At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force was turning to stealth technology to advance its recon missions against its adversaries further, and the arrival of the F-117 Nighthawk couldn’t be more perfect.

Sneaking Into The Night

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began looking for new technology in the mid-1970s that would emit “little-to-no radio, infrared, or light energy,” allowing its aircraft to slip undetected on enemy radar and enter its airspace. In response to the urgent national need, Lockheed worked on materializing a groundbreaking stealth demonstrator aircraft codename HAVE Blue, also known as “the Hopeless Diamond,” under Skunk Works in 1976. Less than a year later, the HAVE Blue made its maiden flight, successfully soaring across the dark skies of Nevada. This project then led to the conception of the F-117 Nighthawk. DARPA awarded a contract to Lockheed Skunk Works in November 1978, kickstarting the further development of the Nighthawk that would forever change stealth technology.

Air Force F-117
(Image source: Air Force National Museum)

The F-117 made significant and transformative breakthroughs in stealth technology. First, it broke the rules of aerodynamics through its overall design. Instead of the conventional aircraft appearance, it sported lots of angles—it “had a triangular structure with its wings swept sharply back from the nose at a sixty-seven degrees angle, and a surface composed of many flat planes oriented,” allowing itself to deflect radar waves. At first glance, one might wonder if it could fly. And it surprisingly can.

General Technical Specifications:

  • Crew: One
  • Engines: Two General Electric F404-F1D2 engines of 10,600 lbs thrust each
  • Maximum cruise speed: 684 mph
  • Range: Unlimited with aerial refueling
  • Ceiling: 45,000 ft
  • Span: 43 ft 4 in
  • Length: 65 ft 11 in
  • Height: 12 ft 5 in
  • Weight: 52,500 lbs maximum
  • Armament: Up to 5,000 lbs of assorted internal stores
Cockpit View
(Image source: Air Force National Museum)

Conquering The Skies

In June 1981, the F-117 made its first flight within the restricted airspace of Nevada, becoming the first operational stealth fighter. Around this time, the project remained under wraps, so most pilot testing was conducted deep into the night to avoid detection. By 1988, rumors began surfacing after dozens of witnesses reported about a mysterious aircraft-looking being transported, and years prior when two separate crash accidents occurred, one in 1986 and another in 1987, perking the public’s interest. It wasn’t until April 1990 when the F-117s concluded their production and made their first official public appearance at Nellis AFB in Nevada, attended by thousands of curious onlookers. There were 64 Nighthawks built between the secrecy period, 59 of which were production versions, while the remaining five were developmental prototypes.

Stealth Aircraft Flying
An F-117A Nighthawk flew over Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada during the Millennium Challenge 2002. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Nighthawk only had one functional variant, the F-117A, assigned under the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (formerly 4450th Tactical Group). Months before its public unveiling, two F-117As were sent to execute their first combat mission during Operation Just Cause on December 19, 1989, sneakily attacking military targets in Panama. That same year, the F-117A received one of the most prized aeronautical awards, the Collier Trophy.

However, what cemented the legacy of the F-117 was its significant participation in the Gulf War of 1991. Accordingly, dozens of “F-117As flew 1,271 sorties, achieving an 80 percent mission success rate, and suffered no losses or battle damage.”

It also fought in the Kosovo conflict, losing one aircraft, throughout the 1990s and the Iraq War in the early 2000s. But, the Nighthawk all but vanished just as quickly as it appeared. And by 2008, the sophisticated, game-changing stealth fighter was permanently grounded, ending a relatively short aviation career of 27 years. What gives?