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Goodbye to the Nighthawk

The F-117 Nighthawk, the stealthy USAF ‘first responder’, is retiring after 25 years of active duty.

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M., Oct. 31, 2006 – After 25 years of storied service, the F-117 Nighthawk, the Air Force’s first stealth fighter, is about to retire.

The technology that once made it unique has now caught up to it, and newer fighter aircraft are joining the fleet. Still, the Nighthawk was the first of its kind, a fact anyone who has spent time around the aircraft is quick to point out.

Many of these people gathered here Oct. 29 to commemorate 25 years of Nighthawk history at the Silver Stealth ceremony. Members of the F-117 community, past and present, were on hand to pay homage to the aircraft’s illustrious history, a history that contains as many secrets as it does legends.


F-117 over Las Cruces, New Mexico airport on Oct 21st during X-Prize Cup,
Photo: Dale Amon, All rights reserved

32 comments to Goodbye to the Nighthawk

  • Max

    The fighter designation was part of the stealth. The plane is a bomber with no air to air combat capability.

  • J

    “If we needed the door kicked in, the stealth was the one to do it.”

    It doesn’t get stealthier than kicking doors in.

  • I always thought these stealth airplanes paid for themselves many times over during the eighties. By their nature, the Bad Guys could not know how many of them there were, and what they were doing, where, etc. I mean, just imagine when some blurred photo of one of these things arrived in the Kremlin. Creepy or what? I mean, you could be looking at honest to God empty space, with nothing in it at all, but then you think: What if there are stealth planes flapping about there, and we just can’t see them?

    Seriously, I think they contributed mightily not just to winning the Cold War, so quickly, but to winning it with amazingly little international unpleasantness. So hats off to all the stealth mongers. Good job, gentlemen. And good job Dale for flagging up the retirement of this particular stealth plane. I’m sure that there are many more in the works where that one came from, which, by the nature of things, most of us know very little about.

    Which may not be such good news for civilisation, but that’s another argument.

  • Bill Dooley

    As a U.S. taxpayer, I accept your gratitude for protecting you from the Russians.

  • Bill Dooley

    By the way – if I have anything to say about it, we got your back. Those old colonial disputes are long forgot.

  • Freeman

    Does this retirement mean that an attack on Iran is now off?

  • Jacob

    “I think they contributed mightily not just to winning the Cold War…”

    That’s speculation.
    These planes didn’t do any actual combat, as far as I know. A weapon is usually tested in combat, this one wasn’t, because there weren’t any wars – thank god.
    We know very little about it’s actual usefulness.

    Their contribution, if any, was mainly psychological, whatever that is worth.

  • As a U.S. taxpayer, I accept your gratitude for protecting you from the Russians.

    What a quaint view of international politics. The US ‘protected us from the Russians’ because it suited US interests and countries in Europe allowed US troops in because it suited their interests.

  • Dale Amon

    The F-117 was never tested in combat?????

    I wonder what those bit of metal in a Serbian museum came from? Perhaps it was an F-117 shaped flying saucer they shot down.

    This plane has been the among the first into harm’s way in every firght that has occured since it went operational.

  • Uain

    ” …Their contribution, if any, was mainly psychological, whatever that is worth.”

    Well, the demise of the Soviet Union was hastened by the “Star Wars” development effort announced by Reagan in 1983 and after the ABM interception demonstrations which occured in mid – late 1980′s.
    As an aside, the Star Wars moniker was avidly adopted by ABM supporters (much to Fat Teddy’s chagrin).

    So how cool is that to topple an evil empire with a gentle nudge from technology never used in war?

  • Eric

    Jacob,

    As Dale noted, these planes certainly have flown in combat. I remember their use specifically in both gulf wars, but its first use was in the Panama invasion of 1989.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of this aircraft. First of all, Max is right – it’s not a fighter, it’s a bomber. The “F” designation was apparently attached because it’s a “strike” aircraft, about the size of an F-15, and requiring the kind of skills fighter pilots are more likely to have. Apparently in the Air Force it’s hard to fly “F”s if you fly “B”s, and they didn’t want fighter pilots to shun it as a career killer.

