How the “Black Jet” became the “Gray Dragon”: the story of the only gray F-117 stealth plane

Feb 25 2013 - 5 Comments

The Lockheed F-117A was not only the world’s first operational stealth aircraft, but also one of the most secret plane ever developed.

Conceived for night secret missions, the “Nighthawk” was restricted to fly only with darkness. In fact, in each operation from “Just Cause” in 1989 to “Iraqi Freedom” in 2003, the F-117s only flew after sunset.

Even if one example was lost in 1999 near Belgrade during “Operation Allied Force“, the F-117A unique design, which consisted in blending different angles, made the aircraft very hard to detect by the air defense systems.

But, low observability to radar alone was not sufficient to guarantee the plane to fly undetected through the enemy airspaces.

During the development of the F-117, the Skunk Works (the Lockheed legendary division that designed secret aircraft) found that to evade visual detection the best solution was a paint scheme in different shades of gray.

Gray Dragon 1

But since the F-117 had to fly only night missions, the U.S. Air Force stated that the Nighthawks had to be painted in black.

However, in 2003 one example of the F-117A was painted in gray with the task to determine if the aircraft could play a role in daytime missions. This Nighthawk was nicknamed “The Dragon” and the operational testing on the type was accomplished at Holloman AFB (Air Force Base), New Mexico, by the 53rd Test and Evaluation Detachment 1 (Det 1).

Flying two missions every day Det 1 pilots were able to determine their daytime capabilities and limitations.

The new kind of coat proved immediately that the “classic” black paint scheme wouldn’t be good during daylight operations. During the tests “The Dragon” was also upgraded with new software and hardware; furthermore the new paints were evaluated by measuring the impact that the gray had on the maintenance.

All these trials were necessary to provide an accurate evaluation of the daytime operations with the gray paint scheme, to ensure a 24-hour stealth presence above the future battlefields.

However, despite the good results of the trials, “The Dragon” would have been the only F-117 painted in gray: in fact, in 2005 when the USAF had to take a decision about repainting in gray the entire fleet , it was decided to retire all the Nighthawks.

The gray F-117 made its last flight on Mar. 12, 2007 at Holloman AFB.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

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  • Bandit138

    In 1995 we had an all grey F-117A that we referred to as the Grey Ghost. I arrived at Holloman early 1996 and they were in the process of bringing it back to it’s original all black configuration. The RAM that was replaced for maintenance was black, so until the plane could get into the paint booth it had patches of black all over the body. It was actually quite comical to see that thing taxi by. It looked like it had a skin condition.

    • Dario Leone

      Hey Bandit do you have any pics of it? However thanks for reading!

      • Bandit138

        No pics, but here’s some additional info.

        The “Grey Ghost” was a 7thTFS jet. The 7thTFS handled training incoming stealth drivers and OT on new OFP’s. The story I got was that Lockheed had originally told the USAF that dark grey was a better color for nighttime ops, but USAF declined and went with the color of all of their “special” aircraft. In mid-1995 the USAF gave it a go to run during some exercises. From what I heard, and you know how rumors go, the paint scheme was a success, but USAF didn’t feel it was worth the cost of transitioning all of their jets from black to grey…not to mention that black was the “color” of stealth at the time.

        I was a maintainer working with the 9thFS, so I didn’t work on this particular aircraft, but I did see it taxiing every day when it had it’s patches of black. It actually looked really cool because the canted lines of the aircraft were highlighted rather than covered up by black blending with the shadows.

        Some say the color of the plane had something to do with it’s performance. If you look on the wiki for the F-117 you can see that an 8thFS jet was shot down on 27 March, 1999. The wiki also states that some American sources claim a second plane was damaged on 30 April, 1999. The 9thFS was flying out of Spangdahlem AB during that time period…. There were rumors floating around in the aircrew and maintainer circles that the jets were black flying on a brightly moon-lit night (27 March had a 3/4 moon and 30 April had a full moon) which had helped the SA-3 crew get a fix on the plane, but this was never verified by anyone with the authority to do so. BTW – I would like to point out that all of the 9thFS jets came home after that deployment.

        Great blog, keep up the good work!

        • Dario Leone

          Hi Bandit thaks again to you, for giving us all these infos, they are very interesting! By the way I think that the F-117 has been a great aircraft the first true stealth aircraft.

  • AspenTwoZero

    I always associated the name “Grey Ghost” with the YF-23 demonstrator…