In 2008, the Pentagon sent the first operational stealth combat jet, the F-117A Nighthawk, out to pasture — or at least, sort of. The F-117 flew as an entirely classified program for years before ever being acknowledged by the U.S. Air Force as an operational program in the 1980s, allowing a generation of young Americans to grow up under the vague awareness that the United States had some kind of secret hidden in the clouds above our heads. Then, when the the Nighthawk (or its inaccurate 90’s nickname of “stealth fighter”) was formally unveiled to the public, its angular design was so out of this world that it somehow managed to exceed expectations. Stealth, America came to understand, was the combat science of the future.
Now, here we are, ten years after the F-117 left active service and the term “stealth” has grown to encompass a wide variety of capabilities and materials, ranging from engines designed to reduce infrared exhaust signatures to radar absorbent coatings applied to notable un-stealthy platforms like the F/A-18 Super Hornet. At its heart, however, stealth remains primarily a product of aircraft design: marrying the angular shape of the F-117 with aerodynamic necessities for capable bomber and fighter platforms in new and increasingly advanced ways in the interest of beating (or at least delaying) detection from the latest generation of anti-aircraft weapon systems cropping up around the globe.
Stealth technology, while once as American as apple pie, has found its way into the stables of national competitors like China and Russia, though defense experts agree in large part that neither of these nations have mastered the construction processes necessary to match America’s detection evading capabilities. American remains the global leader in stealth, but that begs the question — what do we do with the stealth planes we’re finished with?
While the F-117’s stealth technology is certainly generations behind that employed by the F-22, F-35 or forthcoming B-21 Raider, there’s no question that America wouldn’t want to see components from the legendary aircraft find their way into the hands of the Chinese developers of the J-20 or the Russian engineers building the Su-57. Because much of the stealth construction process remains classified, it can be difficult to assume what could be gleaned from body panels and materials, but anything more than nothing is too much to provide a potential enemy.
As a result, when the last F-117 came in for a landing in 2008, America’s original fleet of stealth combat aircraft entered into what is commonly referred to as “flyable storage.” That is, they never really retired at all.
People have reported spotting the tell-tale shape of the Nighthawk in the skies above Nevada for years — with some as recent as just last year. Keeping the aircraft in “flyable storage” meant that a good portion of the country’s 52 remaining Nighthawks could feasibly be reassembled and rolled right back into service if a conflict arose that was large enough to warrant the decision.
Last year, the decision was finally made to begin “demilitarizing” these old birds — that is, stripping out the weapons systems and any materials that remain classified. Some will see new lives in museums, while most others will likely find their ways to the boneyard most retired aircraft end up in at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
That decision may make it sound like the service of the storied stealth jet has finally come to an end, but just like its formal introduction decades ago, saying there are no operational F-117s doesn’t always mean that there are none. Currently, the demilitarization strategy includes pulling one aircraft apart starting in 2017, and then doing the same to four more every other year. With 52 of them that projected rate of real retirement, it will still be decades before the last F-117A Nighthawk is stripped of its useful parts and finally sent out to that pasture they were promised.
Featured image: A backlit front view of an F-117 Nighthawk from Airman Magazine’s February 1995 issue article “Streamlining Acquisition 101.” The Lockheed F-117A was developed in response to an Air Force request for an aircraft capable of attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radar. | Airman Magazine