Cold War Era

The story of the USAF F-117A stealth fighter that flew close to the left wingtip of an Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 during Operation Desert Shield

As far as is known, this was the first-ever encounter between an Iraqi pilot and the shadowy stealth fighter of the US Air Force.

The Lockheed F-117A 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-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. 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.

As explained by E.R. Hooton & Tom Cooper in their book Desert Storm Volume 1: the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait and Operation Desert Shield 1990-1991, during Operation Desert Shield in addition to receiving satellite imagery, CENTCOM also benefitted from a wide variety of platforms to probe behind the enemy lines. The first USAF aircraft used were SAC’s Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint, which began Burning Wind SIGINT missions infantry on Aug. 9 and within two days were providing 24-hour coverage.

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

On Aug. 29, SAC’s Lockheed U-2 very high altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft and Lockheed TR-1 tactical reconnaissance with side-looking radar began operations as imagery was clearly the vital, and on  Sep. 8 the first medium-altitude photographic reconnaissance missions were flown by McDonnell-Douglas RF-4Cs. By Dec. 2 Gen. Charles Horner’s (Commander of US and allied air operations for Operation Desert Shield (and later Desert Storm) reconnaissance arm had flown 469 tactical, 421 strategic and 2,800 ELINT sorties, while AWACS— which both supported the shield and monitored IrAF activity had flown 253 sorties. One reconnaissance system which was late to the table was the Joint Surveillance Target Acquisition System (J-STARS) — an airborne battlefield surveillance radar system with a range of 150 kilometres, installed into a modified Boeing 707, re-designated as the E-8A. Schwarzkopf requested its deployment as early as of Aug. 10 but in early September the Joint Chiefs rejected the request arguing, ‘Desert Shield is not suitable in time or place for introduction J-STARS’. Only at the last minute did the Pentagon change its mind: the two available aircraft arrived on Jan. 12, 1991, together with six ground stations and four support vehicles that provided 44 remote terminals.

Conventional reconnaissance aircraft seem to have been not the only ones deployed by the US-led Coalition to monitor developments inside Iraq and Kuwait. Late during the evening of Dec. 16 1990, the crew of an Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 led by Captain Remzi (former fighter pilot with a long career of flying Sukhoi Su-7BMKs and Su-20s during the war with Iran) reported sighting an F-117A fighter close to the left wingtip of their aircraft – and that while underway over Najaf. As far as is known, this was the first-ever encounter between an Iraqi pilot and the shadowy stealth fighter of the US Air Force. Although it remains unknown to this day what exactly the latter was doing only 200 kilometres southwest of Baghdad at that point in time, we can assume the F-117A served the purpose pf testing IrAF’s air defences. However, the F-117A sighted by Remzi startled the commanders of the IrAF, forcing them into the conclusion that they lacked the means to effectively combat the most advanced US combat aircraft.

Desert Storm Volume 1: the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait and Operation Desert Shield 1990-1991 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Iraqi Airways Boeing 747

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Steve Fitzgerald via Wikipedia

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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