15 years after ‘officially’ retiring its first stealth jet, the US Air Force is looking for help to keep the F-117 flying for another decade

A F-117 in Virginia en path to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Defend in August 1990.Mark Reinstein/Corbis through Getty Photos

  • The US Air Drive unveiled its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, in December.

  • The B-21 is predicted to reach 40 years after the US’s first stealth plane, the F-117 Nighthawk.

  • The F-117 was formally retired in 2008, however the Air Drive remains to be placing the stealth jet to make use of.

The fuss in regards to the unveiling of the brand new B-21 stealth bomber has drawn the aviation world’s consideration, however the B-21’s grandfather remains to be in motion.

When it first flew within the early Eighties, the F-117 Nighthawk was the primary operational stealth plane. The F-117 has been formally retired for about 15 years, however its retirement has been removed from sedentary. The Nighthawk remains to be getting used to coach US pilots to counter enemy stealth planes and cruise missiles.

The US Air Drive is now planning to maintain a few of its Nighthawks flying till not less than 2034. A US Air Drive Request for Info printed this previous fall sought firms desirous about a possible 10-year contract to offer upkeep for the F-117, starting in 2024.

F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft

An F-117 receives a last examine at a base in Kuwait in June 1998.US Air Drive through Getty Photos

The RFI says the contractor might want to present three providers.

First, upkeep and logistics for F-117As performing “restricted flying operations” at Tonopah Check Vary in Nevada.

Tonopah — additionally designated Space 52 — is a extremely categorized website about 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Among the many extra attention-grabbing actions there are exams of nuclear weapon techniques and experiments with Russian MiGs, anti-aircraft missiles, and different international tools.

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Tonopah was additionally the unique house of the F-117 and its operators, the previous 4450th Tactical Group.

The Air Drive can be on the lookout for firms to take care of F-117s in prolonged storage and to demilitarize and declassify surplus F-117s for patrons comparable to museums. “Anticipated demilitarization/declassification fee anticipated is a 2-3 plane per yr,” the RFI says.

F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft retirement

Staff and retirees who labored on the F-117 on the aircraft’s retirement ceremony in Palmdale, California on April 22, 2008.Al Seib/Los Angeles Instances through Getty Photos

Extra particular necessities embrace sustaining the F-117’s stealth — technically “low observable,” or LO — options, together with “composite and structural restore assist.” The RFI additionally asks whether or not contractors have expertise utilizing ground-based diagnostic imaging radar to identify defects in an plane’s stealth elements.

The Air Drive at present has about 45 F-117s, greater than 10 of which have been accredited for switch to museums, Air Drive spokeswoman Ann Stefanek instructed Insider.

“As we demilitarize the plane, they are going to be made out there to museums, if requested, or be disposed of,” Stefanek stated.

Out of service, however nonetheless in flight

F-117 Nighthawk stealth jet

An F-117 on the Fresno Air Nationwide Guard Base in September 2021.US Air Drive/Capt. Jason Sanchez

The F-117 was developed in the course of the Nineteen Seventies as an answer to more and more deadly air defenses. Designed by Lockheed Martin’s famed and extremely secretive “Skunk Works,” the Nighthawk used an angled form and particular coatings to reduce its radar signature.

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Because the world’s first stealth warplane, the F-117 has all the time had an air of fantasy round it.

Considered solely as a subsonic bomber that might carry simply two 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs in an inside bomb bay, its efficiency was not significantly spectacular. However whereas stealth is sort of taken without any consideration these days, it was a giant deal when the F-117 made its first flight in 1981.

The plane achieved a sort of cult standing, together with reviews that it was linked to the well-known — and completely fictional — F-19 stealth fighter.

The F-117 flew within the Gulf Warfare in 1991, the place its secrecy and mystique generated but extra buzz. In 1999, the Nighthawk achieved one other milestone: It turned the primary stealth plane shot down in fight.

F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft crash Serbia

A lady dances on a US Air Drive F-117 downed west of Belgrade on March 28, 1999.Reuters

Intelligent Serbian gunners took benefit of a peculiarity of the F-117 — its bomb-bay doorways mirrored radar after they had been open — to hit a Nighthawk with a surface-to-air-missile. The US pilot ejected from the burning F-117 and spent eight hours on the bottom earlier than being rescued.

Solely 59 F-117s had been constructed, plus 5 prototypes. As a result of it was an early stealth design with stiff upkeep necessities, the Air Drive determined to retire the aircraft as a brand new era of stealth plane — the F-22 and F-35 fighters and the B-2 bomber — emerged. However there may be nonetheless life within the outdated Nighthawk.

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It has often been seen coaching with newer plane, together with with Marine Corps F-35Bs off the California coast in April and with fourth- and fifth-generation jets over Georgia in Might.

Much more intriguing are reviews that the F-117 is getting used to simulate cruise missiles for missile-defense coaching. It is unusual for the world’s first stealth plane to finish up as a pretend missile, however for an plane with such a colourful historical past, it appears acceptable.

Michael Peck is a protection author whose work has appeared in Forbes, Protection Information, Overseas Coverage journal, and different publications. He holds a grasp’s in political science. Comply with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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