“F-117s Had An Air-To-Air Capability With Secondary Mission To Shoot Down Soviet AWACS” Former Stealth Pilot Says

An F-117 Nighthawk taxies down the runway before its flight during the Holloman Air and Space Expo on 27 October 2007. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt Jason Colbert)

A former Stealth Jet pilot provided some details about a previously unknown role of the F-117 during a recent interview at the Fighter Pilot Podcast. And here are some comments.

I must admit I had no idea that the iconic Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, had an air-to-air capability with a specific anti-Soviet AWACS mission until I happened to listen to a great interview of a  Stealth Jet pilot on The Fighter Pilot Podcast.

The Fighter Pilot Podcast is an internet radio show run by former Top Gun Instructor Vincent “Jell-O” Aiello that explores the world of combat aviation. On Episode 72, dated Feb. 13, 2020, you can listen retired Michigan Air National Guard Major Robert “Robson” Donaldson recall his experiences with the F-117, before and during his tour of duty in Saudi Arabia to take part in Operation Desert Storm.

After reading the latest reports about the F-117s flying over Los Angeles and off Southern California in plain daylight to carry out some kind of training, I needed some more Stealth Jet stories, so I thought it was the right time to spend little more than one hour to listen to the episode featuring a former F-117 pilot.

The interview starts at 16:17 mark in the video embedded below. You get to know the background of Donaldson, who flew principally the F-16 both before and after flying the Nighthawk for around 600 hours (“I believe a total time which was fairly high time for the airplane”).

There are tons of interesting details in his account.

First of all, dealing with the training on the new jet, “Robson” Donaldson (who remembers saying “wow” the first time he saw the jet) recalls the training was only about a month long, with two weeks of academics, sim and two weeks of flying. Considered there were no two-seat trainers everybody’s first flight was during daylight but, overall, the F-117 was “really a very simple airplane to fly and employ so it didn’t take that long but they only trained about 12 guys a year just depending upon the needs so the first flight was yep just like the sim.”

In the early 1980s, the Air Force Flight Test Center teamed with Lockheed to complete the development test and evaluation of the F-117A stealth fighter. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Then, responding to “Jello” questions about the origin of the designation F-117 instead of a more correct A-117 considered that the aircraft was not a fighter but and attack jet, something interesting emerges in Donaldson recollections:

“yes his primary role was attack but having said that, it could actually carry every munition in the inventory at the time of its insertion, with the exception of the Sparrow missile which was radar-guided so we could carry air-to-air missiles we could carry the full gamut of air-to-ground munitions and everything. So the f-117 designation has long been rumored and then postulated and and many beers have gone down about why it was as such but I think it was basically they just said – hey we don’t want to have anything really too extraordinary out there at all – but yes in all reality it is an attack jet but it did have a limited air-to-air capability.”

This was really the first time I ever heard about this A2A capability of the Stealth Jet.

After diving a bit more into the primary role of the F-117, explaining the load out of an attack mission, the use of FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) and DLIR (Downward Looking Infra Red) to perform the weapon drop, the former Nighthawk pilot explains: “our secondary role was to shoot down the Soviet AWACS. So yeah, we were invisible to their radar and we didn’t want them controlling their airspace so, either on the way in or on the way out you could add a Soviet AWACS paint it to the side of your aircraft”.

Unfortunately, Donaldson does not provide any additional details about this previously unknown secondary role, but we can assume a very limited capability was probably considered using an IR-guided AIM-9 missile. According to the retired pilot, the F-117 could carry all the weapons in the U.S. Air Force inventory, but it would have been interesting to know how the potential employment of a Sidewinder was thought. The use of AIM-9 carried on external pylons (that would make the aircraft visible on radars) has long been discussed and never confirmed nor are we aware of bay door modifications to house canted trapeze (similar to that the F-22 Raptors use to put the AIM-9 Sidewinder seeker into the airstream). There is also a chance, Lockheed made studies to add AIM-9 rails on the interior bays of the F-117 as part of some proposed Nighthawk variants that never were as mentioned here:

“Lockheed documents credit the A/F-117X with AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile capability. The pictures/diagrams show the AIM-9/AIM-120 rails on the interior sides of the A/F-117X’s (fully bulged) bomb bay doors. Although it was not stated, it is implied that the F-117B also has these capabilities.”

Whatever, adding the AIM-9 to a baseline F-117A would make little sense and be somehow useful just as a self-defense weapon: the IR-guided missiles like the AIM-9 need to be fired from short distance so, to get a chance of a kill on an enemy AWACS, the F-117 would have had to fly dangerously close to its target (under allied Airborne Early Warning control – because of the lack or radar). Once at the right shooting range, the Nighthawk would have opened the weapons bay (with a significant Low Observability penalty) to fire the IR-guided missile to a Soviet AWACS probably covered by Soviet MiGs or Sukhois providing HVAAE (High Value Air Asset Escort). Seems somehow unreasonable, even though we probably don’t know the full story and some pieces are missing.

That being said, as highlighter at the end of the podcast episode, it’s worth remembering that the secondary role metioned by Donaldson is strikingly similar to the one of the F-19 Ghostrider (nicknamed “Frisbee” by the pilots and crew) in Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller novel “Red Storm Rising.” In that novel, published in 1986, a couple of years before the existence of the F-117 was made public, the F-19A carry out a daring raid to destroy Soviet Il-76 “Mainstay” radar planes, enabling NATO to secure air superiority in the early stages of the war.

An interesting thing recalled by the former Stealth Jet pilot is the fact that aircraft was “high subsonic” and, during Desert Storm they took advantage of the 200 knot jet stream flowing over Iraq. So most of their attacks were planned from west to east to get the extra 200 knots push: it was a high ground speed while that airspeed (IAS) was subsonic. The Nighthawk could not fly too high either: it could reach 40K (when empty) but it was more comfortable at lower altitudes. Moreover, in terms of maneuverability, it had the same g-limits of a Phantom: + 7.3 – 3g. However, it was not a dogfighter at all: after a high-g turn it would have to fly low to escape the engagement and the lack of frontal visibility would greatly affect the pilot ability to fight the opponent.

Another thing that makes the interview a must hear is the story of the mission during Desert Storm when Donaldson was caught in the blast envelope of the bomb he had released at 700 feet that turned the aircraft upside down! And, don’t miss the part when “Robson” explains the nickname they had given to the F-117 during his tour of duty….

Anyway, no matter the secondary role the aircraft had in the past, I’m more than happy to see the iconic black jet still flying some kind of aggressor and test mission today, 12 years after it was officially retired. Long live the WobblinGoblin” (or, if you prefer, the “Wet Dream“…).

Update Jun. 3, 18.30 GMT:

Our friend Tyler Rogoway from The War Zone reached out to us with an interesting update on this previously unknown story that pretty much confirms this Author’s doubts and suggests the capability was indeed tested (BTW you may remember the interesting experimental campaign with external stores we reported about here), but never made into any operational form:

“It turns out that this was never an actual capability in any operational form whatsoever, but it was experimented with over the years in unique and intriguing ways, something we are detailing in a soon to be released special feature.”

So, stay tuned for more details about the Nighthawk and its never-ending saga!

Update #2 Jun. 20, 16.30 GMT:

In the end, Donaldson clarified his statements on the topic and to discuss the matter in a bit more detail with The War Zone. In short, the F-117 never had the capability nor has any missile ever been fired, not even for testing. That’s perfectly understandable. Much less understandable is the reason why the pilot claimed it in the episode in first place and also confirmed it in another episode Q/A session.

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.