very descriptive nickname, the ‘Wobblin Goblin’ – though pilots have said this is perhaps a touch on the unfair side. They can only carry two bombs, and are not particularly fast in comparison to other aircraft and would also be fairly hopeless against a top grade aircraft in a dog fight. To be very honest, they are experts at covert operations at night, but not a whole lot else.
But enough of what they aren’t, what are they? The F-117 has a radar cross-section of about 0.001 m2 (0.0108 sq ft) and wings with a high sweep angle of 50° (meaning the wings are at a much tighter angle than almost any other aircraft) which deflect incoming radar waves to the sides. The aircraft was painted using radar absorbing iron-ball paint that was magnetically charged to reduce radar returns. The exhaust ports on the F-117 were also narrowed considerably compared to other aircraft into tight slits, which minimised detection by infrared systems.
It comes with two non-afterburning General Electric F404 turbofan engines each with a thrust of 10,600 lbf, giving it a maximum speed of 684 mph (1,100 km/h). As a comparison, the F-22, which replaced it for many of its combat roles has a top speed of 1,500 mph (2,414 km/h) with each of its engines giving out 26,000 lbf of thrust. Essentially, it is twice as fast and its engines have over twice the thrust. The plane measures 25 metres (66ft) in length and has a wingspan of 13.2 metres (43ft)
Its range is 1,070 miles (1,720 km) but is typically refuelled in midair. Which brings me on to a nice fact that shortly after the Gulf War, pilots flew non-stop (with refuelling) from Holloman in New Mexico to Kuwait, taking roughly 18.5 hours. To this day this remains a record for a single-seat fighter.
One particularly intriguing aspect of the F-117 is that it is essentially automated. It has sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a digital avionics suite. Before a mission, data is uploaded to an automated planning system which can control every aspect of the flight, including weapons release (though from what we can gather pilots typically disengaged this system shortly before attack and took control)
This automation is done because, as I said a little earlier, this is not the easiest plane to fly. Its design means that slight flight alterations are constantly needed to keep it in the air. Aerodynamically it is a bit of bucking bronco. Asking a pilot to do this on a long flight would be preposterous, so I guess a computer made sense.
The first combat operations for the F-117 came in 1989. OPERATION JUST CAUSE began on 20th December as the United States invaded Panama. I don’t know about you but any military campaign that feels the need to use the words ‘just cause’ seems on shaky ground. The operation to depose Manuel Noriega – who the CIA had been working with for years but had now fallen out of favour – was a swift one. Done and dusted in just 6 weeks, the invasion is something I could ramble on for for a long time, but for the sake of remaining on topic, I will not.
Operation Just Cause saw two bombs dropped by two F-117s fall on Rio Hato airfield, the combat life of the Stealth Fighter had begun. Two years after, a significantly larger, more dangerous mission lay ahead.
As the sun set over Baghdad on the evening of 16th January 1991, most knew that something was coming. The build-up to the first Gulf War had been long and protracted, but a deadline set by the U.N for Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait passed on the 15th January.
As night fell, final preparations were made to the first wave of ten F-117s waiting on the tarmac. In total, three waves, totalling thirty aircraft would take off that night and attack strategic targets mainly in and around Bagdad. Military planners had estimated that combat losses would be around 5% – it was expected that not all of these revolutionary bombers would be coming back.
That night the GULF WAR began with a terrifying display of firepower that would continue for 42 consecutive days, and that 5% prediction proved incorrect – every one of the F-117s made it back safely.
Throughout the war, the F-117s completed 1,300 missions over 6,905 flight hours and they were even used as propaganda as they were pictured on leaflets dropped by coalition forces urging Iraqi citizens to “Escape now and save yourselves”.
Things went a little quiet in for the F-117s after the Gulf War, but in 1999 they entered the fray once again. The Kosovo War began in February 1998 with fighting between the forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo Albanian rebel group, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The causes and reasons are truly complex here so I won’t dive in, but it was principally over the sovereign rights of Kosovo and its people.
With the war dragging painfully on with no end in sight, NATO intervened and bombing raids across Yugoslavia to place between 24th March and 10th June 1999. On 27th March, one F-117 taking part in the operation (AF ser. no. 82-0806) never returned after it was shot down by the Yugoslavian army.
The F-117 was picked up by radar at a distance of 13 km and an altitude of 8 km. The Yugoslavian anti-aircraft missile system launched a series of SA-3s ( the Yugoslav version of the Soviet Isayev S-125 “Neva”). After one SA-3 hit the F-117, the aircraft quickly became unflyable, and the pilot ejected shortly after.
The pilot was recovered six hours later, but the wreckage was not, with some later claiming the technology had been sold to either the Russians or the Chinese – or maybe both. It remains the only F-117 to ever be shot down.
F-117s were later used in both Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 in Iraq, but their role in the U.S Airforce was coming to an end.
The fleet of F-117 was initially slated for retirement in 2011, but that was brought forward to 2008. The ferocious F-22 RAPTOR was now on the scene and began taking on much of the responsibility that the F-117s once had. Bringing the retirement date forward meant freeing up an additional $1.07 billion to buy more F-22s, while the imminent arrival of the F-35 Lightning meant that the stealth fighters were about to be pushed even further from combat operations.
Between 13th March 2007 and 22nd April 2008, the fleet of F-117s was retired in seven waves, except for four which were kept in operation to be used for test flights. While a few of the aircraft found their way into museums, the majority were mothballed to be kept combat-ready. A National Defense Authorization Act in 2017 stated that four F-117s each year would be scrapped, a process known as demilitarizing an aircraft. But that’s not quite the end.
THE GHOSTS REMAIN
Despite this, sightings of F-117s have still occurred in recent years. In Southern California and Death Valley, civilians have seen and photographed F-117s still in action. One photo even shows the words ‘Dark Knights’ and unit markings not associated with any known squadrons, leading some to suggest that the aircraft may still be in operation, perhaps in an unofficial capacity.
These were never aircraft that were going to slip away quietly and their legendary status has remained unrestrained. During the 1980s tales of these mysterious ghosts captivated the world. They symbolised an extraordinary step forward in aviation – an aircraft that was rarely detected. Their black paint and jagged appearance provided a terrifying, almost apocalyptic vision – a hellish nightmare appearing suddenly overhead. Though they are certainly not quite the invincible knights that they were once heralded as they remain one of the most iconic aircraft the world has ever known.
Ghosts have always provided humans with a chilling fear. A ghost that can slip silently across borders, high in the night sky, is a whole different kind of fear.