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Celebrating a quarter century of Stealth

Lockheed Martin is using the Paris Air Show to celebrate 25 years of the F-117A Stealth Fighter – the first operational aircraft to exploit the low-observable stealth technology which underpins the company’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.

George Zielsdorf, vice president of  F-117 and U-2 programmes for Lockheed Martin, says: “From its first flight in 1981 through more than 20 years of operational service that includes deployment in three major conflicts, the stealth capabilities of this black jet have revolutionised air warfare.” He says the programme provided Lockheed with invaluable experience in stealth and its associated technologies, and in supporting and sustaining these technologies in frontline service.

Lockheed Martin won the contract to build 59 F-117A fighters in 1978. The prototype F-117 made its maiden flight on June 18, 1981, and deliveries to the 4450th Tactical Group at Tonopah began in 1982. The aircraft achieved initial operational capability in October 1983, and used its low observability and the cover of darkness to reach its targets undetected by enemy defences.

The aircraft operated under a highly classified Black Programme whose very existence was a closely guarded secret, until daylight training began in 1988, and the aircraft was formally unveiled.

The 4450th Tactical Group was absorbed into the 37th Fighter Wing during 1989 and the F-117A force moved to Holloman AFB, close to White Sands in New Mexico, in 1992, becoming the 49th Fighter Wing.

The aircraft has been used in combat in Panama, Operation Desert Storm, Kosovo and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On each occasion, the F-117A’s combination of radar stealth, advanced targeting and mission planning systems and sophisticated tactics allowed the aircraft to hit highly defended targets with virtual impunity, providing a unique “Day One, kick-down-the-door” capability to clear the way for conventional attack aircraft and bombers. One aircraft was shot down, and another damaged, in Kosovo when the Serbs moved a mobile radar unit to an unexpected location.

Despite the use of extremely sophisticated and maintenance intensive low observable materials, and a high proportion of obsolescent equipment items from legacy fighters, the F-117A has demonstrated high levels of readiness and has gained an enviable reputation for supportability and maintainability even during deployed operations.
Despite its still-unique capabilities, the USAF’s F-117A fleet is now being retired. The first six aircraft were withdrawn on 12 March for storage at a new, secure ‘boneyard’ facility at Tonopah, and the remainder will be retired by the end of 2008 to free up funding for the F-22 Raptor.

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