    The payload, at 5000 lbs, is miniscule for a bomber, and small even for a strike aircraft (compare to the F-15E at 24,500 lbs). Also, since the payload is internal there are a number of bombs it can’t carry as a result of the bomb bay shape or because they’re incompatible with the bomb racks. It can carry 2 2000 lb bombs, something the F-22 can’t do while remaining stealthy, but with since pretty much every bomb is guided these days there’s not that much call for 2000 lb bombs.

    So this plane is a single purpose tool. You use it to hit high-value targets in areas with unsuppressed air defenses. After the first day of combat it’s pretty much useless since its payload is so small. I would argue this plane’s role could be covered effectively by cruise missiles.

  • “These planes didn’t do any actual combat, as far as I know.”

    Well, that is as far as you know, then.

    Do you recall the first night of Desert Storm? I wonder if you remember those crazy hose-sprays of anti-aircraft fire streaming into the night over Baghdad. There was a very good reason for that: it was blind panic, with emphasis on the “blind” part. I once watched a TV interview with an F-117 driver who described his sense of panic as he flew into town that night. He related how terrifying it was (and is) to go jetting into that kind of action, until it dawned on him what was happening: “They know that something is up here, but they can’t see me.” That’s what caused what was coming up from the ground: the Iraqi defenders were aware of stuff blowing up all around them, but they had no way in the world to do anything at all about it.

    We know a great deal about “the actual usefullness” of these airplanes. We’ve known it for fifteen years already.

  • Paul

    These aircraft, and the technology along with it, very much stressed the Soviets. Their air defense system, which cost them a fortune was, reduced in effectiveness something like 98%. The Soviet leadership lost faith in it’s military, and the military knew their manufacturing base couldn’t touch it for decades. Their scientist could only watch. Each, leadership, military and manufacturing saw each other and the whole as it was, a failed and wasteful system that with total command of the citizens and resources, couldn’t even protect itself. Everything was junk. All the effort was useless. The equipment no more effective than a cargo cult radio.

  • Not the prettiest thing in the world but then weapons rarely are. RIP Nighthawk and thankyou.

    Some of you may wonder at the romanticism in the above, I may be a pacifist but I’ve always been a sucker for warplanes. From my first Airfix of a Spitfire as a boy, posters of F-14s on my wall as a n adolescent, and scanning the skies around where I live for the low flying Tornado that’s making my windows rattle. There are not many beautiful things to come out of war but these synergies of man and machine are one of them. Grace, precision and above all style. May there be many more.

  • Jacob

    “This plane has been the among the first into harm’s way in every firght that has occured since it went operational. “

    No doubt about that. Thankfully, there haven’t been that many fights – which is what I said.

    Serbia… Iraq … a child’s game, and insignificant wars from the military stand point. They could have been managed perfectly well without this plane. The huge investment wasn’t intended for these kinds of wars, and the Serbian capabilities. (The whole Serbian bombing was totally unnecessary, as far as the security of the West was concerned).

    And they’re obsolete by now, as cruise missiles perform the same tasks better and much, much cheaper.

    There is a tendency to overspend tax money in the military, aquiring expensive and unnecessary gadgets, while lacking basic equipment for actual tasks.

    In retrospect we can say this plane was unnecessary, but I’m not claiming it was wrong to build it when it was built, though it was a losing bet, as cruise missiles won the race.

    I’m not fond of spending huge amounts of tax money just for the hell of it. So, nice plane, but…

  • there haven’t been that many fights – which is what I said.

    No, you said

    These planes didn’t do any actual combat, as far as I know. A weapon is usually tested in combat, this one wasn’t, because there weren’t any wars – thank god. We know very little about it’s actual usefulness.

    See how the two statements aren’t really the same at all?

  • gravid

    What have they got now if the F-117 is “retiring” ?

    Something so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel? ( not a wild weasel….)

  • I bet there are airplane geeks in mourning about this as there were when they retired the SR-71 Blackbird.

