F-117 Nighthawk Bomber

F117 A; F117 B; F117 N; YF117


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The F-117 was a black project, an ultra-secret program for much of its life, until the late 1980s. The project began with a model called "The Hopeless Diamond" (a wordplay on the Hope Diamond) in 1975 due to its bizarre appearance. In 1977 Lockheed produced two 60% scale models under the Have Blue contract. The Have Blue program was a stealth technology demonstrator that lasted from 1976 to 1979. The success of Have Blue lead the Air Force to create the Senior Trend program which developed the F-117.
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F-117 Nighthawk Bomber

F-117 Bomber

The United States Air Force's F117 Nighthawk is the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. Before it was given an official name, the engineers and test pilots referred to the ungainly aircraft, which went into hiding during daylight to avoid detection by Soviet satellites, as "Cockroaches", a name that is still sometimes used.

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk
Single-seat fighter and attack plane
F117 Powerplant
Two General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofan engines (96.0 kN)
F117 Dimensions
Length 20.08 m (65 ft 11 in)
Wingspan 13.20 m (43 ft 4 in)
Height 3.78 m (12 ft 5 in)
Wing area 73 m2 (784 ft2)
F-117 Weights
Empty 13,381 kg (29,500 lb)
Maximum take-off 23,814 kg (52,500 lb)
F117 Performance
Maximum speed 1040 km/h (646 mph)
Operative range 2110 km (1140 nm)
Service ceiling unknown
F117 Armament
F-117 missiles None
F-117 bombs up to two GBU-10 Paveway II or GBU-27 LGB or BLU-109 LGB
F117 Variants
Have Blue (XST) prototype (2 built)
Y F-117 A Pre-Production version
F-117 A Production version 59 built
F-117 B Proposed improvement
F-117 N Proposed naval version

The F117 Nighthawk is classified as a fighter (the "F-" designation), but it was designed primarily as a ground attack aircraft. A few websites claim that the F-117 can carry Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, but this seems contrary to the rest of the plane's design and reported missions.

The "F-" designation has never been officially explained. However, military organizations have never been quick to embrace new technologies, and the USAF in particular has always been most proud of its fighters ("F-" aircraft), slightly less so of its strategic bombers ("B-" designations), and has never been enthusiastic about providing direct support of ground troops ("A-" type attack planes). It is possible that an aircraft of radically new design would win support more easily if it was a "sexy" fighter rather than "just" an attack plane.

One of the more common explanations for the "F-" designation of the Nighthawk was that it was for security reasons. The aircraft does not exhibit the characteristics of an attack ("A-" designation) aircraft in that it does not have a gun, nor rockets to engage enemy ground targets and provide close-in air support (CAS) for friendly personnel on the ground. Also, the typical role of an attack jet is to operate during daylight hours and/or at low altitudes, which is contradictory to the concept of this platform. The Nighthawk is by default and definition, a strategic aircraft and deserving of the "B-" designation for bombers. The given reasoning behind the misleading title Stealth "Fighter" was to disuade and misdirect possible foreign espionage attempts to gather accurate intelligence on the project.

The unique design of the single-seat F-117 provides exceptional combat capabilities. About the size of an F-15 Eagle, the twin-engine aircraft is powered by two General Electric F404 turbofan engines and has quadruple redundant fly-by-wire flight controls. Air refuelable, it supports worldwide commitments and adds to the deterrent strength of the U.S. military forces.

The F-117A can employ a variety of weapons and is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a state-of-the-art digital avionics suite that increases mission effectiveness and reduces pilot workload. Detailed planning for missions into highly defended target areas is accomplished by an automated mission planning system developed, specifically, to take advantage of the unique capabilities of the F-117A.

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The first F-117 was delivered in 1982, and the last delivery was in the summer of 1990. The F117-A production decision was made in 1978 with a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, the "Skunk Works," in Burbank, California. The first flight was in 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision. Air Combat Command's only F-117-A unit, the F117 4450th Tactical Group, (now the 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.), achieved operational capability in October 1983.

Streamlined management by Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, combined breakthrough stealth technology with concurrent development and production to rapidly field the aircraft.

The F-117 program has demonstrated that a stealth aircraft can be designed for reliability and maintainability. The aircraft maintenance statistics are comparable to other tactical fighters of similar complexity. Logistically supported by Sacramento Air Logistics Center, McClellan AFB, California, the F117 is kept at the forefront of technology through a planned weapon system improvement program located at USAF Plant 42 at Palmdale, California.

