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F-117 NightHawk Stealth Fighter

Updated on March 26, 2013

F-117 Nighthawk in Flight

The Nighthawk in flight
The Nighthawk in flight | Source

F-117 Nighthawk Overview

The F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter was shrouded in secrecy until the late 1980s. The angled, faceted shape of the plane appeared alien to many, but served a very important purpose in concealing its radar signature. The Nighthawk saw continuous service throughout the Gulf War. Other deployments include the United States invasion of Panama, the Kosovo Conflict, the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, and the 2011 military intervention in Libya.

The Nighthawk stealth fighter was developed to counter air defenses and detection. Reduction in radar and thermal signatures help conceal the aircraft in flight. Lockheed was contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense in the late 1970s to produce a low-observable strike fighter. The stealth fighter first became operational in 1983 and was immediately viewed as the most strange and unusual aircraft ever flown.


TYPE: Single-seat low-observable strike fighter
POWERPLANT: Two non-afterburning General Electric F404-GE-F1d2 engines, each delivering 10,800 lbs of thrust.
COMBAT RADIUS: 750 miles without refueling with 5,000 lb weapon load
WEAPONS: Up to 5,500 lbs carried internally. Main weapons are BLU-109 low-level or GBU10/GBU 27 medium-level laser-guided bombs and two AIM-9L air-to-air missles
WEIGHT: Empty - 30,000 lbs; Loaded - 52,500 lbs
WINGSPAN: 43' 4"
LENGTH: 65' 11"
HEIGHT: 12' 5"

F-117 Nighthawk Technologies

Angled Surface
The F-117 Nighthawk's unusual shape is built with advanced materials that make the aircraft all but invisible to radar. The aircraft has no right angles to reflect radar. All angles are made to deflect radar away from its source and prevent detection. The skeleton of the aircraft is made out of aluminum and radar absorbent material (RAM).

The arrow-like shape of the aircraft is naturally unstable, so computerized controls maintain stability in flight.

Thermal Emissions
Reduction in thermal emissions from thrust helps conceal the aircraft as well. The exclusion of afterburners lowers infrared detection and eliminated the obvious sonic boom when breaking the sound barrier.

F-117 Nighthawk in Hangar

Side of F-117 Nighthawk
Side of F-117 Nighthawk | Source

Nighthawk Vulnerabilities

Weapon Bay Doors
Although stealthy, the F-117 Nighthawk has its vulnerabilities and weak points. The aircraft carries weapons internally to reduce detection, but detection is multiplied several times when the weapons bay doors are opened. Even older radar systems can detect the aircraft when the weapon bay doors are open. Some weapons need to remain attached to the aircraft when acquiring a target which increases the amount of time the doors are open. The longer the doors remain open, the longer the aircraft is detectable.

Reduced Payload
The payload is greatly reduced compared to other aircraft due to the internal storage of weapons. Only two guided bombs can be carried by the Nighthawk. The reduced payload may require additional support aircraft when attacking.

Operation Cost
The manufacturing, upkeep, and deployment costs many times more compared to conventional warplanes. The stealth B-2 bomber program alone cost the U.S. Air Force around $45 billion.

Passive Radar
Advancements in radar technology have made the Nighthawk more detectable using passive radar. A passive radar receiver uses third-party transmitters in the environment like TV and radio broadcast signals, and measures the time difference of arrival between the signal arriving directly from the transmitter and the signal arriving via reflection from the object.

Random Nighthawk Facts

  • More than 40 Nighthawks were deployed during the Gulf War and flew over 1,270 missions. 30% of all precision-guided munitions used during the war were deployed by Nighthawks.
  • The weapon system used by the Nighthawk can accurately hit a target that is one square yard in size.
  • The radar signature of the Nighthawk is so small that a single B-52 bomber has a radar signature larger than all the F-117 Nighthawks combined.
  • The Nighthawk was operational for 7 years before the making a public appearance.
  • The radar cross-section of a Nighthawk is one one-hundredth of a square yard which is about the size of a seagull.


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    • seh1101 profile image

      Sean Hemmer 4 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      That's awesome! What an honor to work on such a secretive project for so long!

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      My Dad worked for Lockheed for about a hundred years and actually helped design this airplane. Secrecy - no kidding. He couldn't bring home newspapers from his out of town trips! Thanks for writing about his work. He'd be pleased.