  • Jacob

    “because there weren’t any wars…”

    Ok. What I meant: there weren’t any serious wars, any big wars, any wars that required the F177′s capabilities. In the “wars” it participated, it had practically no rivals to speak of, no challenge. They didn’t build it to bomb Serbia or Iraq …

  • Dave Wangen

    “They didn’t build it to bomb Serbia or Iraq …”

    No, they didn’t. On the other hand, it’s capabilities meant that we could penetrate a very sophisticated Iraqi Integrated Air Defense Network from the very first day, and strike at extremely well defended targets with no losses.

    (Let’s not spit on that Iraqi IAD. It was a very nice system, and they had good technical support from several different nations setting it up.)

    Yes, the F-15Es or F-16s or F-111s could have hit the targets in Baghdad that the Nighthawks hit. But they almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it with ZERO losses. The F-117 could, and did.

  • Julian Taylor

    What I find bizarre is that 25 years of service, for many military aircraft, is a pretty low service record. When we look at the Harrier (well into its 30′s now), the Jaguar (same) let alone the F-15 and the multitude of military support aircraft we are looking at some seriously antique planes here.

    I can only hope that the Nighthawk’s replacement is something so sophisticated that it financially warrants early retirement of its predecessor.

  • Hank Scorpio

    I can only hope that the Nighthawk’s replacement is something so sophisticated that it financially warrants early retirement of its predecessor.

    Fromw what I’ve heard, we’ve possibly got this donuts on a rope thing going on.

  • Yes, I’m sure the Bolsheviks were upset by the Stealth plane. As to the effectiveness of their air defences, does anybody remember Mathias Rust, the 19-year old who flew from Finland and landed across the street from the Kremlin?

  • Dale Amon

    While I also had a good laugh about Rust’s shenanigans back when it happened, it actually says little about air defeses. A Cessna does not give a huge signature, it flies low and has a top speed somewhere around the landing speed of jet aircraft.

    There were serious problems with the russian air defense in the 1950′s I understand; there may still have been problems in the 1980′s and probably were. But one itty bitty Cessna slipping through says nought. After all, in the same era, the Columbians were slipping rather larger airplanes across the Gulf of Mexico into Florida…

  • Dale Amon

    Just as a note for the pedant: Cessna 172′s cruise around 110; top speed is perhaps 120; big airliners land around 80+; many fighters land around 100.

  • John_R

    Hank,

    The F-117 is being replaced by the Raptor(Link)

  • “…we are looking at some seriously antique planes here.”

    “Someone Over Thirty You Can Trust” — B-52.

    Fifty-one years in active service, now.

    All hail the mighty BUFF.

  • Freeman

    Hold on. Maybe it’s not all over just yet.

    The last class of F-117 pilots only graduated on October 13th. Presumably, the USAF will want to get some use out of their expensive training, so we might expect several F-117s to remain in operational service for another tour of up to (say) 2 years.

  • Eric

    Freeman,

    They won’t keep the plane in service because they trained pilots. I strongly suspect reason they were training pilots is Congress decides what gets retired, and the AF didn’t want to be in the position of having no pilots if Congress decided to keep the 117 in the inventory.

  • Freeman

    Eric:

    Maybe. All I’ve got to go on is an extract from The Hill, the newspaper for and about the US Congress, November 02, 2006.

    “The Air Force has decided to accelerate retirement of its F-117 fighters from 2011 to 2008 . . . Senator Jeff Bingaman is expecting a detailed report from the AF by March 01, explaining how the retirement is going to take shape starting in 2007.”

  • Former Wing Nut-

    Looks like this stream is 2 years old but i just wanted to add, the reason for the F designator and not a B is a technicality. The US agreed in some treaty with it’s allies that we could only have a specified number of fighters and bombers in our inventory at any given time. At the time of Commission of the F-117, we were at the limit of bombers, thus, the Nighthawk is born as a fighter.

  • Let me tell you a big, dirty secret: This plane is junk. It was shot down by Serbia with a home-made modification. It’s stealthiness is ineffective. It is easily spotted and shot down by modern radar. People make a bunch of excuses for why Serbia was able to do so. The truth is that the plane simply isn’t any good. It is crap as a plane goes in terms of speed and maneuverability. It was retired because it is just another expensive and ineffective piece of hardware.