A number of photos surfaced on social media late Tuesday that appear to show an F-117 Nighthawk conducting low-flying maneuvers in Nevada, not far from the Nellis Test Range and the air strips in the dry lake bed that was once Groom Lake, more commonly known as “Area 51.”

The pictures, which were first uploaded to Instagram by user NeilJackson10 and first published by The Aviationist, show the distinctive silhouette of what was once one of America’s best-kept secrets. The F-117 was America’s first operational stealth bomber, despite its “F” prefix which, the story goes, was used to entice the Air Force’s top fighter pilots to pursue flying the classified bomber. The Lockheed-produced aircraft first took to the skies in 1981, and was officially retired from active service in April of 2008.

So what was one of these stealthy aircraft doing conducting a low-altitude flight with what appears to be some hard banking in Nevada, more than a decade after being put out to pasture? Well, as NEWSREP has covered before, America’s fleet of F-117s has been maintained in a sort of “flying retirement,” in which many of the aircraft are kept in flight-ready condition. Around four of these jets are dismantled every other year, ensuring that even its dated stealth technology doesn’t fall into the hands of American opponents in nations like Russia and China with stealth programs that are still developing. But with 52 F-117s in “flyable storage,” dismantling four per year still leaves a number of aircraft to tool around in.

 

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The types of maneuvers the F-117 was spotted doing are not in keeping with the aircraft’s traditional flight profile. Unlike fourth-generation fighters that use places like Star Wars Canyon to hone their low-altitude, tight-maneuvering skills to better avoid detection and enemy air defenses, the F-117 was designed to fly at a medium altitude while relying on its low observability to avoid detection. As Tom Demerly points out, it makes for what amounts to two mysteries: what was an F-117 doing out near Area 51, and why was it acting so strange?

There are two feasible explanations: one’s sexy, the other is lame, and we may never find out which is correct.

Could F-117s be used as aggressors?

With Chinese and Russian stealth believed to be years behind American technology, the F-117 may actually serve as a fairly reasonable aggressor for stealth aircraft intercept training. Its low observability may be years behind that of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but it may not be too far off when compared to that of Russian or Chinese endeavors. If the F-117 is still sneaky enough to make weapons lock a real challenge, it could serve as a valuable training dummy for fifth-generation fighters that may be able to track the approximate location of the aircraft (particularly through data links with ground-based assets). In such a case, F-35s would need to close with the aircraft and engage it within visual range.

That could explain the aircraft’s unusual maneuvers. During the two hours it flew around the area, the F-117 reportedly flew low and conducted a number of hard banking turns, potentially assessing the aircraft’s ability to adopt the flight profile of a different aircraft altogether.

It’s hard to say how feasible this possibility is, but America has certainly used some exotic aggressor aircraft in the past.

Flying retirement? F-117 Nighthawk spotted in the skies near 'Area 51'
(USAF)

Was this F-117 just out for one last joy ride?

With four F-117s slated for the chopping block every two years, what NeilJackson10 and others may have spotted might have just been a pilot taking this incredible aircraft out for one last stomp in the mud before it goes the way of Old Yeller. The unusual flight pattern it conducted in Nevada could have been an attempt at approximating enemy aircraft maneuvers, but it seems just as possible that it was flying hard because its pilot was just having a good time.