The F-117A Nighthawk shape was one thousand times less visible than the least visible shape previously produced at the Skunk Works.
The F-117A Nighthawk is the world’s first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. This precision-strike aircraft penetrates high-threat airspace and uses laser-guided weapons against critical targets.
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 over the Nevada test ranges was on Jun. 18, 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision.
Streamlined management by Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, combined breakthrough stealth technology with concurrent development and production to rapidly field the aircraft.
The first F-117A was delivered in 1982, and the last delivery was in the summer of 1990. Air Combat Command’s only F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group, (now the 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.), achieved operational capability in October 1983.
The F-117A program demonstrated that stealth aircraft could be conceived, designed and developed, as the following story that appears in Ben Rich’s Book “Skunk Works” proves.
As small as an eagle’s eyeball.
Rich (who served as the second vice president of Lockheed’s Skunk Works after Kelly Johnson) recalls that time Denys Overholser, engineer and radar specialist for Lockheed’s Skunk Works, spoke to him about the first completely stealthy airframe, the F-117.
“Boss,” he said, handing me the diamond-shaped sketch, “Meet the Hopeless Diamond.”
“How good are your radar-cross-section numbers on this one?” I asked.
“Pretty good.” Denys Overholser grinned impishly. “Ask me, ‘How good?’”
I asked him and he told me. “This shape is one thousand times less visible than the least visible shape previously produced at the Skunk Works.”
“Whoa!” I exclaimed. “Are you telling me that this shape is a thousand times less visible than the D-21 drone?”
“You’ve got it!” Denys exclaimed.
“If we made this shape into a full-size tactical fighter, what would be its equivalent radar signature… as big as what—a Piper Cub, a T-38 trainer… what?”
Denys shook his head vigorously. “Ben, understand, we are talking about a major, major, big-time revolution here. We are talking infinitesimal.”
“Well,” I persisted, “what does that mean? On a radar screen it would appear as a… what? As big as a condor, an eagle, an owl, a what?”
“Ben,” he replied with a loud guffaw, “try as big as an eagle’s eyeball.”
The F-117 has been in the news as a newly refurbished airframe is on display at Palm Springs Air Museum in California. Frank Martinez was kind enough to let us share the photo below he took at Palm Beach.
Although officially retired, many F-117s remain airworthy and are used to support limited research and training missions (such as conducting dissimilar air combat training sorties with USAF and US Navy aircraft) missions based on overall cost effectiveness and their ability to offer unique capabilities.
I am sure that Ben Rich is smiling down from heaven knowing that his baby is still active.
Be sure to check out Linda Sheffield Miller (Col Richard (Butch) Sheffield’s daughter, Col. Sheffield was an SR-71 Reconnaissance Systems Officer) Facebook Pages Habubrats and Born into the Wilde Blue Yonder for awesome Blackbird’s photos and stories.
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin and Frank Martinez