From “the Asset” to “the Cockroach:” F-117 pilot on Nighthawk’s nicknames when it was a highly classified program and when its existence became public knowledge

By Dario Leone
Apr 18 2023
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‘Black humor and a lack of restraint are common in the community when it comes to airplane nicknames, so I reckon the F-117 didn’t come off too badly overall,’ John Keese, former Nighthawk pilot.

The Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk was developed in response to a US Air Force (USAF) request for an aircraft capable of attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radar. By the 1970s, new materials and techniques allowed engineers to design an aircraft with radar-evading or “stealth” qualities.

The result was the F-117A, the world’s first operational stealth aircraft.

The first F-117A flew on Jun. 18, 1981, and the first F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group (renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989), achieved initial operating capability in October 1983.

Nevertheless, the Nighthawk was kept under the strictest of secrecy for many years. It wasn’t until 1988 that the program was publicly acknowledged, and not until 1990 that it made its first formal public appearance. By this time, the aircraft had been operational for seven years.

Like most airplanes, the F-117 had several nicknames.

John Keese, former F-117 pilot recalls, on Quora;

F-117A print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-117A Nighthawk (Stealth) 49th OG, 8th FS “The Black Sheep Squadron”, HO/88-843, Holoman AFB, NM – 2008

‘During the years I flew the F-117 it was a highly classified, close-hold program. We were all qualified and current in at least one other aircraft, the A-7D Corsair II, in addition to the F-117. This served several purposes: it provided a believable cover for our true purpose, it provided night training in a high task cockpit in a somewhat similar airplane (that is, single pilot, similar thrust-to-weight ratio and non-after burning), and it provided us sufficient flying hours to remain proficient before there were enough F-117 flying hours to go around. We always referred to the F-117 as “the asset” or “the black jet” in those days. Any pilots who were not briefed into the program either didn’t know about the F-117 or wouldn’t admit it if they did out of fear for their own careers as well as the realization that national security was at stake. I always thought the airplane looked a lot like an old fashioned, antique iron, the kind which was heated on a wood fired stove, but without the handle. However, the moniker “flatiron” never caught on.

‘After the F-117’s existence became public knowledge the pilot fraternity weighed in on the matter, and the Nighthawk was and most commonly is referred to as “the Cockroach”. You must remember, this is the same fraternity which called the A-10 Thunderbolt II the “Warthog” (as in, as ugly as…), the F-105 Thunderchief the “Thud” (as in, the sound they would make when they hit the ground as often occurred in Southeast Asia), the F-16 Fighting Falcon the “Lawn Dart” (because during its early years it had a propensity for the flight control computers to “go stupid” and push over uncontrollably until ground impact occurred), the F-4 Phantom “Double Ugly” and “Rhino” and so on.’

Keese concludes;

‘Black humor and a lack of restraint are common in the community when it comes to airplane nicknames, so I reckon the F-117 didn’t come off too badly overall.’

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

F-117 Model
This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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