Shrouded in secrecy, Lockheed Martin’s F-117 Nighthawk doesn’t follow the normal naming convention of modern jet aircraft. It was purposefully misnamed to help protect the project during its inception in the late 1970s. While it would have conventionally been named the F-19, internal memos from Lockheed Martin reveal the project was named F-117 from an older convention of 1950s fighter jets. The last jet made under that naming convention was the F-111 Aardvark, which entered service in 1968 and retired in 2008.
World’s First Stealth Aircraft:
Conceived in 1978, the F-117 Nighthawk was tightly protected throughout production and development unto the time its existence was forced to the surface. The F-117’s first air campaign was in 1989 against Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Their first green-lit mission was against Panamanian special forces where two F-117s scored two successive hits without being detected. This became the start of a storied legacy of stealth bombers capable of driving deep into enemy territory without being seen.
After the official beginning of the Nighthawk’s combat life cycle, the F-117 has gone on to participate in multiple conflicts including the Persian Gulf War, the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Iraq War. The only F-117 Nighthawk lost in combat was in the conflict in former Yugoslavia. On the 27th of March, 1999, a surface-to-air missile successfully took down a F-117 Nighthawk.
Its unique design is the product of over a decade of development by Lockheed Martin. Screens covering its jet outlets, effectively dispersing exhaust, make the F-117’s greatly reduced radar cross section possible . Its very design is meant to deflect all energy emitted towards it, making it one of the most unique aircraft in the Air Force’s arsenal. The F-117’s own radar had to be stripped and communications antenna made retractable to ensure that nothing could be reflected back.
The ordnance the F-117 Nighthawk delivers is located in an internal bomb bay, deeply limiting how much it can carry. Because it cannot strictly depend upon radar or communications to navigate, the bombing effectiveness of the F-117 is greatly hampered. This is one of the attributing factors to an estimated 40% miss rate against air defense targets at the opening of the invasion of Iraq, according to an official audit conducted by the Government Accountability Office. The bomb capacity was also greatly limited. Each F-117 Nighthawk could only carry a maximum of two laser-guided precision bombs. Deploying these bombs from the F-117 meant commanders had to assume a degree of error with the target hits. This was a distinct disadvantage compared to conventional bombers. However, the flipside is often times the bombs would land before the aircraft was ever even detected.
Because of the severe costs for the program, several corners were cut in regards to the F-117’s design. While its stealth capabilities were unparalleled for its time, pilots complained of sour handling of the aircraft itself. Its fly-by-wire controls, normally welcome in a fighter jet, were less than ideal for a military aircraft purely designed to evade radar detection. This has also been attributed in several reports stemming from F-117 Nighthawk accidents and losses.
Cutting Edge Tech:
The technology developed in the making of the F-117 Nighthawk was so ahead of its time that both Russia and China had to wait until one was shot down in Bosnia-Herzegovina before being able to develop their own versions of that technology. After Serbian air defense dropped an F-117 in 1998, Russia quickly swooped in and inspected the wreckage. The result was a first-hand look at an aircraft that was nearly invisible to even advanced radar.
Next Generation Stealth:
Replacing the F-117 are fifth generation multirole fighters such as the F-35 Lightning II and the F-22 Raptor. It is thought that the F-117 is completely out of service at this time, based upon government budgetary information available.
Two General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofans power the F-117 Nighthawk. Each turbofan can produce 10,600 lb-ft of force.
See F-117 Nighthawk Specifications
|Length: 65 feet 11 inches (20.09 m)|
|Height: 12 feet 9.5 inches (3.78 m)|
|Wingspan: 43 feet 4 inches (13.20 m)|
|Speed: Mach 0.92 (706 mph, 1,136 km/h)|
|Ceiling: 45,000 feet|
|Loaded Weight: 52,500 lbs. (23,800 kg)|
|Range: 1,070 mi (930 nm, 1720 km)|
|Unit Cost: est. average $111.2 million USD.|