F117 Operational History

During the program's early years, from 1984 to mid-1992, the F-117A fleet was based at Tonopah Test Range Airport, Nevada where it served under the 4450th Tactical Group. Because the F-117 was classified during this time, the 4450th Tactical Group was "officially" located at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada and equipped with A-7 Corsair II aircraft. The 4450th was absorbed by the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1989. In 1992, the entire fleet was transferred to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, where it was placed under the command of the 49th Fighter Wing. The move eliminated Key Air flights, which flew 22,000 passenger trips on 300 flights from Nellis to Tonopah per month.

The F-117 has been used several times in war. Its first mission was during the United States invasion of Panama in 1989.[29] During that invasion two F117-A Nighthawks dropped two bombs on Rio Hato airfield.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the F-117A flew approximately 1,300 sorties and scored direct hits on 1,600 high-value targets in Iraq[1] while flying 6,905 combat flying hours.[30] The F-117 comprised only 2.5% of the American aircraft in Iraq yet struck more than 40% of the strategic targets.[31] "During their mission, the F117-A pilots delivered over 2,000 tons of precision-guided ordnance with a hit rate of better than 80 percent. Although the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing Provisional and its 42 stealth fighters represented just 2 1/2 percent of all allied fighter and attack aircraft in the Gulf, the F-117As were assigned against more than 31 percent of the strategic Iraqi military targets attacked during the first 24 hours of the air campaign." During the war, it performed poorly dropping smart bombs on military targets, achieving a success rate of only 40%.

It was among the only U.S. or coalition aircraft to strike targets in downtown Baghdad. Among the aircraft with which the Nighthawk shared this distinction were the F-16s which attacked Baghdad during daylight on 19 January 1991 during the "Package Q" mission—the largest single strike flown during the war.

Since moving to Holloman AFB in 1992, the F117-A and the men and women of the 49th Fighter Wing have deployed to Southwest Asia more than once. On their first trip, the F-117s flew non-stop from Holloman to Kuwait, a flight of approximately 18.5 hours – a record for single-seat fighters that stands today.

It has since been used in Operation Allied Force in 1999, Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 and in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

F117 Combat losses

One F-117 has been lost in combat, to Serbian forces. On 27 March 1999, during the Kosovo War, the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Missile Brigade under the command of Colonel Zoltan Dani, equipped with the Isayev S-125 'Neve' (NATO designation SA-3 'Goa') anti-aircraft missile system, downed a F-117A callsign "Vega 31," serial number 82-806 with a Serbian improved Neva-M missile.[26][27] According to NATO Commander Wesley Clark and other NATO generals, Serb air defenses found that they could detect F-117s with their radars operating on unusually long wavelengths. This made them visible on radar screens for short times. The pilot survived and was later rescued by U.S. Air Force Pararescue personnel. However, the wreckage of the F-117 was not promptly bombed, due to possible media fallout from news footage of civilians around the wreckage. The Serbs are believed to have invited Russian personnel to inspect the remains, inevitably compromising the then 25-year old U.S. stealth technology.[28] Since the United States did not destroy the wreckage, the remains can still be seen by civilians today at the Museum of Aviation in Belgrade close to Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. An error of assumption was made by many as to the identity of the pilot. While the name "Capt Ken 'Wiz' Dwelle" was painted on the canopy, it was made public in 2007 that the actual pilot was Lt Col. Dale Zelko, USAF.

Reportedly several SA-3s were launched, one of which detonated in close proximity to the F-117A, forcing the pilot to eject. According to an interview, Zoltán Dani was able to keep most of his missile sites intact and had a number of spotters spread out looking for F-117s and other NATO aircraft. The commanders and crews of the SAMs guessed the flight paths of earlier F-117A strikes from rare radar spottings and positioned their SAM launchers and spotters accordingly. It is believed that the SA-3 crews and spotters were able to locate and track F-117A 82-806 visually, probably with the help of infra-red and night vision systems. He also claimed that his battery shot down an F-16 as well.

