We Never Get Tired Of New Photographs (And Audio With Radio Comms) Of F-117s Still Flying Over Nevada

Two F-117s flying over TTR on Oct. 8, 2019. (Image credit: screenshto from Ian Metson YT video).

Not one, but two F-117s were photographed flying together over Tonopah Test Range on Oct. 19, 2019.

It’s not a secret that the U.S. Air Force is still flying the F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft at Tonopah Test Range (TTR) although the iconic Black Jet was officially retired from active service in 2008.

As explained in a detailed story, back in 2014, after a few videos and photographs had already appeared online, the U.S. Air Force admitted that the Nighthawk was kept in a “Type 1000” storage at TTR which meant that the type is had to be maintained until called into active service. 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in southern Nevada: the sighting was consistent with the plan of divesting one F-117 by the end of 2017; the rest to be withdrawn from use at a rate of four every year, beginning in 2018.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).

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.

Most recently aviation spotters in the right place at the right time have actually seen the F-117 in flight in some celebrated sightings. Earlier this year, on February 26, 2019, photographer Richard VanderMeulen shot remarkable photos of a single, unmarked, F-117A that was flying over the restricted air space R-2508 range complex near Death Valley in southern California. The photos, first published in “Combat Aircraft”, were remarkably good. They showed an F-117 with partially worn or obscured markings flying at low altitude around the desert hillocks and mountains. The aircraft made another brief appearance the next day. Combat Aircraft later published some photographs of the an F-117 sporting what seemed to be an Aggressors/camouflaged color scheme.

Some stories claim the aircraft was actually re-introduced to combat in Syria and Iraq in 2017, although these claims have never been substantiated.

Here’s what this author wrote about the one of the sightings last year. It’s still valid today, even though we can’t rule out some contractor pilots are simply enjoying the last few flying hours of the remaining F-117s:

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.

At the end of September, The War Zone obtained some details about the F-117s being operated by the U.S. Air Force.

“On occasion, we [the Air Force] will fly certain aircraft to support limited research activities,” Air Force spokesperson Brian Brackens explained to The War Zone in an email. “Pilots from the Air Force Test Center” are behind the stick of the Nighthawks during those sorties, he added.

While fuselages of F-117s destined to Museums are spotted as they are hauled by trucks across the U.S. quite frequently, the remaining aircraft continue to fly. The following interesting video is actually a compilation of photographs taken at TTR as two F-117s were flying together last month. The accompanying radio comms give us some details about the mission flown on Oct. 8, 2019, by the two stealth jets.

One, aircraft, using radio callsign NIGHT 17 seems to be involved in some kind of test, while NIGHT 21 appears to be the chase plane. As you can hear from the radio comms, it was a somehow busy sortie: as the aircraft performed some pattern activity with touch and gos and ILS approaches, NIGHT 17 suffered pressurization issues and then reported a gear warning light when in the visual pattern after a T&G.

Regardless to whether the mission was an airtest or a simple flight to keep the pilots current with the type, it’s always a pleasure to see the secretive WobblinGoblin in the air!

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a 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.