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The F-117 Nighthawk
The Lockheed F-117 was developed in response to an Air Force 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-117, the world’s first operational stealth aircraft.
The first F-117A flew on Jun. 18, 1981, and the first F-117 unit, the 4450th Tactical Group (renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989), achieved initial operating capability in October 1983.
A total of 59 F-117As were built between 1981 and 1990.
F-117 airframes shipped to Area 51 via C-5 Galaxy cargo planes
As told by Peter W. Merlin in his book Dreamland The Secret History of Area 51, as each hand-built airframe rolled off the assembly line in Burbank, it was promptly shipped to the test site at Area 51 via C-5 Galaxy cargo planes. This effort required coordination among Lockheed, the SENIOR TREND SPO, Pentagon Air Staff, MAC, and a single AFOSI agent who had been detailed to Burbank to oversee the entire production security program.
As each jet neared completion, this agent sent a move request to the Air Staff. From there, arrangements were made with MAC to have a C-5 from Travis Air Force Base pick up the partially disassembled airframe at Burbank and transport it to the test site.
The massive cargo plane typically approached the airport from the west, drawing the attention of numerous residents throughout the San Fernando Valley with the piercing whine of its four huge turbofan engines. Upon touchdown, the crew activated thrust reversers, slowing the C-5 enough that the pilot could turn left at the runway intersection and taxi to the darkened Lockheed ramp. There, surrounded by a circle of semitrailers to thwart any unauthorized observers, the covered cargo would be carefully winched up the loading lamp into the plane’s cavernous cargo hold.
“The plane we don’t know anything about”
Throughout the F-117 production run, these moves were accomplished approximately every seven to nine weeks, usually late on a Friday night. The effort was timed not only to take advantage of darkness, but also to avoid conflict with normal commercial traffic, which ceased at about 10:00 p.m. due to local noise abatement regulations.
Numerous complaints from valley residents living beneath the flight path prompted an airport spokesman to explain, “Under FAA regulations, the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport must accommodate military aircraft at all times”‘ When one woman grumbled at a public meeting about the late-night C-5 visits, an airport official glibly responded, “That’s the plane we don’t know anything about.”
Not everyone was upset by the clandestine airlift operation. After hearing the jet arrive, curious Burbank residents began gathering in various spots just outside the airport perimeter to watch the mystery plane take off. Word quickly spread, along with speculation that the cargo was Lockheed’s rumored “stealth fighter,” and the crowds grew even larger.
On many occasions, local newspapers and television stations dispatched reporters and satellite trucks to San Fernando Road near the north end of the runway, in the hope of catching a glimpse of a secret transport operation at Lockheed. Ed “EJ” Pape Jr., then a student at John Burroughs High School, told one Journalist, “I’ve seen the entire parking lot full once.” Fans of the giant plane would drop whatever they were doing the moment they heard the jet’s distinctive sound.
F-117 takes off down C-5 ramp
The process of loading the F-117 onto the transport did not always proceed without incident. In November 1981, while Roger Moseley supervised the loading of Ship 782, he was painfully conscious of the inherent security concerns. He knew that the arrival of the C-5 always stirred up the local populace and that as its secret cargo was moved across the tarmac, eyes were watching from the darkness beyond the airport fence. All the lights surrounding the parking apron, and those within the Lockheed assembly building, had to be shut off to reduce ambient illumination.
With great care, workers towed the shrouded airframe toward the open maw of the transport’s cargo bay and began to pull it up a short metal ramp. At this point, Moseley recalled, things went horribly wrong. “Two-thirds of the way up the ramp, with the support team standing by with their hands in their pockets, the winch cable snapped and 782 took off down the ramp and across Burbank Airport with its tarpaulins flapping in the darkness like the cape of the Headless Horseman,” he said wryly.
“It seemed like entire lifetimes passed by before anyone could find a chock and sprint after this unwelcome apparition,’ he added. Fortunately, the incident went unnoticed by local news media.
DON’T ASK and NOYFB patch for C-5 crews bringing F-117 Nighthawk airframes to Area 51
Two loadmasters from the 22nd Military Airlift Squadron at Travis had been briefed into the SENIOR TREND program, and they were the only members of the C-5 crew who knew what they were transporting.
TSgt Michael E. Cawthon was one of them. Shortly after the program began, he designed a special patch to replace the unit’s standard squadron insignia during these clandestine airlift missions. A central black disk, outlined in white, symbolized the secrecy of their work; a large question mark in the center represented the unknown (to those not cleared) nature of their cargo, and a crescent moon signified nighttime operations. Finally, two tabs at the top and bottom of the emblem carried the words DON’T ASK and NOYFB (the latter an abbreviation for “None of Your F***ing Business”) to exemplify the crew’s convictions regarding the need to preserve program security.
Dreamland The Secret History of Area 51 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Peter W. Merlin via Schiffer Publishing, Lockheed Martin Flickr profile and Museum of Aviation