Some American sources acknowledge that a second F-117A was also damaged during a raid in the same campaign, and although it made it back to its base, it supposedly never flew again

F-117N Seahawk

United States Navy tested the F117 in 1984 but decided that it was not suitable for use on an aircraft carrier. In the early 1990s, Lockheed proposed an upgraded, carrier capable variant of the F-117 dubbed the "Seahawk" to the Navy as an alternative to the canceled A/F-X program. The unsolicited proposal was received poorly by the Department of Defense, which had little interest in the single mission capabilities of such an aircraft, particularly as it would take money away from the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program, which evolved into the Joint Strike Fighter. The new aircraft would have differed from the land-based F-117 in several ways, including the addition "of elevators, a bubble canopy, a less sharply swept wing and reconfigured tail". The "N" variant would also be re-engined to use General Electric F414 turbofans instead of the older General Electric F404s. Furthermore the aircraft would be optionally fitted with hardpoints, allowing for an additional 8,000 lb of payload, and a new ground attack radar with air-to-air capability. In that role the F-117N could carry AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.

Lockheed submitted an updated proposal that included afterburning capability and a larger emphasis on the F117-N as a multi-mission aircraft, rather than just an attack aircraft. In efforts to boost interest, Lockheed also proposed an F-117B land-based variant that shared most of the F-117N capabilities. This variant was proposed to both the US Air Force and the Royal Air Force: in addition to several RAF exchange officers who had flown the F-117 during its service, two RAF pilots had formally evaluated the aircraft in 1986 as a reward for British help with the American bombing of Libya that year. This renewed F-117N proposal was also known as the A/F-117X. Neither the F-117N or the F-117B was purchased by any party.

F117 in USAF United States Air Force

Tactical Air Command
4450th Tactical Group – Tonopah Test Range, Nevada
4450th F-117 Tactical Squadron (1981–1989)
4451st F-117 Tactical Squadron (1981–1989)
4453rd F-117 Test and Evaluation Squadron (1985–1989)
37th Tactical Fighter Wing/Fighter Wing – Tonopah Test Range
415th F117 Tactical Fighter Squadron (1989–1992)
416th F117 Tactical Fighter Squadron (1989–1992)
417th F117 Tactical Fighter Training Squadron (1989–1992)

Air Combat Command
49th Fighter Wing – Holloman AFB, New Mexico
7th F-117 Fighter Squadron (1992–2006)
8th F-117 Fighter Squadron (1992–2008)
9th F-117 Fighter Squadron (1993–2008)

Air Force Flight Test Center
412th Test Wing - Edwards AFB, California
410th F117 Flight Test Squadron (1993–2008)


F117 Variants

In 1991, a interest developed in Washington to revive production after the hype of Desert Storm. Although the proposal was endorsed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, it was fiercely opposed by the Air Force, which ultimately prevailed in eliminating funding for the project and killing the F117 purchase.

The post Desert Storm party was over for the F-117A, and it became the essence of Washington politics to display a lowered regard for the F-117A. Lockheed, whose F-22 had just been chosen as the USAF ATF, was told not to campaign for a new F-117 production contract. Push for more F-117's, and the F-22 will go down in flames. A company official said "Lockheed's being terrorized."

However, the Skunk Works did retain it's tools and jigs to put the F-117A back into production. Although the parent company Lockheed would no longer push for F-117's, Skunk Works started a number of internal projects to offer a new and improved F-117 to potential buyers. From these internal projects came the F-117A+, F-117B, F-117B (British, or F-117C), F-117N, and A/F-117X and other minor proposals.

It should be noted that since these are internal projects they have never been cancelled. Although government funding might have been cancelled at one point or another, these projects are still alive and well within The Skunk Works.


This proposed conversion of the standard F-117A was conceived for reconnaisance missions, and there were to be two configuration choices. Although some strike capability was to be retained, the first option included a bomb bay-mounted pallet with a sideways-looking EO sensor in the ventral canoe. The price for 24 recce kits was $213 million. This palletized installation would permit the aircraft to be converted back to the attack configuration in about four hours. The second proposal envisioned an integral recce suite with an IRLS, a small EO camera and a datalink, and would have allowed the aircraft to retain full combat capability. The aircraft would possibly be modified to carry the ATARS camera system in one weapons bay, and a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in the aircraft's other weapons bay. At an estimated cost of $520 million, a 1992 proposal would have added 24 RF-117A's to F-117A production.

Senator Sam Nunn, a very knowledgeable defense figure on Capitol Hill, declared "The Air Force already has more than 1,600 F-16's, and buying 72 more will provide only a marginal increase in capability. Buying 24 more F-117A's for the same amount will provide a 50% increase in the number of aircraft that proved to be the superstar of Desert Storm." The Senate voted to cancel the F-16's and called on the USAF to order the F-117's. Such a vote is often overtaken by some later vote and that was the case causing the additonal F-117A purchases not to happen.


