It’s Been 10 Years Since The F-117 Nighthawk Retired (At Least, Officially…)

Two specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly on one of their last missions. The F-117s were retired March 11 in a farewell ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. Kim Frey)

The last F-117 Black Jets officially retired from active service on Apr. 22, 2008. But some Nighthawks have continued to fly.

On Apr. 22, the U.S. Air Force posted an interesting article on their website titled “Remembering the F-117 Nighthawk”. The story commemorates the 10th anniversary of the retirement of the “Black Jet”, the world’s first and most famous operational stealth combat jet, that took place at Palmdale, California, where Lockheed Martin staff said farewells to the last four-ship formation coming from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, led by (Ret.) Col. Jack Forsythe.

Retired Col Jack Forsythe in frotn of the flag F-117A at Tonopah AFB, Nevada, after the last mission April 22, 2008.

Indeed, the iconic jet was retired after little more than 25 years of service, on Apr. 22, 2008, even though the official retirement from the active service did not translate into the end of flying activities for the F-117: flights of the Black Jets over Nevada were reported or documented every now and then past the official retirement in 2008 and in 2014, we published the first images that proved that some stealth planes were still operating out of Tonopah Test Range. It later emerged that the aircraft was being maintained and kept in a “Type 1000” storage to be occasionally flown at Tonopah Test Range until the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, ordered the USAF to “demilitarize the aircraft” i.e. to retire the fleet permanently, once and for all, one in 2017 and the rest at a rate of four F-117s every year. In fact, on Nov. 13, 2017 an F-117 Nighthawk was spotted on a trailer on US-95, south of Creech AFB, in southern Nevada, most probably heading to the boneyard, to be scrapped or prepared for a museum whilst on the following day, Nov. 14, 2017, another F-117, chased by a two-seater F-16, was spotted flying north of Rachel, Nevada.

Four F-117A Nighthawk’s perform one last flyover at the Sunset Stealth retirement cerermony at Holloman AFB, N.M., 21 April 2008. The F-117A flew under the flag of the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico from 1992 to its retirement in 2008. (U.S. Air Force Photo by SSgt Jason Colbert)

Anyway, it’s interesting to note that the presence of a small fleet of Nighthawks is never officially mentioned in USAF public releases.

According to our friend Tyler Rogoway at The War Zone the aircraft are flown by Lockheed Martin contractors and this might explain the lack of official references to the aircraft still flying today.

Here’s the full text published by the flying branch along with the photos you can find in this story. It includes some interesting details about the legendary plane:

It’s been 10 years since the F-117 Nighthawk retired, an aircraft so secret Nevada folklore labeled it a UFO.

The Nighthawk pilots were known by the call sign “Bandit,” each earning their number with their first solo flight. Some of the maintainers were also given a call sign, said Wayne Paddock, a former F-117 maintainer currently stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

“The people who maintained the coatings on the aircraft, radar absorbent material were classified as material application and repair specialists (MARS). MARS morphed into Martians,” Paddock said “MARS was a shred out from the structural repair/corrosion control career field.”

The technology for the F-117 was developed in the 1970s as a capability for attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radar. It had up to 5,000 pounds of assorted internal stores, two engines and could travel up to 684 mph.

It was the first airplane designed and built as a low-observable, stable and therefore precise platform, said Yancy Mailes, director of the history and museums program for Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and a former F-117 maintainer.

“It was the marriage of the GBU-27 to the F-117 that had a laser designator in its nose that made it such a precise, deadly platform,” Mailes said. “It was best demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm when pilots snuck into Iraq and dropped weapons down the elevator shaft of a central communications building in Iraq.”

The first Nighthawk flew June 18, 1981, and the original F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group (renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989), achieved initial operating capability in October 1983. The Nighthawk originally saw combat during Operation Just Cause in 1989, when two F-117s from the 37th TFW attacked military targets in Panama. The aircraft was also in action during Operation Desert Shield.

Retired Col. Jack Forsythe, remembers being excited when he initially flew a Nighthawk while stationed at Holloman AFB in 1995.

“It was a unique experience,” he said. “It’s probably the same feeling that a lot of our (single seat) F-22 (Raptor) and F-35 (Lightning II) pilots feel today.”

After 25 years of service, the Nighthawk retired April 22, 2008. Forsythe led the four-ship formation to Palmdale, California, where Lockheed Martin staff said their farewells.

“We lowered the bomb doors of each aircraft and people signed their names to the doors,” Forsythe said. “It was really just kind of neat; they had designed it, built it and maintained it for these 25 years, so it really hit home – the industry and Air Force partnership that made the Nighthawk great. I think the four of us were just really struck by that and have some really great memories of that flight.”

The American flag was painted on the entire underside of his F-117 by the maintainers to help celebrate American airpower.

“I think we all recognized that this was something historic,” he said. “We retired an airplane that people still reference today. We really understood that so it was a sentimental flight to say the least. It was a great weapon system, very stable and easy to fly. It’s still a memorable experience.”

From left to right, retired Col. Jack Forsythe, Lt. Col. Mark Dinkard, 49th Operations Group Deputy, Lt. Col. Todd Flesch, 8th Fighter Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Ken Tatum, 9th Fighter Squadron commander, after retiring the last four F-117As to Tonopah Air Force Base, Nevada April 22, 2008.
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About David Cenciotti 3633 Articles
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 four books.