Tag Archives: Tonopah Test Range

Let’s Talk About The Sightings Of F-117 Stealth Jets Flying Over Nevada Few Days Ago

10 years after their official retirement the “Black Jet” continues to fly. And no one seems to know what’s the purpose of their secretive missions. Here’s everything we know about their flights.

In the last few years we have documented the flights of some F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jets over Nevada, missions that have continued to be carried out well after 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.

Mystery solved? More or less.

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.

One of the interesting photographs taken by The Aviationist’s contributor “Sammamishman” at the end of July 2016. One of the aircraft seems to show a slightly different antenna/shape: just a visual effect caused by the distance?

Then, last year 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, 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.

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).

Fast forward to Jul. 26, 2018, when Youtube user “pdgls” films two F-117 flying again at Tonopah Test Range. Here’s the footage:

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.

To me, the audio is actually even more interesting than the footage. Here it is (the Nighthawk stuff begins around 04:30 hours into the recording – for what’s before, read here):

Unlike all the previous sightings, this time the visual and audio documents (along with some ADS-B stuff) provide some additional, really interesting details. After departure, the two F-117 tanked with Siera 98 (not Sierra, at least according to the Mode-S transponder), a KC-135 from Fairchild Air Force Base. The type of activity the two jets carry out with the Stratotanker is not only routine: along with the standard “plugs” they also perform an emergency disconnect from the tanker. Then, the formation splits: Night 17 flies a test mission while Night 19 returns to the Tonopah Test area to perform pattern activity. Noteworthy, the 17 changes its callsign: no longer Night (or, as mentioned, Knight) but Dagger 17. Interestingly, Dagger is a very well known callsign in the Stealth Jet community: it was used by the 410th Flight Test Squadron, the joint test force of Lockheed and Air Force personnel at Groom Lake, Nevada (Det. 3, AFTFC).

In his interesting post on the sighting at The War Zone, our friend Tyler Rogoway also notices:

“before [changing callsign] we hear BLUE BIRD and BLONDE GIRL mentioned, which are likely controllers of some type. Then the F-117 checks in with ‘RAMROD’ and begins the testing. RAMROD tells the F-117 to ‘spin’ which usually means begin an orbit, and then we hear commands to execute a series of coded test cards.

RAMROD sounds like a sensor system of some type. Most likely it is the DYCOMS radar cross-section measurement facility at Area 51, which can surveil and validate the radar signature of an aircraft while in flight and at different angles in relation to the sensors on the ground. It’s also possible that RAMROD could be an airborne platform that offers similar signature diagnostic capabilities using an array of sensors.”

Whilst Dagger/Night 17 works with some sort of ground/radar facility, Night 19 continues its local sortie, made of a long series of low approaches, ILS localizer approach with circling, touch and gos, etc: the kind of pattern activity you would expect from an aircraft not involved in any operational work.

Full Scale Development Aircraft Five (FSD-5), Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk 79-7084. being refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker, July 1983. (USAF via Wiki)

ADS-B logs provide some details about the support mission flown by the KC-135, a Stratotanker, #58-0086, that had flown the previous day (Jul. 25) at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. The tanker flew from Fairchild AFB, Washington, flying a +6 hour mission. We don’t know whether Siera 98 also refueled other aircraft during that time: if not, it’s a considerable effort for just a routine mission of a pair of preserved aircraft.

The KC-135 supported Night 17 and 18. It did not broadcast its GPS position and was not geolocated via MLAT. The only detail gathered from its transponder is the serial 58-0086  (Credit: @CivMilAir)

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.

What do you think? Any idea?

It’s Been 10 Years Since The F-117 Nighthawk Retired (At Least, Officially…)

The last F-117 Black Jets officially retired from active service on Apr. 22, 2008. But some Nighthawks have continued to fly.

On Apr. 22, the U.S. Air Force posted an interesting article on their website titled “Remembering the F-117 Nighthawk”. The story commemorates the 10th anniversary of the retirement of the “Black Jet”, the world’s first and most famous operational stealth combat jet, that took place at Palmdale, California, where Lockheed Martin staff said farewells to the last four-ship formation coming from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, led by (Ret.) Col. Jack Forsythe.

Retired Col Jack Forsythe in frotn of the flag F-117A at Tonopah AFB, Nevada, after the last mission April 22, 2008.

