F-117: The Black Jet
The F-117 was the first U.S. stealth aircraft. While previous aircraft had stealth features the F-117 was the first aircraft specifically designed to be invisible for all practical purposes. The F-117 was named the Nighthawk but the pilots gave it the nickname “The Black Jet”.
In 1973 the DoD called for a competition to build a bomber that was undetectable by radar. In 1975 Lockheed engineer Ben Rich tasked Deny Overholser and Dick Sherrer to develop the concept. Overholser and Sherrer developed a computer program based on German and Soviet theories. They came up with a drawing that Ben Rich took to famed aircraft designer Kelly Johnson. Johnson told Rich the design would “never get off the ground.” Ben Rich continued with developing the concept. Detractors called the diamond shaped design the “Hopeless Diamond”. The DoD was so impressed with the small radar signature of a scale model it awarded a contract for a stealth demonstrator in 1976. The F-117A made its first flight on June 8, 1981.[i]
There was much speculation about the “stealth fighter” before the F-117A made its public debut. There were many articles about how the “stealth fighter”, which was believed to be the F-19, looked. Three model companies sold F-19 models. The 1987 version of “Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft” listed the F-19 and showed a model sold by Italeri.[ii] These models were futuristic looking, imaginative, and looked nothing like the F-117A. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) unveiling the F-117A didn’t end the speculation. There were still some who believed since the aircraft made public was the F-117A there was still an F-19 that hadn’t been made public. The plane had its detractors who gave it the nickname “wobblin goblin”.
[i] Lockheed Martin web site, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/f-117.html, last accessed 3/17/19.
[ii] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1987 by Salamander Books Ltd., P74-75.
The F-117A Nighthawk in Combat
The F-117A made its combat debut in Panama. Six F-117As flew from Tonopah, Nevada to Panama. Captain Gregory A. Feest and Major Dale Hanner each dropped a Mark 84 2,000-pound bomb near a barracks.[i] The Air Force announced the Nighthawk’s combat debut. News reports soon pointed out the bombs missed the barracks. The mission was to intentionally miss the barracks and stun the Panamanian soldiers. The bombs didn’t land exactly where desired because of communication problems. The bombs did have the desired effect. Four U.S. Army Rangers died in the fight for that area.[ii]
The U.S. deployed Nighthawks to Khamis Mushait, Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield. Many, including General Norman H. Schwarzkopf, questioned the choices of aircraft the USAF deployed to Saudi Arabia, including the F-117A. The U.S. Army AirLand Battle doctrine called for aircraft to be used as flying artillery.
Panama veteran, Major Gregory A. Feest led the first Nighthawk mission of the first night of Operation Desert Storm, January 17, 1991. Major Feest dropped the first bomb in Operation Desert Storm.[iii] This bomb took out an interceptor operations center (IOC). He proceeded to his second target. Nighthawk pilot Colonel Alton C. Whitley, Jr. dropped the first bombs on Baghdad. His target was the Iraqi Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). F-117s were the only aircraft to fly over Baghdad on the first night of Desert Storm. An F-117 dropped a bomb on the Iraqi International Telecommunications Centre. When the bomb exploded CNN, which was transmitting live from Baghdad, lost their transmission from Baghdad. This gave Lieutenant General Charles A. Horner an instant bomb damage assessment that the target had been hit. F-117s flew 42 sorties in the first 24 hours of Desert Storm. By the morning after the start of Desert Storm F-117s had decapitated the Iraqi control apparatus.[iv]
One of the most famous Nighthawk bombings was of the attack on the Iraqi Defense Force headquarters. This and other F-117A footage was reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s attack on the Death Star in Star Wars. The F-117A also showed how stealth technology was economical. A USAF white paper pointed out how 21 Nighthawks could strike 37 targets without supporting aircraft. Striking one target with conventional aircraft required 38 aircraft, eight of which were strike aircraft. [v]
