Military Aviation

US Naval Aviator explains why in air to air combat a P-51 Mustang would toast an F-117 Nighthawk everyday

The F-117 Nighthawk

The F-117 is the world’s first operational stealth aircraft. The Nighthawk is a single-seat, twin-engine stealth attack aircraft. Only 64 were ever built and first flew in 1981. The US Air Force (USAF) “Retired” the aircraft in 2008.

Although officially retired, many F-117s remain airworthy and are used to support limited research and training missions based on overall cost effectiveness and their ability to offer unique capabilities.

Moreover, as we have already reported, the remaining F-117s conduct dissimilar air combat training (DACT) missions with other USAF air assets.

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

However, even though the reduced radar cross-section (RCS) and the black radar attenuating paint make the F-117 more than suitable for DACT operations, the Nighthawk is not a dogfighting machine.

‘The Nighthawk is a fighter (F-117) in name only,’ Adam Daymude, former US Navy Ea-18G Growler pilot, explains on Quora.

‘Look at this “thing:”

‘Let’s break it down by control axes:

‘Roll: the ailerons are way too small, but it’s good for stealth.

‘Yaw: Are you kidding me? The rudders are just barely enough to keep it pointed the right way, but it’s good for stealth.

‘Pitch: probably the most important control a fighter needs. No horizontal stab?! But it’s good for stealth.’

P-51 Mustang Vs F-117 Nighthawk

Daymude continues;

P-51 Mustang

‘Long story short, if this “fighter” went up against even a P-51 Mustang, it would be toast (The P-51 was an example of hyperbole. I purposefully picked one of the oldest fighters most people know about to illustrate how bad the F-117 would be in air to air combat.) Gen 4 or higher aircraft would probably save their missiles for a harder target and just get a guns kill.

‘I want to clarify my position: the F-117 is NOT a fighter, despite its F designation. That in absolutely no way detracts from what a marvel this aircraft was for its time. As a first gen stealth aircraft built using slide rules and pocket calculators, it proved stealth a viable concept that performed even better than we had dreamt.’

Daymude concludes;

‘Because of the lessons learned with the Have Blue program, we are now a full generation of aircraft ahead of potential adversaries. And I stick to my earlier prediction that a P-51 Mustang would mop the floor with a Nighthawk. Of course, it would! A-A combat is what is was designed for.’

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
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.

View Comments

  • The F117 had no capacity for a dogfight. It would be like putting a P51 up against an Osprey.

    How about an F35?

  • At least how they ended up using these aircraft is very different, like apples and pumpkins. I don't doubt the F-117 was originally intended as a fighter, but die to constant (barley carries any bombs more less guns) and terrible handling that requirement/expectation would of been quickly scratched. The notion it was designed with slide rule though I think is also bit extreme. Only with advance in computer technology were they able to keep the hopeless diamond pointing in a direction wasn't like a lawn dart heading for the ground.
    A more fair comparison might be bombs dropped in gulf war F-16 vs F-117. F-16 would significantly out perform by number of bombs and missions flown. Supporters of F-117 would say it only flown highest value, well protected strategic targets. Though, it did this when new and with the aid of supporting aircraft jamming radars. Which seems like a lot of expenses and effort when also compared to Patriot missiles.

  • Sorry but I humbly disagree. I'm not a pilot but I do know how to read a set of performance specifications. The F-117 has a service ceiling of 45,000 and a maximum speed of 594 knots. While the P-51D is the coolest prop fighter that ever flew, its service ceiling was just under 42,000 and top speed was 383 knots. Let's do the math here... 594 - 383 = 211. Go ahead and check that. So unless the P-51D was on an intercept course and able pop the F-117 in one pass, it's what we call in Louisiana a "gone pecan." Even if the Mustang could pull a turn fast enough to get a second shot, in say 15 seconds, (probably beyond the g limit) the Goblin would be almost a mile down range. Short of having Chuck Yeager in the cockpit, I'm not taking that bet.

  • From what I understand the F designation was purely to lead anyone listening in during development in the wrong direction and it was never intended as a fighter

  • The RAF tried a similar “chalk and cheese” experiment in the mid 1960s, pitching a Spitfire, more specialised dogfighter than the P51, against an English Electric Lightning, a very specialised Cold War bomber interceptor.

    They were concerned that they might have to use Lightnings in combat against P51s operated by Indonesia and needed to work out the best tactics. The bottom line was that the Lightning would win, as long as the Spitfire pilot didn’t see it first. The tactic adopted was the opposite of contemporary practice, approaching the Spitfire out of sight from below and astern.

    Search LIGHTNING VERSUS SPITFIRE: CLASH OF THE GENERATIONS for more a more detailed account.

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