Photographer Snaps Incredible Shots Of Low Flying F-117 Jets

F-117 low level
An F-117 flying low level over California in March 2024. (Image credit: Andrew Kelly)

The two F-117 stealth jets were flying the famous Sidewinder Low-Level Training Route in California.

The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk was officially retired by the U.S. Air Force in 2008. However, as we have been reporting for several years now,  not only is the iconic stealth jet flying for training purposes as adversary aircraft and cruise missile surrogate, but also operating for research, development, test and evaluation, possibly supporting next generation programs.

For a certain period, although the aircraft were regularly spotted both in Nevada and near the bases across the U.S. where the F-117s deployed to carry out DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) activities in favor of other types and units, the USAF did not admit the fact that the aircraft was still flying. Then, in 2021, the service published the first official images of the type still involved in flight operations on the DVIDS (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service) network, de facto acknowledging the return to the active service of the F-117.

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.

More recently, it was disclosed that Air Force was planning to certify the F-117A Nighthawk to be able to refuel from the KC-46A Pegasus, the service’s new tanker.

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)

Anyway, after the veil of secrecy was, at least partially, lifted, the sightings have increased, including those of F-117s flying very low altitude.

For this reason, last month, a photographer decided to embark on a trip to the low level training areas to shoot some photos and footage of the elusive stealth jets. Here’s how it went.

How it all started

“I am a second-year university student living in Colorado,” says our friend and contributor Andrew Kelly. “I have always been interested in aviation, and when COVID-19 closed my school in March of 2020, I made it my goal to teach myself how to use a camera properly. Having grown up near the Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire watching the military aircraft train, I decided to combine my passion for aviation with my desire to learn photography.”

“I have now been shooting military aviation for over four years, and have enjoyed learning about the people, the mission, the aircraft, and my camera. I worked at a flight school throughout high school as a dispatcher while working towards my private pilot certificate. After university I will be pursuing my dream of flying for the US military.”


Andrew, whose work can be found online on Instagram or here, has improved a lot since his amateur beginnings: “When I first began shooting, I was using my mom’s Canon Rebel XSI from 2008. I have graduated from that early model DSLR to using Canon’s Professional Mirrorless lineup. I currently shoot with the Canon R5 and the Canon RF 200-800mm lens. To record video through my iPhone 14 Pro Max while using my camera, I have it mounted to the hot-shoe system.”

“I have enjoyed meeting other photographers and traveling all over the US with my camera at my side to further my passion for both military aviation and photography.”


“I had seen photos that my friends had been taking along the Sidewinder Low-Level Training Route in California. I decided that for my university’s spring break I would drive out to the low-level training route and spend the week camping/hiking with my camera. I had heard stories from friends about F-117’s from Tonopah occasionally dropping into the low-level route. I knew that a photo of an F-117 “down low” would make the trip.”

“I woke up early each morning to hike to the location along the Kern River Valley I selected. Each morning by 08.00 I was in place on the mountain with my radio scanner and my camera. Eyes focused to the South for any aircraft running the route.”

“On my first day I shot California Air National Guard F-15C’s, and VFA-146/VFA-94 F-18’s.”


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“Around 1pm I noticed that a KC-135 from Edwards AFB was flying Northeast towards Tonopah. After reaching Tonopah, the tanker turned and started heading back towards my location. Along with it were two F-117’s.”

“A short while later, my radio crackled to life. Over the gusting winds I was able to make out “Sidewinder Low Level, KNIGHT01 flight entering the route at point alpha, 500 feet, 500 knots. Two!””

I could hardly believe what I had just heard. Two F-117s were heading my way! I was so excited that I was almost shaking. I eventually saw the silhouettes of the aircraft descending into the valley.”

Close encounter with the Nighthawk

“When I was younger, I had a toy F-117 that my parents gave me. Seeing two of those familiar shapes flying towards me 16 years after the operational retirement of the airframe was a strange feeling.”

“I had to remind myself to stop watching and pick up my camera to shoot. As the flight approached me, they maneuvered to make the sharp right turn past me. To make this turn they rolled to the right, giving me a full view of the aircraft’s topside. The entire time I was snapping away with my camera. From a distance, the aircraft looks quite wide. The flight lead climbed up towards me and as it approached my perspective shifted. When it was positioned to show the full topside the wings look quite swept back.”


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“I was not expecting the F-117 to be as loud as it was. It was comparable to the F-15s and F-18s I had been shooting all day. The sound echoed throughout the valley. The flight continued down the low-level route towards point Bravo, and then disappeared off into the horizon. Their silhouettes fading against the snowy mountains.”


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Along with the cool photographs, Andrew filmed also a great clip of the low flying stealth jet.


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A sighting worth the trip

“I stood on the top of the mountain watching them fly farther until I couldn’t see them anymore. I looked down on my camera and couldn’t believe that there were F-117 low level photos sitting on my CF Express card. I felt immensely grateful to have been in the right place at the right time and been able to see such a rare sight. All the driving, hiking, camping, and climbing was worth it. It didn’t matter to me what happened during the rest of the week. From day one, the trip had been a success.”

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.