Thursday, March 06, 2008

Air Force plans retirement ceremony to commemorate F-117

By Derek Kaufman, 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFMCNS) — A retirement ceremony to honor the contributions of the F-117A Nighthawk, the world's first attack aircraft to employ stealth technology, will take place here March 11.

The event will begin at 10 a.m. and will take place at Base Operations Hangar 206N. An F-117A from the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, N.M. will be displayed and a flyover is scheduled to occur at 10:25 a.m. to conclude the ceremony.

The Air Force decided to accelerate retirement of the venerable stealth fighter fleet to free up funding for modernization. Ten aircraft were retired in fiscal 2007 and 27 so far in 2008. Holloman AFB's remaining aircraft will go into storage next month, said Diana Filliman, director of the 650th Aeronautical Systems Squadron here, which provides F-117A program management.

"With aging aircraft fleets and infrastructure, senior Air Force leadership has made hard choices to pay for modernization of our overall aircraft inventory," Ms. Filliman said.

A total of 59 production black jets were built. While not invisible to radar, the Nighthawk's distinctive, faceted shape and a special low observable coating combined to greatly reduce its radar cross section and any adversary's ability to target it.

Although the strike aircraft has been in service for 27 years, its existence was first publicly acknowledged only in November 1988, when the Air Force released a grainy photograph of a Nighthawk in flight. Its first formal public appearance came in April 1990 at Nellis AFB, Nev.

In the program's early years, Airmen from the 4450th Test Group assigned at Nellis AFB would commute via contracted airlift to the Tonopah, Nev., airfield from which the F-117s flew almost exclusively at night.

Later, publicly acknowledging the fighter became a priority to enable daylight flying, as well as exercise and deployment participation and full integration into the combat air forces. Men and women associated with the 4450th Test Group continued to fly and maintain the F-117A at Tonopah as members of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing.

The F-117A fleet relocated to Holloman Air Force Base reflagged to the 49th Fighter Wing in 1992, where the active fleet remains today. Beginning early in 2009, Holloman AFB is slated to replace its retiring F-117s with two squadrons of F-22 Raptors.

Combat debut for the F-117A came in December 1989, during Operational Just Cause when Maj. Gregory Feest led a flight of two jets which dropped laser-guided bombs to shock Panamanian Defense Forces in preparation for an assault by U.S. Army Rangers.

Major Feest and the F-117A would return to combat in January 1991, when Nighthawks opened Operation Desert Storm by destroying critical and highly defended targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait. Despite thousands of anti-aircraft guns and batteries of surface-to-air missiles, F-117s flew with impunity over Baghdad, precisely striking targets with its payload of two 2,000 lb. GBU-27 laser-guided weapons.

The jet's combination of stealth and precision made it the natural choice for opening strikes over the former Yugoslavia during Operation Allied Force in 1999 and again over Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Of the 59 F-117s, seven were lost, including one in combat during Operation Allied Force. All of the remaining jets will return to their original secure home at Tonopah and placed in "recallable storage," Ms. Filliman said.

The F-117 production decision was made in 1978 with a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, the "Skunk Works." First flight over Tonopah Test Range was on June 18, 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision, Filliman said.

"We are extremely proud of the long legacy of the F-117 and are committed to retiring this first generation stealth fighter with honor and dignity," Filliman said. "The F-117 program created a revolution in military warfare by incorporating low-observable technology into an operational aircraft."