The F-117 Nighthawk, previously used by the United States Air Force (USAF), was the first operational aircraft whose original design was based on stealth technology. This single-seat, twin-engine aircraft had its debut flight in 1981, received its initial operating capability status in October of 1983, but was not revealed to the world until November of 1988. A ground-attack aircraft, the F-117A received quite a bit of exposure during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, often being referred to as the “Stealth Fighter”.
The idea of the B-117 first came after combat experience during the Vietnam War. During this war, the Soviet’s refined surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) downed Allied heavy bombers. This top secret program was first started in 1975 and remained secret until the late 1980’s. The first model was known as the “Hopeless Diamond”, a name given after the Hope Diamond due to its appearance. Then in 1976, the Lockheed Skunk Works received the contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Under this contract, two stealth fighters were to be built and tested using the code name “Have Blue”.
Initial Test Flight
Using existing technology and components, the two test aircrafts were built by Lockheed and came in under budget and in record time. Despite losing both aircraft during their initial flight demonstration in December, 1977, test data still came back positive. As a result, the government increased its funding for the stealth technology and by November, 1978 the contract was awarded to Lockheed Skunk Works with much of the funding being dedicated to the production of an operation stealth aircraft, the Lockheed F-117A, using the code name “Senior Trend”.
Just over 2 ½ years later, the first YF-117A made its first flight (June 18, 1981). By 1982, the first production of the F-117A was delivered and operational ability was reached by October of 1983. The existence of the F-117A was denied by the U.S. Air Force until a rough, grainy photograph was released to the public in 1988.
The F-117A was first used in combat in 1989 when the United States invaded Panama and participated in several combat missions during Operation Desert Storm. The only F-117A loss occurred in March of 1999, during operation Allied Force in a mission against the Army of Yugoslavia. When a ground-to-air missile detonated in close proximity to the F-117, the pilot lost control of the aircraft and was forced to eject. He was safely recovered, but photos showed the airframe of the aircraft remained fairly intact. Due to civilians in close proximity to the crash site, the decision was made not to bomb the wreckage. The incident singly compromised the 25-year old stealth technology used by the United States.
The F-117 was declassified in 1992 and remained operational until 2008. Though most retired Air Force aircraft are scrapped or dispersed to museums, the majority of the F-117’s (with wings removed) were actually retired to their original, climate-controlled hangers located at the Tonopah Test Range Airport.