Indeed, the iconic jet was retired after little more than 25 years of service, on Apr. 22, 2008, even though the official retirement from the active service did not translate into the end of flying activities for the F-117: flights of the Black Jets over Nevada were reported or documented every now and then past the official retirement in 2008 and in 2014, we published the first images that proved that some stealth planes were still operating out of Tonopah Test Range. It later emerged that the aircraft was being maintained and kept in a “Type 1000” storage to be occasionally flown at Tonopah Test Range until the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, ordered the USAF to “demilitarize the aircraft” i.e. to retire the fleet permanently, once and for all, one in 2017 and the rest at a rate of four F-117s every year. In fact, on Nov. 13, 2017 an F-117 Nighthawk was spotted on a trailer on US-95, south of Creech AFB, in southern Nevada, most probably heading to the boneyard, to be scrapped or prepared for a museum whilst on the following day, Nov. 14, 2017, another F-117, chased by a two-seater F-16, was spotted flying north of Rachel, Nevada.

Four F-117A Nighthawk’s perform one last flyover at the Sunset Stealth retirement cerermony at Holloman AFB, N.M., 21 April 2008. The F-117A flew under the flag of the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico from 1992 to its retirement in 2008. (U.S. Air Force Photo by SSgt Jason Colbert)

Anyway, it’s interesting to note that the presence of a small fleet of Nighthawks is never officially mentioned in USAF public releases.

According to our friend Tyler Rogoway at The War Zone the aircraft are flown by Lockheed Martin contractors and this might explain the lack of official references to the aircraft still flying today.

Here’s the full text published by the flying branch along with the photos you can find in this story. It includes some interesting details about the legendary plane:

It’s been 10 years since the F-117 Nighthawk retired, an aircraft so secret Nevada folklore labeled it a UFO.

The Nighthawk pilots were known by the call sign “Bandit,” each earning their number with their first solo flight. Some of the maintainers were also given a call sign, said Wayne Paddock, a former F-117 maintainer currently stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

“The people who maintained the coatings on the aircraft, radar absorbent material were classified as material application and repair specialists (MARS). MARS morphed into Martians,” Paddock said “MARS was a shred out from the structural repair/corrosion control career field.”

The technology for the F-117 was developed in the 1970s as a capability for attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radar. It had up to 5,000 pounds of assorted internal stores, two engines and could travel up to 684 mph.

It was the first airplane designed and built as a low-observable, stable and therefore precise platform, said Yancy Mailes, director of the history and museums program for Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and a former F-117 maintainer.

“It was the marriage of the GBU-27 to the F-117 that had a laser designator in its nose that made it such a precise, deadly platform,” Mailes said. “It was best demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm when pilots snuck into Iraq and dropped weapons down the elevator shaft of a central communications building in Iraq.”

The first Nighthawk flew June 18, 1981, and the original F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group (renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989), achieved initial operating capability in October 1983. The Nighthawk originally saw combat during Operation Just Cause in 1989, when two F-117s from the 37th TFW attacked military targets in Panama. The aircraft was also in action during Operation Desert Shield.

Retired Col. Jack Forsythe, remembers being excited when he initially flew a Nighthawk while stationed at Holloman AFB in 1995.

“It was a unique experience,” he said. “It’s probably the same feeling that a lot of our (single seat) F-22 (Raptor) and F-35 (Lightning II) pilots feel today.”

After 25 years of service, the Nighthawk retired April 22, 2008. Forsythe led the four-ship formation to Palmdale, California, where Lockheed Martin staff said their farewells.

“We lowered the bomb doors of each aircraft and people signed their names to the doors,” Forsythe said. “It was really just kind of neat; they had designed it, built it and maintained it for these 25 years, so it really hit home – the industry and Air Force partnership that made the Nighthawk great. I think the four of us were just really struck by that and have some really great memories of that flight.”

The American flag was painted on the entire underside of his F-117 by the maintainers to help celebrate American airpower.

“I think we all recognized that this was something historic,” he said. “We retired an airplane that people still reference today. We really understood that so it was a sentimental flight to say the least. It was a great weapon system, very stable and easy to fly. It’s still a memorable experience.”

From left to right, retired Col. Jack Forsythe, Lt. Col. Mark Dinkard, 49th Operations Group Deputy, Lt. Col. Todd Flesch, 8th Fighter Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Ken Tatum, 9th Fighter Squadron commander, after retiring the last four F-117As to Tonopah Air Force Base, Nevada April 22, 2008.

The Day After An F-117 Was Spotted On A Trailer In Southern Nevada Another One Was Photographed Flying With An F-16 Near Rachel

Some F-117s have already taken the road to the scrapyard, others continue flying. Enjoy your Black Friday with a Black Jet story.

