Decades before the United States Air Force saw a new dawn of the highly superior stealth fighter jets like the F-22 Raptors and the F-35 Lightning II, Washington’s skies witnessed the flight of the first aircraft designed around stealth technology, the F-177 Nighthawk.
Built by American aerospace juggernaut Lockheed Martin, which developed the F-35s, F-22s and the superfast SR-71 Blackbird, the Nighthawk has somewhat similar features to the Blackbird.
Commonly referred to as the “stealth fighter”, the retired Nighthawk was recently inducted into the Palm Springs Air Museum in Palm Springs, California, where it was welcomed with a water arch tribute and a flyby salute from two pivotal aircraft for its 20-year-long service in the US Air Force.
Photos: Palm Springs Air Museum gets a retired F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter https://t.co/UxIVkyCQmf
— Desert Sun News Feed (@DesertSunNews) October 4, 2020
The aircraft which becomes the 71st airplane in the museum’s collection will, however, undergo restorations and would not be in regular display until the spring of next year.
While speaking at the induction ceremony of the Nighthawk, the museum’s vice chairman and managing director, Fred Bell, said,
“This is a very significant aircraft,” It’ll be here permanently. This is now its forever home.”
A retired Air Force pilot, Ken Dwelle, who flew both the Nighthawk dozens of times between 1995 and 1999, told what it felt like to be on board the plane,
“I had flown the F-16 before I flew the F-117 and they are both fly-by-wire jets. A fly-by-wire jet operates and flies in a different way than a conventional airplane.”
Developed by Lockheed Martin in the 1970s as a response to the US needing an aircraft capable of attacking high-value targets without detection, the F-117 Nighthawks were declared operational in complete secrecy in 1983.
While an American aircraft, its origins lie in the Soviet Union on the basis of a 1962 paper written by an obscure Russian Scientist named Pyotr Yakovlevich Ufimtsev.
Titled the “Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction”, the paper was ridiculed by the USSR for being wildly impractical. However, Lockheed Martin’s famous Skunk Works department, which developed the SR-71 Blackbird, saw potential in Ufimtsev’s equations.
This led to the development of a concept called the “Hopeless Diamond”, with the diamond shape incredibly effective in reducing the radar cross-section of an aircraft to increase its stealth, following which under Pentagon’s go ahead, the F-117 was born.
According to Alex Hollings, writing for Popular Mechanics – “Instead of building an aircraft and then incorporating stealth later, Lockheed’s Skunk Works started with a stealth design and built an aircraft around it—and their design found help in the most unlikely of places,”
Soviet researcher Pyotr Ufimtsev published a study analyzing how shape affects radar-returns. The Soviets didn’t seem to be taking his work to heart, but thousands of miles away, the idea was just what Lockheed needed.”
The aircraft had its first flight in 1981 in Nevada and initial operating capability in October 1983, 59 out of the total 64 F-117s built between 1981 and 1990 being production versions.
In 1989, the Nighthawk was awarded the Collier Trophy, which is one of the most prized aeronautical awards in the world. It is annually awarded for showcasing great achievements made in aeronautics and astronautics by the National Aeronautic Association.
The single-seat, twin-engine stealth attack aircraft was built of aluminium with areas around the engine and exhaust systems made of titanium. Moreover, the plane’s outer surfaces were coated with a radar-absorbent material (RAM), with the radar cross-section estimated to lie between 10cm² and 100cm².
F-117 #Nighthawk is an American single-seat,twin-engine stealth attack aircraft that was developed by Lockheed secretive Skunk Works division and operated by the USAF, #F117 was based on the Have Blue technology demonstrator.
Top Speed 1100Km/hr,Engine types Turbofan GE F404 pic.twitter.com/TqkmpxmOg5
— Usman Zaman Khan?™ (@UsmanKhanSOS) October 8, 2020
The Nighthawk was equipped to carry a range of tactical fighter ordnance in the weapons bay which included BLU-109B low-level laser-guided bomb, GBU-10 and GBU-27 laser-guided bomb units, Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick and Raytheon AGM-88 HARM air-to-surface missiles.
Moreover, the plane’s fly-by-wire controls were taken from the US F-16, with the engines being the non-afterburning versions of the F/A-18A’s General Electric F404 turbofans.
Lieutenant Colonel Keith “Ghost” Butler, an F-117 pilot who also flew F-16s and the B-2, says:
“The Nighthawk is a mean-looking jet, borderline unearthly. The mystique, the secrecy, the aura oozed from every angle,” I fell in love at first sight and never got tired of walking up the ladder to strap that jet on my back and take her out of the barn.”
The F-117 experienced a fair number of combat missions after being deployed in Operation Just Cause against military targets in Panama in 1989 and in Saudi Arabia. The Nighthawk during its deployment in Operation Desert Storm flew a total of 1,271 sorties with an 80 per cent mission success rate amid no losses or battle damage.
However, despite such an incredible battle history, the US Air Force decided to call it a day and retired the aircraft in 2008 as a cost-saving measure, with the forces struggling to pay for the F-22 Raptors.
With the development of F-35s and Raptors, the US felt it needed more advanced aircraft with the modern stealth fighters faring much better against high-frequency fire control radars than the F-117 Nighthawks.
— Andrew Hodgson (@Hoddy1982) February 27, 2019
While the aircraft have been officially retired, some of the Nighthawks are still in operational condition and are seen flying over the region.