On Mar. 13, 2007 the U.S. Air Force (USAF) retired the first six examples of the famed F-117A Nighthawk.
The service had originally planned to retire the F-117 in 2011, but due to proposed cuts, the early retirement was estimated to free up over $1 billion to buy more F-22s.
The Lockheed F-117A was conceived to satisfy an Air Force requirement for a a single-seat aircraft capable of attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radars.
New materials and techniques that were developed in 1970s 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, which performed its maiden flight on Jun. 18, 1981.
In all, 64 aircraft were built with 59 being full production versions and five serving as demonstrators or prototypes.
The first unit equipped with the aircraft, the 4450th Tactical Group (renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in Oct. 1989), achieved initial operating capability (IOC) in Oct. 1983.
As explained by Arlan Ponder, 49th Wing Public Affairs in the article Nighthawk returns to Heritage Park, a total of 558 pilots flew the fighter when it was operational. They called themselves “bandits,” and after their first flight they received a bandit number. The first “bandit,” 150, was Maj. Al Whitley Jr, and the last bandit, 708, was Gen. David Goldfein.
In 1989 the F-117A was awarded the Collier Trophy, one of the most prized aeronautical awards in the world.
The F-117A first saw combat during Operation Just Cause on Dec. 19, 1989, when two F-117As from the 37th TFW attacked military targets in Panama.
The F-117A again went into action during Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991 when the 415th and the 416th squadrons of the 37th TFW moved to a base in Saudi Arabia. During Operation Desert Storm, the F-117As flew 1,271 sorties, achieving an 80 percent mission success rate, and suffered no losses or battle damage.
The Nighthawk took part also to Operation Allied Force (the NATO bombing campaign launched to halt the humanitarian catastrophe that was then unfolding in Kosovo) where F-117A, Air Force serial number 82-0806, callsign “Vega 31” flown by Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was shot down on Mar. 27, 1999 by an SA-3 Goa surface to air missile fired by the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Air Defence Missile Brigade of the Army of Yugoslavia, under the command of Colonel Zoltan Dani.
On Mar. 19, 2003 the F-117s performed the airstrikes over Baghdad that marked the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIR).
The decision by the Air Force to accelerate the retirement of the F-117 led to the arrival of the F-22A Raptor, another stealth “fighter,” at Holloman in Jun. 2008.
The last F-117s left Holloman in April 2008 with a stop at their birthplace in Palmdale, California, before ending up in their final resting place where their historic journey began in 1981 – Tonopah Test Range, Nevada. The aircraft were placed in Type 1000 storage in the event they were ever called back into duty (in fact there have been many reported sightings and pictures of the aircraft flying since then…). In late 2008, one Nighthawk paid the ultimate sacrifice as it was mechanically shredded to see if it could be recycled or scraped due to the hazardous materials used in its construction.
Former wing historian, Rick Shea, said, “The F-117A served its creator Ben Rich, itself, the USAF, and the ‘Bandits’ it carried into combat beyond their wildest expectations. The F-117A’s list of accomplishments rate with those of the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Bell X-1. What began as a thought evolved into the world’s premier fighter aircraft.”
Hailed as the world’s first aircraft to use stealth technology, the F-117A Nighthawk’s 27 year history is filled with events that actually do place it up with some of the famed jets of the past. From a centuries old mathematical formula by Scottish physicists James Clerk Maxwell to its first combat bombing run in Panama to night attacks in both Iraq Wars to its retirement in 2008, the “Black Jet” continues to awe, inspire and confound anyone who sees it.
Source: U.S. Air Force; Photo credit: Senior Master Sgt. Kim Frey; Senior Airman Darnell Cannady / U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com
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