F-117 Stealth Fighter: What You Need to Know

When aviation fans think of American stealth planes, the first that come to mind are often the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Although the latest fifth-generation fighters are incredible technological feats, none of them represents the first stealth aircraft built specifically to fly in combat.

The U.S. Air Force’s F-117 Nighthawk served as a predecessor to the best-known fighters flying today in many ways. True “stealth” qualities of the Nighthawk are frequently questioned. 

At the time of its commissioning, the U.S. Air Force recognized the aircraft as a stealth fighter. However, the U.S. Air Force designated the airframe as a stealth fighter at the time of its commissioning.

Although the combat days of this airframe are long gone, “retired” Nighthawks have been seen flying over Nevada in recent years.

Presentation of the F-117 Nighthawk

Following the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force wanted an aircraft stealthy enough to evade the Soviet Union’s increasingly advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The creation of the F-117 fighter was a black project for years, a highly classified initiative known only to a few of Pentagon officials.

The plane’s nuanced design dates back to the research of Russian scientist Pyotr Yakovlevich Ufimstev, whose work led to advances related to minimizing the radar cross-section of airframes. 

In fact, the former USSR discarded the “diamond shape” concept that emerged from Ufimstev’s work. However, the United States took the ideas of Russian scientists seriously.

F-117 Stealth Fighter: What You Need to Know

History of the F-117

In the middle of the 1970s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) commissioned Lockheed Martin to develop and test two stealth fighters. After production and initial testing of both prototypes, the decision was taken to proceed forward with the “Senior Trend” F-117A under the program.

The fuselage was designed to be nearly undetectable by radar and extremely challenging to identify with the human eye. Lockheed delivered 59 Nighthawks to the Air Force between 1992 and 1990.

Two General Electric F404 engines powered the F-117, allowing the airframe to reach high subsonic speeds. The Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick and the Advanced Guided Munitions System (AGM-88) HARM air-to-surface missiles were among the weapons that the Nighthawk could carry.

events on land

Due to the timing of the Soviet Union’s collapse, U.S. authorities briefly believed that the new airframe would no longer be required because the Soviet threat no longer existed. The F-117 platform was utilized for the first time in Panama during Operation Just Cause in 1989.

A few years later, the Nighthawk played a pivotal role in the early phases of the Gulf War. Still secret from the public at the time, the F-117 was used in major missions targeting Iraqi strategic command and control facilities and nuclear and chemical production facilities.

As Peter Suciu notes, although Nighthawks only accounted for 36 of the stealth fighters deployed in Desert Storm, “they only represented 2.5% of the total force of 1,900 fighters and bombers, yet they flew in more than a third of the bombing runs.” the first day of the war. During the course of the operation, the F-117s flew over 1,250 flights, dropped over 2,000 tonnes of bombs, and were in the air for almost 6,900 hours.

End and withdrawal

Although the F-117 platform achieved some success in the Gulf War, the aircraft struggled to fulfill its promise of invincibility when a missile in Yugoslavia shot down a Nighthawk. The Nighthawks were officially retired in 2008, but periodic “sightings” of the airframe suggest that it is still being used in some training exercises.