Photos May Suggest Something About How the F-117 is Still Being Used.
Several photos of an F-117 Nighthawk flying very low over rolling desert terrain appeared on Instagram and Twitter this Tuesday, February 26, 2019. The photographs, posted on both the “SWC_Addiction” Instagram and by Neil Jackson (@NeilJackson10) on his Twitter account, show the silhouette and some barely visible, grainy, high contrast detail of an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. The photos were taken “working the flats at Panamint at 200 feet” according the Neil Jackson’s Twitter post. This area is near the Nellis Test and Training Range and the region some people refer to as “Area 51”.
The photos, are noteworthy for a number of reasons. The F-117 was officially retired from USAF service in April, 2008. Since then some photos of the aircraft flying over the Nellis Test and Training Range have surfaced on social media, but they have been rare.
Following on from my previous tweet here is the F-117 from today. What an awesome sight. pic.twitter.com/Xm0BM7uFmB
— Neil Jackson (@NeilJackson10) February 27, 2019
A large section of an F-117 fuselage was observed being moved on a flatbed truck along Route 95 adjacent to the Nellis Test and Training Range in Nevada near Creech AFB in back in November, 2017.
While no official information about any ongoing F-117 flight operations is readily available, it would appear the aircraft are performing some test or training role in the region.
Back in July 2018, Youtube user “pdgls” filmed two F-117 flying again at Tonopah Test Range. The video shows two F-117s taking off in sequence as Night (or Knight – 9th FS callsign) 17 and 19. The shape of the Black Jet can be clearly identified as it maneuvers over TTR.
Here’s what The Aviationist Editor David Cenciotti wrote about the sighting in a detailed article published back then:
Needless to say, the reason for the F-117 flights remains a mystery. Whilst the pretty basic pattern activity carried out by Night 19 is coherent with a periodic flight required to maintain currencies and airworthiness certificates, the seemingly more complex stuff conducted by Night 17 after it changed callsign to Dagger 17 seems to suggest there is some more interesting work for Black Jet. Indeed, as often explained here at The Aviationist, although it is a “legacy” radar-evading aircraft, the F-117 can still be used to support a wide variety of tests and developments: new radar or Infra Red Search and Track systems, new SAM (surface to air missiles) batteries, new RAM (Radar Absorbent Material) and coatings; or even 6th generation combat planes and next generation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platforms. They might be supporting stealth UCAVs (unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) research and, as explained above, someone has also speculated some have been converted into drones. Moreover, we can’t completely rule out the possibility Nighthawk are used as adversaries/aggressors against real or simulated systems, if not within the context of a Red Flag (the audio you can hear above, from the beginning to 04:30 hours, was recorded during Red Flag on Jul. 25, although the activity is probably completely unrelated to the F-117 sorties) as part of complex LVC (Live Virtual Constructive) scenarios, where actual assets are mixed up with virtual ones.
While everything about these photos is interesting, of particular note is the aircraft’s very low altitude and high bank angle. Moreover, according to Jackson, the aircraft operated in the area for quite some time (about two hours). The Instagram account where the photos appeared features images taken from the nearby low-flying training areas in Death Valley, California, a very short flight from the Nellis Test and Training Ranges commonly referred to as “Area 51”.
The F-117 in the photos appears to be in a relatively high-performance flight regime, such as low-altitude terrain masking maneuvers or taking evasive action. Neither of these flight profiles make sense since the foundational design of the F-117 is for it to penetrate enemy air defenses at medium altitude relying on its unusual “faceted” shape for low radar observability or “stealth”. The aircraft does not have to rely on low-altitude terrain masking or high performance maneuvering to evade detection in its original mission profile.
There are also chances the pilot is simply enjoying some last flying hours in the iconic jet before it is finally retired. A final “tour” similar to the one the RAF Tornado GR4s have conducted in the UK.
Another interesting feature of the photos is the apparent proximity of the photographer from the aircraft. In previously published recent F-117 photos the aircraft was several miles from the photographer. The two photos from Instagram, while shot by a long telephoto lens as indicated by the depth of field compression, do appear to be taken closer to the aircraft than previous photos. If true, this could suggest the aircraft is flying closer to the outer boundaries of the Nellis Test and Training Range where photographers may see them more easily. The photo posted to Twitter by Neil Jackson appear to be very close to the photographer even accounting for image cropping and telephoto compression.
F-117 Nighthawk — still out there, still flying (clearest photos yet) – https://t.co/T1yAjwiYnI pic.twitter.com/QnIMsFyFVq
— Combat Aircraft (@CombatAir_Mag) February 27, 2019
Whatever the backstory to the photos is, they could provide a fascinating shred of insight into what the U.S. Air Force may be doing over the secretive Nellis Ranges. That is always an interesting story.