15 years after ‘officially’ retiring its first stealth plane, the US Air Force is seeking help to keep the F-117 flying for another decade
The US Air Force unveiled its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, in December.
The B-21 is expected to arrive 40 years after America’s first stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk.
The F-117 was officially retired in 2008, but the Air Force continues to use the stealth jet.
The fuss over the unveiling of the new B-21 stealth bomber has caught the aviation world’s attention, but the B-21’s grandfather is still in action.
When first flown in the early 1980s, the F-117 Nighthawk was the first operational stealth aircraft. The F-117 has been officially retired for about 15 years, but its retirement is far from sedentary. The Nighthawk is still used to train American pilots to counter enemy stealth aircraft and cruise missiles.
The US Air Force now plans to keep some of its Nighthawks flying until at least 2034. from 2024.
The RFI indicates that the contractor will be required to provide three services.
First, maintenance and logistics for F-117As performing “limited flight operations” at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada.
Tonopah – also designated Area 52 – is a highly classified site about 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Among the most interesting activities are the testing of nuclear weapon systems and experiments with Russian MiGs, anti-aircraft missiles and other foreign equipment.
Tonopah was also the original home of the F-117 and its operators, the former 4450th Tactical Group.
The Air Force is also looking for companies to maintain F-117s in extended storage and to demilitarize and declassify surplus F-117s for buyers such as museums. “The planned demilitarization / declassification rate is 2 to 3 aircraft per year,” says RFI.
More specific requirements include maintaining the F-117’s technically “low observable” or LO stealth characteristics, including “composite and structural repair support”. The RFI also asks if the contractors have experience using ground-based diagnostic imaging radar to detect faults in stealth aircraft components.
The Air Force currently has about 45 F-117s, more than 10 of which have been approved for transfer to museums, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told Insider.
“As we demilitarize aircraft, they will be made available to museums, upon request, or disposed of,” Stefanek said.
Out of service, but still in flight
The F-117 was developed in the 1970s as a solution to increasingly deadly air defenses. Designed by Lockheed Martin’s famous and top-secret “Skunk Works”, the Nighthawk used a sloped shape and special coatings to minimize its radar signature.
As the world’s first stealth fighter, the F-117 has always had an air of myth around it.
Considered purely a subsonic bomber that could carry only two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs in an internal bomb bay, its performance was not particularly spectacular. But while stealth is almost taken for granted these days, it was a big deal when the F-117 first flew in 1981.
The plane has achieved something of a cult status, including reports that it was linked to the well-known – and totally fictional – F-19 stealth fighter.
The F-117 flew during the Gulf War in 1991, where its secrecy and mystique generated even more buzz. In 1999, the Nighthawk reached a new milestone: it became the first stealth aircraft shot down in combat.
Clever Serbian gunners took advantage of a peculiarity of the F-117 – its bomb bay doors reflected radar when opened – to hit a Nighthawk with a surface-to-air missile. The American pilot ejected from the burning F-117 and spent eight hours on the ground before being rescued.
Only 59 F-117s were built, plus five prototypes. Because it was an early stealth design with strict maintenance requirements, the Air Force decided to retire the aircraft as a new generation of stealth aircraft – the F-22 fighters and F-35 and the B-2 bomber – emerged. But there is still life in the old Nighthawk.
It has occasionally been seen training with newer aircraft, including with Marine Corps F-35Bs off the California coast in April and with fourth- and fifth-generation jets over Georgia in May.
Even more intriguing are reports that the F-117 is being used to simulate cruise missiles for missile defense training. It’s odd that the world’s first stealth plane would end up as a fake missile, but for a plane with such a colorful history, it seems fitting.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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