As already reported, an F-117 Nighthawk was spotted on a trailer on US-95, south of Creech AFB, in southern Nevada, on Nov. 13, 2017.

Although we don’t know exactly where the aircraft was being transferred, it is safe to assume the aircraft might be heading to the boneyard, to be scrapped or prepared for a museum.

Indeed, in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, the USAF will retire the fleet permanently, once and for all.

Actually, the U.S. Air Force will not remove all the F-117s this year: one aircraft will be divested by the end of 2017 (possibly the one on the trailer); the rest will be withdrawn from use at a rate of four every year, beginning in 2018.

So, whilst the final “demilitarization” of the Stealth Jet (officially retired in 2008 but maintained and kept in a “Type 1000” storage to be occasionally flown at Tonopah Test Range until today) is a sad news for aviation enthusiasts all around the world, the fact that not all the F-117s have been permanently retired means that there will probably be a few more chances of watching the Black Jet fly somewhere over Nevada (or somewhere else).

As happened on Nov. 14 (the day after the F-117 was photographed on a trailer south of Creech AFB) at 09.20AM LT, when another F-117 was spotted flying north of Rachel,  Nevada. Noteworthy, the Stealth Jet was not flying alone (or close to another F-117, as happened, for instance, in 2016) but it was chased by a two-seater F-16.

Our friend G. from the outstanding lazygranch.com website shot some interesting photographs of the unusual formation. “The image is backlit, but the plane shapes are distinctive enough to identify the type of aircraft” he wrote in his post. Indeed, the photos lack a bit of quality (it would have been interesting to ID the F-16 by the presence of some particular markings or code), but according to G. there’s a reason for this:

I had used the camera to do long exposure photography as in this web page: http://www.lazygranch.com/letap.html

This time I had used the 400mm lens instead of the 200mm lens I used in the letap.html page. I managed to kill 4 camera batteries doing this. The problem was the freezing weather was effecting the battery life.

The 400mm lens was essentially set up to focus at infinity. In these multi-frame long exposure series of photographs, the lens is left in manual focus since there is nothing in the frame to auto focus on. The camera is initially focused by hand to get the sharpest image of the lights on Papoose Mountain, which are the lights on the mountain in the distance. Papoose Mountain is what you see as a background in the base photographs done from Tikaboo Peak.

I had one poor quality camera battery left. I normally don’t use it because it only charges to about 55%. I had left the 400mm lens in manual focus. When I heard the aircraft, I put in the poor quality battery. The planes were far enough away that the EOS system considered them to be sharp enough to allow the images to be taken. When the planes flew north so that the sun was in a better position and the planes were closer, the camera wouldn’t fire. I missed some great shots. That was when I figured out the lens was left on manual focus.

Eventually, G. added an interesting comment to his post: “Groom Lake uses two seater F-16s”.

Therefore, although the Air Force has started retiring the type (again), it’s nice to see that someone is still enjoying a daylight ride in one of the once most secret and futuristic aircraft ever built. The accompanying F-16 makes the sighting  even more interesting…

Visit this link and let me know what you think.

Above: composite photo made using a crop from a Foster Van Schaick taken in 2014 and one of the screenshots from a video filmed by Randy Williams and made available to The Aviationist by Brett Wyman.

Check Out These Photos Of A Mysterious F-117 Under Protective Cover On A Trailer On Route 95 South Of Creech AFB, Nevada, Yesterday

What appears to be an F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jet was spotted yesterday on the road south of Creech AFB, Nevada.

The above composite image was obtained by merging two screenshots from a video filmed by Randy Williams and made available to The Aviationist by Brett Wyman who first posted them on a FB group focused on Nellis AFB.

The screenshots clearly show what seems to be a (real or mock?) F-117 Nighthawk stealth jet, hidden under protective cover, on a trailer spotted on Route 95 south of Creech Air Force Base.

Side by side, here are the two screenshots provided by Brett Wyman from the original Randy Williams footage.

Although where the aircraft was being transferred is unknown it’s probably safe to assume it was collected at Tonopah Test Range. Indeed, since 2014 we have documented the flights of some F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jets over Nevada. Last year we published a video showing two F-117s flying in July 2016, filmed from the distant hills east of Tonopah Test Range.

Back in 2014, once a few videos and photographs had already appeared online, the U.S. Air Force affirmed that the Black Jet was kept in a “Type 1000” storage at TTR which meant that the type is 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).