Lockheed proposed to the USAF an ambitious upgrade with enhanced low observable (LO) technologies anf the aircraft was to be fitted with the same undercarriage as the F-15 Eagle and an F414 engine with afterburner. The prototype conversion was projected to cost $79 million. Details have not been released, although Paul Martin says the upgrade involves "full-scale development of 18 advanced low-observable technologies. Lockheed proposed replacing the engines, new all weather sensors, low probability of intercept communication, global navigationing receivers.


The first Stealth Fighter to be designated was F-117B was conceived as a late-production configuration when an 89-aircraft fleet was seriously proposed in 1983. The aircraft was to be fitted with a Global Positioning System (GPS) and LPI radar, and have AGM-88 HARM compatability. It was to be based on the standard F-117A-type airframe.


The F-117B designation was then to be applied to an aircraft with an enlarged weapons bay and an increased span of 64 ft 11 in, as well as a reduced wing sweep (42 or 48 degrees) and reduced-sweep V tails. The later were to be augmented by conventional slab tailerons. There was also supposed to be an increase in range to 820 miles from the F-117A's 570 miles.


A subsequent F-117B variant was proposed that combined features of the F-117+ (enhanced LO, an F-15 type undercarriage and an afterburning F414 engine) and those of the YF-117B. This aircraft would have featured a 73,260 lb (33,230 kg) MTOW, and an 8,000 lb (3,629 kg) payload comprising four 2,000 lb LGBs. It was to have had a 1,000 nautical mile unrefueled radius.


The F-117A version proposed to Britain's Royal Air Force in 1995 has been refered to as the "F-117C" by some authors in print, though this designation may be inncorrect. It was to be a baseline F-117A, possibly fitted with an un-gridded B-2 Stealth Bomber type intakes, a F-22 type clear-view canopy, British avionics, F414 or EJ200 engines, plus a number of BAE structural components or sub-assemblies. It was being suggested to meet the Staff Target (Air) 425 deep-strike requirement that was fulfilled by the Panavia Tornado GR.Mk4, which was scheduled for retirement in the the begining of the 21st century. Confusingly, this proposal was also referred to as the F-117A+ and F-117B (B for "British")


This original proposal to the US Navy was a standard F-117A with an off-the-shelf automatic carrier landing system (ACLS) and some limited corrosion proofing. This proposal was superseeded by the F-117X.

Based on the YF-117B/F-117B, this variant was to have a 65,700 lb (29,801 kg) MTOW and be equipped with powered wing folding, an arrester hook, an off-the-shelf F-14 main undercarriage and probably an F/A-18 type nose gear. This proposal was also replaced by the F-117X concept, which was rejected in mid 1993 in favor of the A/F-117X.

F117-X Sea Hawk

The F117-X designation covered the proposed conversion of a single F-117A intended to serve as a technology demonstrator and naval/carrier-borne "proof-of-concept" aircraft for low-speed handling trials and simulated carrier landings. Lockheed hoped for a 255-aircraft order at a unit price of $70 million. The engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) cost was estimated at $3.1 billion. The idea was dropped in favor of the F-117N (II) concept.


A derivative of and replacement for the F-117N, this proposed variant was submitted as a potential alternative to the joint advanced strike technology (JAST) aircraft. It was to be fitted with an afterburning F414 engine, LPI multimode (air-to-air and air-to-ground) radar, AIM-120 AMRAAM compatibility, expanded bomb bays (10,000 lb [4,536 kg] internal bomb load), provision for an 8,000 lb (3,629 kg) external bomb load (for "end of war" missions after an enemy's air defenses have been degraded) and three section spoilers forward of trailing edge flaps. The A/ F117 X was proposed for a "silver bullet"-type strike force to augment F/A-18E/F Hornets. Lockheed hopeed to procure between 40 and 75 aircraft.


