The US Air Force is retiring its Lockheed F-117s, 27 years after the stealth fighter first flew in secret and two decades after it was revealed to the public. I remember being at the formal roll-out – of the last F-117. Must have been 1990. At the Skunk Works in Palmdale, California. I was amazed the thing could fly. “Give me fly-by-wire,” Ben Rich said, “and I can make a brick fly.” I believed him.
Being based in the UK, I had watched the months leading up to the F-117′s public “reveal” with detached interest. I still find it hard to get excited about stealth, but I can’t deny the F-117 is an impressive engineering achievement. And its roles in the opening attacks of Operations Just Cause, Desert Storm, Allied Force and Iraqi Freedom are testament to its unique capability.
“Nope, no Bill Sweetman in here” (USAF photo)Lockheed’s Skunk Works built 59 F-117As, seven of which were lost – one breaking up in flight during an airshow and one being shot down by Serbian forces. The aircraft were flown in secret, and only at night, on the Tonopah test range in Nevada until late 1988, when their existence was acknowledged so they could begin training and integrating with other USAF aircraft. Since 1992, the F-117s have been based at Holloman AFB in New Mexico.
The formal retirement ceremony was in 11 March at Wright-Patterson AFB, but the final F-117 mission will be launched from Holloman on 21 April, when the last four-ship will fly to Palmdale for a final farewell before returning to Tonopah, where their wings and tails will be removed and the aircraft stored in protective hangars. A portion of the fleet will be “rapidly recallable”, the USAF says.
So has something even more stealthy and secret rendered the F-117 unnecessary? Perhaps not. The USAF says it decided to retire the stealth fighters to free up funding for modernisation. The 49th Fighter Wing is trading in its F-117As for F-22As. But is the Raptor really the successor to the Nighthawk? I think not.