Warbirds – F-117A Night Hawk

Today’s Warbirds article is on a decidedly ugly aircraft – the Lockheed Martin F-117A Night Hawk.  Pilots and aviation enthusiasts know the aircraft as “Nighthawk”, “woblin’ goblin”, or just plain “goblin”.  Arab troops nicknamed the aircraft “Shabah” (ghost) during the Gulf War.

Developed at the infamous Skunk Works, the F-117 ushered in a new era in “stealth” aviation with her first flight on June 18, 1981.  The goal was to create a single-seat, ground-attack aircraft with the ability to evade radar through use of innovative shapes and materials versus active jamming.  Rapid delivery beginning in 1982 led to operational capability by October 1983.  The Air Force denied the existence of the aircraft until a grainy photo surfaced in 1988.  The public debut finally occurred in 1990 when 2 were flown to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and placed on display for a crowd of tens of thousands.

The combat history of the F-117A begins in December 1989 with strikes by two Nighthawks against targets in Panama during Operation Just Cause.  The true test of its capabilities really began during Desert Storm.  Comprising only 2% of the aircraft deployed for operations against Iraqi forces, the F-117A accounted for more than a third of all bombing runs on the first day.  And though they were the only aircraft allowed to strike inside the limits of Baghdad, none of the 36 deployed for the conflict were touched by hostile fire.  After the end of the Gulf War, the Nighthawk continued to operate in the region to enforce compliance with U.N. programs designed to deny weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Only one F-117A has been lost to enemy action.  On March 27, 1999 during Operation Allied Force, an Army of Yugoslavia SA-3 detonated near an F-117A piloted by Lt. Col. Dale Zelko.  The aircraft had been targeted using ground observation beginning from take-off in Italy and long-wave radar that detected the plane when the bomb bay doors were open.  The pilot ejected safely and was quickly recovered by Marine Corps combat search and rescue.  the wreckage was not bombed because of the proximity of civilians.  This allowed  Russian personnel to inspect and examine the remains.  Technology from this wreck has proved useful to both China and Russia in the development of their own stealth aircraft.

Though they were supposed to remain operational through 2011, early deployment of the F-22 Raptor led to early retirement of the F-117A in 2008.  Because of the sensitivity of the technology, Nighthawks were deemed inappropriate for export sales.  However, the fleet of F-117A’s has not been scrapped.  Instead, they remain in climate controlled hangars at the Tenopah Test Range in “mothballed” condition – possibly awaiting later reactivation or sale.  F-117A’s have been sighted in flight as recently as 2010.

If you want to see more great photos of the Nighthawk, check out the archives at AviationSpectator.com .  Details on specifications and capabilities can be found on the Federation of American Scientists website.

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