Despite striking the most heavily defended targets the USAF didn’t lose any F-117s during Operation Desert Storm. Coalition forces lost 39 fixed wing aircraft, 31 to Iraqi action. F-117’s targets included command, control, and communications (C3) sites and nuclear production and storage points. Nighthawks and Tomahawk cruise missiles (TLAM) virtually shut down Iraqi electrical production. [vi]
On March 24, 1999 NATO forced launched an air campaign, Operation Allied Force, against Yugoslavia. That night F-15s escorted a strike package of 10 F-117s and two B-2 bombers. The F-15s couldn’t see the stealth aircraft by sight or radar. The F-15s didn’t know the flight paths of the stealth aircraft. A pair of MiG-29s took off from Batajiinica Airfield. F-15 pilot Captain Mike Shower fired two AMRAAM missiles at a MiG-29. There was an F-117 between Captain Shower’s F-15 and the MiG-29. The missiles went past the F-117 and struck the MiG-29[vii]. Lt Colonel (later colonel) Cesar Rodriguez shot down the second MiG-29.[viii]
On March 27 a SA-3 of the Yugoslavian 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade, commanded by Colonel Zoltán Dani, shot down an F-117 Nighthawk piloted by USAF Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko. Yugoslavian civilians danced on the wreckage. The DoD was close mouthed about the loss until a team led by Steve Laushine rescued Lt. Col Zelko six hours after the shootdown. The U.S. quickly adapted to the situation. The DoD tasked U.S. Navy EA-6Bs to provide jamming for F-117s and B-2 Spirit bombers. This shootdown was a highwater mark for Yugoslavian defenses. The only other piloted aircraft they shot down was an F-16 on May 2.
In March the USAF sortied two Nighthawks to bomb the Serbian Radio and Television headquarters. Many Western journalists were in the building at the time. There are conflicting accounts of who ordered the abort. For the mission the F-117s had withdrawn their communications antennae to make them stealthier. The withdrawn antennae made communicating with the F-117As more difficult. The Nighthawk pilots received the message and aborted their mission.[ix]
On the night of May 2 an F-117As dropped BLU-114/B bombs that were designed to take out the electrical power infrastructure. The lights went out in 70% of Yugoslavia. The power grid had collapsed and there was only limited power to Belgrade and a few other places. Nighthawks attacked the power grid again on May 7. F-117A flew 850 sorties in Operation Allied Force.[x] The campaign ended with Yugoslavian forces withdrawing from Kosovo without a NATO ground invasion.
F-117s flew missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nighthawks flew over 100 Operation Iraqi Freedom missions. On March 20, 2003 two F-117s, piloted by Lt. Col. David Toomey and Maj. Mark Hoehen, attacked a bunker in Baghdad. Both pilots received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission. Nighthawk targets included SAM facilities and GPS jammers.
The USAF retired the F-117 in 2008.[xi] Budgetary concerns caused the U.S. military to retire, or attempt to retire, some of its specialized aircraft types.
[i] F-117A: Operation Just Cause (Panama), http://www.f-117a.com/Panama.html, last accessed 3/8/19.
[ii] F-117A: Operation Just Cause (Panama), http://www.f-117a.com/Panama.html, last accessed 3/8/19.
[iii] USAF MH-53 Pave Low and U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopters fired the first weapons, taking out two Iraqi radar sites.
[iv] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992, Air Force Association.
[v] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992, Air Force Association.
[vi] Airpower in the Gulf, by James P. Coyne, © 1992, Air Force Association.
[vii] Nellis Hero Receive Flying Cross by Staff Sergeant Ed Scott, https://www.f-117a.com/AFMissions.html, last accessed 3/13/19.
[viii] Official review of Serb MiG-29 kills on 26th March 1999, https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.aviation.military/JpXMVIrCenY, The Yugoslavian pilots, Lt. Col. Dragan Illic and Major (later Lt. Col.) Iljo Arizanov ejected safely, last accessed 3/13/19.
[ix] Close Call by Patrick J. Sloyan, October 1999 American Journalism Review, https://www.f-117a.com/AFMissions.html, last accessed 3/13/19.
[x] F-117A: Allied Force Missions, https://www.f-117a.com/AFMissions.html, last accessed 3/13/19.
[xi] Lockheed Martin web site, https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/news/features/history/f-117.html, last accessed 3/17/19.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi