This is the reason why F-117 stealth jets are still flying. Maybe…

F-117 Mysterious Flights. Is the Riddle Solved? Maybe or maybe not.

Last month we published some photographs, shot around Tonopah Test Range, that proved that one or more F-117 Nighthawk stealth jets are still flying 6 years after being officially retired by the U.S. Air Force.

The story created a lot of hype and many speculations regarding the reason behind the mysterious activity.

We mentioned several different explainations behind the flights (in plain daylight), ranging from tests of new radar systems, which would be capable of detecting stealthy aircraft, to modified UCAV versions, through tests of new weapons, up to a brave hypothesis of getting the Nighthawks modernized and operational again.

Apparently, the reason seems to be not so exciting. Defense News’s Aaron Mehta has obtained an official explaination from the U.S. Air Force.

According to the USAF, the jet is kept in a “Type 1000” storage, which means that the type is to be maintained until called into active service.

The aircraft are re-preserved in 4 year periods and due to the type of storage, they are to be capable of being brought back into operation within the period of 30-120 days.

This version of the story is confirmed by Dziennik Zbrojny, one of the leading Polish defense outlets which quotes a USAF spokesperson as well.

What is the reason for the flights then? Well, flights are a form of a routine check, which ensures that the F-117 is still airworthy.

The Nighthawk fleet has been retired back in 2008 and maintained inside the Tonopah Test Range Hangars.

Desert conditions of Nevada are beneficial for maintaining the stealth jets in pristine conditions (due to the low level of humidity and hence, lower probability of corrosion). Since, according to the source quoted by Defense News, maintaining the jets at AMARC, at Davis-Monthan AFB, would be less cost-effective (means of secure storage would have to be implemented), the Tonopah infrastructure has been used instead.

Reasonable.

However we can’t but notice that it is at least weird that a somehow obsolete fleet (the F-117 was the first stealth jet designed back in the 1970s and inducted into active service in 1983) is kept in operational status by flying a handful of planes every now and then. The Air Force is struggling to retire some active, possibly hard-to-replace aircraft (as the A-10 Thunderbolt) because they are not suitable to modern scenarios and to save money: why would they spend money to keep the aircrews proficient and the fascinating but old aircraft in flyable conditions? How would a few Black Jets be employed in a modern scenario considering their rather archaic weapons control system?

We don’t want to fuel conspiracy theories but, as suggested by our friends at lazygranch.com, after the retirement, the F-117 were sometimes spotted over the TTR during test flights which involved the MIT Gulfstream N105TB: if confirmed this joint activity might point towards something different than a routine airworthiness check sortie.

Ok, as said, the story of the storage 1000 is reasonable, but a few questions are yet to be answered.

Written with Jacek Siminski

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

 

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.

11 Comments

  1. Quote: “The Air Force is struggling to retire some active, possibly hard-to-replace aircraft (as the A-10 Thunderbolt) because they are not suitable to modern scenarios and to save money.”

    Why not be more blunt. The A-10 provided excellent service in our last war and there’s nothing remotely like it in our inventory. The reason is that some USAF generals like nothing so much as expensive toys (the F-35), and hate offering ground support to the Army and Marines (the A-10). In this case, the A-10 has to go to buy more F-35s.

    Normally, wiser heads in the White House and Congress would keep those USAF generals in line. We’ve now got a White House so clueless about things military, our president thinks a Navy medic assigned to the Marine Corps is a “corpseman.” The continuing service of the A-10 not rests on Congress which, thankfully, come January will be dominated by Republicans. The A-10 may not be dead yet.

    I’ve already mentioned in another forum that, if I were Israel or one of the now-threatened countries in Eastern Europe, I’d not only buy up an surplus A-10s, I acquire a license to make them myself.

    • The problem with the A-10 is that it will be useless in a war with China. The F-35 will not be useless.

      • “The F-35 will not be useless.”

        The only war game to date that included the F-35 says otherwise. It predicted they would be swiftly taken out of the skies. Not a performance vehicle, unless you lower the bar considerably.

    • “The continuing service of the A-10 not rests on Congress which, thankfully, come January will be dominated by Republicans.”
      Yes, God save us all. Don’t count on the Repugs to save the A-10. They’ve tried to get rid of it before (prior to the first Gulf War).

  2. That is a fine idea. What a waste of money, and a crime, to reinforce all A-10 hardware (wings) and then retire them. Give the A-10s to the US Army, or Israel, where they would be most effective. Our air force sad-assed fighter mafia at work!

    • I agree, They should revise the 1966 Johnson-McConnell agreement and let the army have their own fixed wings if they want them. The Army would most likely be more than happy to have and keep their own CAS systems and the Air Force can go focus on things that make it happy like f-35’s and f-22’s

  3. A-10 give good service to your army and militan. Do you recall how many A-10 damage non repair or crash (no data from your army but pic eviden proof many in Net). A-10 capability equal to your drone or I can say your drone more effective than warthogs. Also the spread of MANPADs will increase militan kill marks with this thunderbolt.

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