Type Precision bomber optimised for stealth (Präzisionsbomber mit Stealth-Eigenschaften)
The US Air Force took delivery of 59 production aircraft between 23. August 1982 and 12. July 1990. Of these, 53 were still in service by the end of 1997.
In addition, five full-scale development aircraft were built for the test programme.
Last operator of the F-117A is the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, comprising the 7th Fighter Squadron “Screamin Demons” (inactivated on 31 December 1006), 8th Fighter Squadron “Black Sheep” and 9th Fighter Squadron “Flying Knights”.
Also using the F-117A was the 410 th Flight Test Squadron ad Edwards AFB (also known as the Joint Test Force).
Average unit cost quoted as 45 million then-year US-Dollars in 2002 by the US Air Force.
Total programme cost 6,56 billion US-Dollars, of which around two billion were for development, 4,270 billion for procurement (aircraft and production facilities) and 295 million US-Dollars for infrastructure (bases at Groom Lake and Tonopah).
The F-117A is the first aircraft fully optimised for „low observables“ that has entered service. Its design is based on the so called „faceting“ principle, with numerous flat panels which are aligned so as to direct incoming radar waves away from the source. Also, there is a fair amount of radar-absorbing materials used. A fine metal mesh on the air-intake shields the engine from radars. To reduce the heat of the exhaust plume, it is deispersed through narrow slits, which are also shielded by airframe structure.
Main targeting system of the Nighthawk are two IR-sensors in the nose and in the bottom of the fuselage, coupled to laser target illuminators.
Upgrades over the years included:
- the implementation of a standard RAM configuration, easing maintenance and reducing signature. Previously there were seven different versions of coating.
- a MIL-STD 1760 Stores Management Processor, enabling the integration of new smart weapons
- new communications equipment, allowing real-time information exchange to enable in-flight mission replanning
- preparation for replacement of obsolete avionics systems
Design of the F-117 was based on the two „Have Blue“ demonstrators that Lockheed had built under USAF contract in 1976/1977. Contract Award was in November 1978, and after a speedy development the first F-117 flew at Groom Lake in Nevada on 18. June 1981 with Hal Farley at the controls. Four more FSD aircraft followed.
Deliveries started in August 1982, with seven aircraft handed over that year. Eight followed in 1983, eight in 1984, eight in 1985, eight in 1986, seven in 1987, five in 1988, four in 1989 and three in 1990, with the last handed over in June that year..
For many years, the USAF denied the existence of the F-117A, only unveiling a decepting photo of the aircraft in November 1988.
About a year later, the Nighthawk was for the first time used in combat, during operatin “Just Cause” over Panama. Major Gregory Feest led a flight of two jets which dropped laser-guided bombs to shock Panamanian Defense Forces in preparation for an assult by US Army Rangers.
The F-117A then played a big role in Operation Desert Storm, the war against Saddam Hussein to free Kuwait in January/February 1991. There it flew approximately 1300 sorties and scored direct hits on 1600 high-value targets.
After years of operations at Tonopah, the F-117 was redeployed to Holloman AFB (New Mexico) in May/July 1992, where it is part of the 49th Fighter Wing (7th, 8th and 9th Fighter Squadrons).
There was one Class A accident in Fiscal Year 1992, 2 in Fiscal Year 1995 and three in Fiscal Year 1997.
The F-117A completed 150000 flight hours on August 25, 1998, with Brig. Gen. Bill Lake, 49th Fighter Wing commander at the controls.
In an eight year contract worth 1,8 billion US-Dollars, started on 1 October 1998, Lockheed Martin is providing a complete support service (Total System Performance Responsibility, TSPR).
Phase 1 tests of the IRRCA project (Integrated Real-Time Information into the Cockpit/Real-Time Information out of the Cockpit) was completed in October 1998. It allowed a pilot to receive live-treat updates and manually replan a mission from the cockpit.
In 1999, two dozen F-117A´s deployed to Aviano Air Base in Italy and Spangdahlem AB in Germany to support NATO´s operation Allied Force. The aircraft led the first Allied air strike against Yugoslavia on 24 March 1999. At 00.33 on 28 March, the first Nighthawk was lost to enemy fire about 30 miles from Belgrade. The pilot ejected.
Pentagon documents in 2001 stated that the F-117 will be retained in service until at least 2018.
The second phase of the IRRCA project tests was completed in April 2002, demonstrating the transmission of real-time mission and target data out of the cockpit and into the hands of command forces on the ground.
The 200000th flight hour of the F-117A fleet was accomplished on 17 May 2002, with a formation flyby over Holloman AFB, led by Brig. Gen. Marc „Buck“ Rogers, commander of the 49 th Fighter Wing.
On 20 March 2003 at 5:30 local time, two F-117As dropped the very first bombs of operation Iraqi Freedom. A residential compound in Baghdad was targeted, where Saddam Hussein was presumed to hide. The 12 deployed F-117As flew more than 100 sorties during the war.
In September 2003, an F-117 was sprayed in grey camouflage similar to the F-22 scheme for tests in daylight missions. Two further paint variations were evaluated until the autumn of 2006 by the Det. 1 of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group at Holloman AFB.
Testing of the Block 2 weapon system software allowing the use of the JDAM bomb began in 2004. The first separation test of a JDAM was performed on 21 January 2004 by the 410 th Flight Test squadron.
In its Fiscal Year 2007 budget request, the USAF outlined plans to retire the F-117A by the end of 2008 to save about 1 billion US-Dollars compared to the earlier 2012 retirement plans. It contended that the Nighthawk capabilities could be matched by the F-22.
On 25 July 2006, the F-117A fleet had amassed 250000 flight hours. Col John Forsythe, commander of the 49th Operations Group, flew the record mission.
In September 2006, the 53rd Test an Evaluation Group´s Detachment 1 at Holloman AFB was disbanded. It had been tasked with operational flight tests of the F-117A.
In September 2006, Air Force secretary Wynne explained that concerns by warfighters had led to a change of mind regarding the quick retirement of the F-117. This will now be a more gradual process, he said. So, on 28 September 2006, Lockheed Martin got another long-term (to September 2012) contract for Total System Support Partnership (TSSP II), i.e. the sustainment of the F-117 fleet. It was valued at 1,4 billion US-Dollars.
From 28 September to 1 October 2006, the entire F-117 fleet at Holloman AFB was 100 per cent mission capable, something the aircraft had never seen before.
In the end, though, the quick retirement path was followed, with Holloman AFB earmarked to receive two squadrons of F-22A Raptors from fiscal year 2009. Ten F-117As were retired in December 2006. On 31 December 2006, the 7th Fighter Squadron, which was acting as a training unit, was inactivated
In January 2007, the 49th Fighter Wing detached several F-117s to Kunsan AB in South Korea, forming the 9thExpeditionary Fighter Squadron there.
A retirement ceremony for the F-117A was held on 11 March at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. At that time, another 27 aircraft had been retired during fiscal year 2008. The remaining aircraft should go into “recallable storage” at Tonopah next month, it was said. Another ceremony is planned for 21 April at the manufacturing site in Palmdale, and on 22 April the final F-117A flight will be from there to Tonopah.