‘Retired’ F-117 Will Undergo Air-To-Air Refueling Certification With KC-46

F-117 KC-46
An F-117A Nighthawk (U.S. Air Force photo by Sheila deVera)

The U.S. Air Force plans to complete the certification of the F-117s with the KC-46 by the end of this month.

The U. S. Air Force is planning to certify the F-117A Nighthawk to be able to refuel from the KC-46A Pegasus, the service’s new tanker. The news, published online by the Aviation Week, was first anticipated by the Air Force’s Service Acquisition Executive Andrew Hunter to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces earlier this month.

The KC-46 has already been certified to refuel almost all receivers, with a few still to spare, including the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber and the F-117A. The news is especially interesting as the F-117 was officially retired in 2008, although it continued to fly, unofficially, from Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield in Nevada. In 2021, the Air Force publicly acknowledged this publishing the first official photos since the retirement.

Moreover, in September 2022 the Air Force Test Center published a Request For Information (RFI) about a possible 10-year contract, expected to kick off from January 1, 2024, for maintenance and logistics support services for the F-117A fleet at the TTR airfield, acknowledging that the U.S. Air Force is willing to keep the aircraft flying at least until 2034. The ability of the F-117 to be refueled by the KC-46 certainly reflect this will to keep the Nighthawk flying for ten more years.

A U.S. Air Force F-117 Nighthawk taxies at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska during Northern Edge 23-1, May 10, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sheila deVera)

While the stealth technology of the F-117 might be obsolete when compared to the one of the F-22 and F-35, the aircraft can still be useful for training purposes as adversary aircraft and cruise missile surrogate, but also for research, development, test and evaluation. Because of this, the stealth jets are now publicly supporting all the most important exercises in the U.S.

“When you look at 117s that come and land and do that stuff, they’re a stealth platform, right? Early days of stealth, but they’re still a stealthy platform,” said the head of the Air National Guard, Lieutenant General Michael Loh. “So they can simulate things out there like cruise missiles that we would actually face. So are they a perfect platform for a cruise missile defense exercise? Absolutely.”

The F-117A after 2008

16 years after being officially retired, F-117s are still flying not only for training purposes as adversary aircraft and cruise missile surrogate, but also for research, development, test and evaluation, possibly related to next generation programs.

In accordance with of the Nation Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2007 (PL 109- 364, Section 136), 52 F-117 aircraft were retired and relocated to the Tonopah Test Range (TTR). Under the requirements of the NDAA, the USAF preserved each F-117 aircraft in Type-l000 (T-1000) storage, which maintains the aircraft in a condition that allows recall for future service. On 30 November 2016, Section 133 of Subtitle D of the National Defense Authorization Act repealed the requirement to preserve the F-117 aircraft in a recallable condition and the USAF intended to declassify, demilitarize, and disposition four F-117 aircraft per year.

The aircraft continued to be spotted, even more than it had happened until then, with the Nighthawks also deploying to several U.S. bases to carry out Dissimilar Air Combat Training with other U.S. types. Then, in 2021, the U.S. Air Force published the first official images of the type still involved in flight operations on the DVIDS (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service) network.

In September 2022 the Air Force Test Center published a Request For Information (RFI) about a possible 10-year contract for maintenance and logistics support services for the F-117A fleet at the TTR airfield, acknowledging that the U.S. Air Force is willing to keep the aircraft flying at least until 2034.

It is not known how many Nighthawks are still airworthy. As of January 2023, of the 59 F-117s built, approximately 45 F-117s were in the inventory, with more than 10 already approved for transfer to museums. The current disposal rate is only between two and three jets per year, instead of four per year announced in 2017.

Highest resolution video ever taken at the Tonopah Test Range

In the morning hours on Oct. 10, 2023 Michał Rokita reached a spotting point located about 14 miles from Tonopah Test Range with his Nikon P1000 camera with a 3000mm optical zoom and, from there, he shot some of the best TTR airfield footage and photographs ever.

The footage shows F-117 operations at the secretive base including radio comms. Michal was lucky enough to catch a pair of the local based F-117s that launched for a mission in the range as well as some Janet B737 and Beech King Air aircraft.

Remarkably, Michal also spotted two mysterious aircraft, one of those, barely visible in one of the open hangar close to the F-117s.

“I spotted on both – Groom Lake and Tonopah Test Range,” he told us in an email. “Both bases were much more active comparing to the other times I visited them. I got lucky on several occasions but below I’m going to share a video that may interest you as I was fortunate enough to take photos and video record a pair of F117 flying in the range out of Tonopah. The video contain communication recordings as well as other movements of Nighthawk’s on the ground with take off and landing itself. “

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.
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.