The first warplane to fully incorporate stealth technology.
With increasing effectiveness of radar during World War II (1939-1945), efforts intensified to reduce or obstruct the radar signature of aircraft. Germany planned an airplane whose surfaces absorbed or deflected radar beams. The Allies used foil strips, called chaff, to obscure radar returns. During the Cold War (1945-1991), radar-equipped fighters and guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) spurred construction of radar-jamming devices and antiradar missiles. Reacting to improved Soviet SAMs, the Lockheed Corporation’s Advanced Development Projects Division, also known as the Skunk Works, also tried to reduce the radar size of its long-range spy planes.
The Israeli Air Force’s misfortunes against the Arabs’ Soviet-supplied air defenses in the Israeli-Arab October War (1973) especially shook U.S. military leaders, who feared that Soviet weapons might render American air power impotent. They held a design competition for a radar-evading plane. Lockheed, with its experience in spy-plane design, won with a blueprint that used both shape and radar absorbent material (RAM) to make the plane’s radar size many times less than that of any plane ever made. The Nighthawk, with a 43-foot wingspan, 65-foot length, and 12-foot height, had a radar signature that was roughly equal to that of a small bird.
The Nighthawk’s shape, more than its RAM, determined its stealthiness, and computer limitations in calculating radar deflection meant that the plane resembled a series of interconnected triangular facets. Further, its aerodynamic instability required computer-assisted flight controls. Still, Lockheed flew a two-engine prototype in 1977. Wanting to preempt foreign countermeasures during development, U.S. military leaders kept the project highly secret, and code-named it “HAVE BLUE.”
Delivering the first fully developed F-117A to the U.S. Air Force challenged Lockheed designers, because they had to incorporate weapons delivery systems, avionics, bigger engines, air refueling capability, and other features, all while retaining the prototype’s stealth characteristics. Further, given the lethality of then-current antiaircraft weapons, the Air Force wanted the plane as soon as possible. Lockheed delivered the first model in 1981, well ahead of modern jets’ normal delivery schedule.
The resulting F-117A was a black subsonic warplane that carried one pilot, had two non-afterburning jet engines, and weighed approximately 50,000 pounds fully loaded. It carried a drag chute to reduce its high landing speed after touchdown. It had two bomb bays for weapons and relied upon weapons computers, an infrared night-vision device, a laser designator, and a sophisticated autopilot system for pinpoint delivery of laser-guided bombs. It could also drop unguided bombs. Nighthawks were not completely radar-invisible, but good mission planning and their design defeated radar target tracking.
In 1982, the Air Force created a secret unit to fly the jet, now code-named “SENIOR TREND.” In 1985, the unit had enough planes and operational experience to pass its first combat readiness inspection. Throughout the 1980’s, the F-117A operated in extreme secrecy at the isolated Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. Because the F-117A was supposed to be unseen, it was flown only at night. Unit members could not divulge the plane’s existence until 1988, and Nighthawks did not appear in public until 1990. Possessing about fifty-five planes divided into three squadrons, the unit became the Thirty-seventh Tactical Fighter Wing in 1989.
Nighthawks helped commence hostilities during the Operation Just Cause invasion of Panama (1989), but their greatest moment was during the Persian Gulf War (1991) with Iraq. Sustaining no losses or battle damage during their night missions, Nighthawks attacked heavily defended, high-value targets such as weapons bunkers, command centers, and SAM sites. They flew only 2 percent of wartime air missions, but accomplished 30 percent of all strategic raids. Small numbers of Nighthawks destroyed targets that defeated larger formations of other types of jets.
In 1992, as part of post-Cold War restructuring, the Air Force transferred its F-117’s from Tonopah to the Forty-ninth Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Further, the service relaxed many of the plane’s secrecy restrictions. During the 1990’s, improvements were made to the Nighthawk’s wheel brakes and avionics. American leaders deployed Nighthawks in disputes involving North Korea, Iraq, and Serbia. Nighthawks flew one Iraqi combat strike in 1993.
In 1999, F-117’s participated in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Allied Force air campaign against Serbia. Three days into the campaign, Serbian forces downed one F-117A. Although precise details remained classified after the war, the apparent reasons were errors in mission planning and coordination as well as Serbian SAM radar operators’ brief, fortunate glimpse of their target. Another F-117 received battle damage during the 79-day war, but otherwise Nighthawks continued to hit strategic targets while remaining unscathed.
As the twenty-first century began, the Nighthawk’s future was uncertain. Newer stealth planes were either operational or in development. Questions remained over whether the Serbians or others had exploited information derived from the downed Nighthawk’s wreckage. High operating costs prompted questions about the craft’s ultimate worth. However, the F-117A remained an undeniable triumph in air power.
Aronstein, David, and Albert Piccirillo. HAVE BLUE and the F-117A: Evolution of the “Stealth Fighter.” Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1997. Recounts factors in the plane’s development. Crickmore, Paul, and Alison Crickmore. F-117 Nighthawk. Osceola, Wis.: MBI, 1991. Highly detailed and illustrated account of the F-117’s history up to 1998. Jenkins, Denis. Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk. North Branch, Minn.: Specialty Press, 1999. A short but detailed historical overview of stealth technology, ending with the Allied Force campaign in Serbia. Rich, Ben, and Leo Janos. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. An account by a Lockheed executive who oversaw the Nighthawk’s development.
Aerospace industry, U.S.
The F-117A proved its worth in the Gulf War and other conflicts throughout the 1990’s.