Max. T.O. wt.: 73,200 lbs. (vs. F-117A's 52,500 lbs.)
Unrefueled combat radius: 980 miles (vs. F-117A's 570 miles)
Internal payload: 10,000 lbs. (vs. F-117A's 5,000 lbs.)
Payload: AIM-120 AMRAAM, AIM-9, LGB
Advanced all-weather sensors
Improved low observability
Engines: afterburning GE F414 (2)
Aerodynamic improvements (including new wing and tail)


Shorty after Desert Storm offered the US Navy a minimally changed F-117A as the F-117N. (Reported in the September 13, 1993 Aviation Week, pg. 96) Inherent structural features of the F-117A fuselage enable it to be effectivly modified specifically for Navy use. The F117-A possesses three primary Navy characteristics not normally found in Air Force aircraft. These are: a full-depth center keel from nose gear to tail hook; three full-depth fuselage frames for wing carry through; and the main landing gear being attached directly to a major bulkhead.
Lockheed thought the Navy could use it like the Air Force uses it's F-117As-have a small strike force that's routinely deployed on board carriers that would be able to help beat down air defenses and leverage the conventional airplanes that are on the ship. Originally the plan was for 40 to 70 aircraft.
The Navy criticized that the F-117N was for a single mission aircraft for night operations. After the Pentagon rejected the F117-N in mid 1993, Lockheed went back to the drawing boards to modify the F-117N so that it met the requirements for the canceled A/F-X program and presented the A/F-117X in mid 1994.


For the A/F-117X Lockheed added an afterburning General Electric F414 engine, the same one that powers the F/A-18E/F. An elongated platypus section was added to accommodate the larger engines. The A/F-117X also had an advanced radar/infrared suite, which would have provided an all-weather air-to-ground and air-to-air-missile capability. The latter, with the added maneuvering capability provided by the afterburning engines, would turn the F117 into more of a multi mission aircraft according to Lockheed officials. The A/F-117X met all of the A/F-X requirements except for the "carrier deck spotting factor".
The internal payload capacity was doubled-from the current 5,000 lbs. to 10,000 lbs. by enlarging the bomb bay. The keel was dropped 19 in. and the doors replaced creating a shallow, elongated bulge underneath the fuselage. The bulge added some drag, but did not adversely effect aerodynamics or stealthiness according to Lockheed. Two stores pylons were also added under each wing to allow for external carriage of an additional 8,000 lbs. of fuel or ordinance. Other features included a "very high resolution ground targeting radar, navigational forward looking infrared (FLIR) system, and an infrared search and track capability". (See World Air Power Journal #19, Winter 1994).

The fuselage and landing gear were further modified and strengthened for shipboard operations. The A/F-117X had a much-revised trapezoidal horizontal tail (to control the landing pattern approach angle and descent rate), with the horizontal stabilizers resembling those of the F-22. The A/F-117X included all the Navy standards-a carrier qualified arrestor hook, folding wings for deck storage, F-14 undercarriage, and twin nosewheels (possible F-18) with catapult tie bar.
The wing sweep was lessened to 42 degrees while the span was increased by 21.45 ft. The wing also featured double-slotted trailing edge flaps and three-section spoilers forward of flaps for improved low-speed approach handling characteristics.
The A/F-117X would feature access to equipment bays with "tail over water" and/or one engine running. Lockheed documents credit the A/F117-X with AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile capability. The pictures/diagrams show the AIM-9/AIM-120 rails on the interior sides of the A/F-117X's (fully bulged) bomb bay doors. Flyaway cost was estimated at 70 million per aircraft in 1994, based on a 250 aircraft production run.
In a push for modular production and alleged cost savings, Lockheed proposed that the US Navy and Air Force execute a joint program to build both the F-117B and A/F-117X.
The Senate Armed Services Committee earmarked $175 million to initiate a program definition phase and flying demonstrator of the new production aircraft.


The decision to produce the F-117A was made on 1 November 1978, and a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, popularly known as the Skunk Works, in Burbank, California. The program was led by Ben Rich. Rich called on Bill Schroeder, a Lockheed mathematician, and Denys Overholser, a computer scientist, to exploit Ufimtsev's work. They designed a computer program called Echo, which made it possible to design an airplane with flat panels, called facets, which were arranged so as to scatter over 99% of a radar's signal energy "painting" the airplane.

The F-117 first flew in June 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision. The first production F-117A was delivered in 1982, operational capability was achieved in October 1983, and the last of 59 airplanes was delivered in the summer of 1990.[9] The Air Force denied the existence of the aircraft until 1988, when a grainy photograph was released to the public. In April 1990 two were flown into Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, arriving during daylight and visible to a crowd of tens of thousands.
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F-117 Nighthawk Bomber