A new theory emerges at the end of a week of F-117 sightings in Nevada.
As you probably already know by now, both on Feb. 26 and 27, 2019, an F-117 Nighthawk (or two?) flew very low over the flats in beautiful Panamint Valley in Death Valley National Park.
Using radio callsign “Lehi”, the Nighthawk(s), chased by two F-16s (Groom Lake Vipers have been spotted chasing F-117s in the past), the stealth jet flew over the Death Valley and were shot by some lucky photographers over there. For instance, on Feb. 27, a low flying F-117 was filmed as it overflew a lucky bystander. The incredible video was later published across social media.
Photographer Dan Stijovich was able to shoot some great close up photos that also allowed an identification of the F-117A: the iconic stealth jet was serial number 84-0824 and sported “49OG” flagship markings.
Although we have published several photographs and videos of the F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jets flying over or near Tonopah Test Range, those taken by Stijovich are surely the best we have seen since the aircraft was officially retired from active service in 2008.
Back in 2014, after a few videos and photographs had already appeared online, the U.S. Air Force admitted that the Black Jet was kept in a “Type 1000” storage at Tonopah Test Range (TTR) which meant that the type is to be maintained until called into active service: the U.S. considered the F-117 somehow useful in a current scenario, so much so they continued to fly some of the preserved jets every now and then, in plain sight, to keep the pilots (according to most sources, not U.S. Air Force aircrews but Lockheed Martin/contractor pilots) current and the aircraft airworthy and ready. Desert conditions of Nevada are perfect for maintaining the stealth jets in pristine conditions (due to the low level of humidity and hence, lower probability of corrosion), hence the reason to operate the enigmatic aircraft from TTR.
In July 2016, we published a video showing two F-117s flying together, filmed from the distant hills east of Tonopah Test Range: in examining the photos some readers noticed that when the two F-117’s were lined up on the runway, only one of them had what looked like a comms antenna extended on the dorsal spine. The other Nighthawk behind him did not have that. A new antenna? For doing what? A remotely controlled F-117? Hard to say because of the quality of the shot.
Then, in 2017, the U.S. Air Force announced the decision to retire the fleet permanently, once and for all. In fact, “in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, passed Dec. 23, 2017 the Air Force will remove four F-117s every year to fully divest them — a process known as demilitarizing aircraft,” wrote Oriana Pawlyk last year. According to Pawlyk, one F-117 was scheduled to be divested this year and approximately four every year thereafter.
However, another few sightings were reported since then:
On Nov. 13, 2017, an F-117 was spotted on a trailer on US-95, south of Creech AFB, in southern Nevada: the sighting was consistent with the plan of divesting one F-117 by the end of 2017; the rest to be withdrawn from use at a rate of four every year, beginning in 2018. In other words, the one under tarp on a trailer was probably being transferred to the boneyard, to be scrapped or prepared for a museum. Then, in a fantast twist, on the following day, Nov. 14, 2017, at 09.20AM LT, another F-117 was spotted flying north of Rachel, Nevada chased by a Groom Lake’s two-seater F-16 (most probably the one that later paid visit to Star Wars Canyon).
More recently, on Jul. 26, 2018, Youtube user “pdgls” films 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 both the video and audio of the two Nighthawks.
“We can’t rule out some contractor pilots are simply enjoying the last few flying hours of the remaining F-117s” this Author wrote a few days ago, when the photos of the Stealth Jet flying in the Death Valley emerged.
Each time we have published a story, a photograph or a video of the F-117, we have also speculated a little bit about the reason why the aircraft was (and still is) flying. Here’s a recap.
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.
Interestingly, on their FB page, our friends at Scramble Magazine provided an interesting news about the deployment of four F-117s to the Middle East in 2017.
According to the reputable Dutch aviation magazine:
Back in 2017, and not publiced by any other source so far, Scramble received very reliable information that at least four F-117s were deployed to the Middle East as an operational need emerged for the USAF to resurrect the stealth F-117 for special purposes. One of the deployed aircraft was involved in an in-flight emergency and landed far away from its temporary home base that was likely located in Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Qatar.
During this extremely covert deployment the four Nighthawks flew missions above Syria an Iraq with Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs).
Take it with a grain of salt, but it seems that the F-117, maintained in operational status to be used when needed, according to the “reliable sources” who talked with Scramble, had some taste of combat again, some ten years after their official retirement, in the Syrian/Iraqi theater.
Indeed, you don’t keep just a handful of these jets airworthy if you don’t think they could be useful some day: it would simply cost too much. Just think at the maintenance issues related to maintaining the RAM (Radar Absorbent Material) as well as the training required to fly the aircraft.
However, the U.S. Air Force has been using F-22 stealth aircraft over Syria and Iraq for years now, so why committing a somehow obsolete and very well-known design as part of a covert deployment? Was there an ultra-well defended target to strike? Or was there the need to test a new RAM, coating or system, fitted to the F-117, against a real target for a real-life test?
As mentioned above, there is also the possibility some F-117s were converted into UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles): drones able to deliver ordnance. What if those deployed to the Middle East were UCAVs being tested operationally? Continuing in such a speculation one might believe the appearance of the piloted F-117 over Nevada last week, with the pilot giving a “hang loose” gesture to the photographers was a way to deceive analysts, observers who believe rumors of a Nighthawk turned into drone.
It’s all unlikely, still….who knows?
Whatever, it would be interesting to know more about this presumed covert deployment. Our Scramble friends might release additional details soon.
Meanwhile, you can find Scramble on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and of course at www.scramble.nl.