Therefore 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 current and the aircraft airworthy and ready.

However, the 2017 defense budget retired the fleet permanently. In fact, “in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, passed Dec. 23, the Air Force will remove four F-117s every year to fully divest them — a process known as demilitarizing aircraft,” wrote Oriana Pawlyk recently.

According to Pawlyk, one F-117 was scheduled to be divested this year and approximately four every year thereafter.

The one spotted yesterday may have been that one, heading for the boneyard, a museum or something else. Anyway, if you know something more, let us know in the comments section or by sending us an email.

Update Nov. 15, 07:00 UTC

The Aviationist’s writer Tom Demerly and his girlfriend Jan happened to be in Nevada for Aviation Nation. He saw the F-117 under tarp as well. Here’s his recollection of the “sighting”:

We were east bound going back toward Las Vegas from the Nevada/California border after shooting photos all day at the Jedi Transition.

Both of us were tired having gotten up at 3:00 AM that morning to drive to the Jedi Transition/Star Wars Canyon near Death Valley. It gets dark early there. There is only one road in that area, and we did have a little difficulty locating that road, US-95, on the way back to the junction in Beatty leaving Death Valley, California and going back into Nevada.

Once we got on the road headed west there was no traffic. The road is sparsely travelled even during the day. It is absolutely black out there at night. Zero lights, zero power lines. Nothing, just the road. Earlier we had seen herds of donkeys, huge desert hare, fox and jackals along the road.

We stopped briefly to photograph the donkeys in the dark, pulling off the road to illuminate them with our headlights. I saw the truck with the covered load coming towards us once we got on US-95. It appeared to have at least one, maybe two vehicles following it and extra forward-facing lights.

The lights were incredibly bright, facing outward from the load, making it difficult to see what was on the trailer as we passed each other going in opposite directions. It would have been impossible to grab a quick photo because of those lights.They were not moving excessively fast, but we were headed the opposite way, so we only saw it briefly. I recall, immediately after we passed it, trying to figure out what was under the tarp.

We decided it may be an aircraft being moved somewhere for static display or some type of radar test model- or something more banal like a piece of a big sign or construction equipment, but that idea seemed odd, especially after dark on those remote roads. It wasn’t easy driving. We could not see the angle of the forward portion of the load, which would have given it away, because of the bright lights. We only briefly saw the back two-thirds of the tarp.

The back portion of the load protruded off the back of the trailer. That was the tail of the aircraft under the tarp. In retrospect, seeing these photos, it actually becomes pretty clear. As soon as my girlfriend and I saw these photos we were amazed. It actually was an F-117.

Much earlier that day, before sunrise on the way to Death Valley, we stopped briefly at a gas station directly across from Creech AFB. There are no gas stations between Creech and Beatty, so you want to tank-up before you get on that section of road. I noticed a man with a beard in his late 20s, early 30s, park a nice-looking pick-up truck at the edge of the gas station parking lot, then get in a large shuttle van with darkly tinted windows, like an airport shuttle van. He was carrying a large lunchbox. I thought he was a civilian contractor being shuttled onto Creech AFB for some type of civilian support role.

But when the shuttle van (with “Y” license plate) left the gas station parking lot going west it continued for quite some time. There is nothing out there. The shuttle made one other stop and we passed it. We could see it behind us for a while, then it disappeared. I supposed, based on the age and appearance of the man who got on the shuttle, and the fact that he noticed I noticed him, that he was working on something potentially interesting.

Thanks a lot to Brett Wyman for allowing us to use the screenshots!

 

Watch two F-117 stealth jets fly over Nevada together….8 years after “retirement”

It’s not a secret that some F-117s are still in airworthy conditions at the Tonopah Test Range, in Nevada. Still, it’s pretty unusual and cool to see two Black Jets flying together 8 years after their retirement. And look at photographs…

In the last couple of years we have documented the flights of some F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jets over Nevada, spotted from the distant hills east of Tonopah Test Range.

In this post you can find some interesting photographs and a video filmed by The Aviationist’s contributor “Sammamishman” at the end of July 2016.

f-117-1

Back in 2014, once a few videos and photographs had already appeared online, the U.S. Air Force affirmed, that the Black Jet is kept in a “Type 1000” storage at TTR which means that the type is to be maintained until called into active service.

f117-2

Desert conditions of Nevada are beneficial for maintaining the stealth jets in pristine conditions (due to the low level of humidity and hence, lower probability of corrosion).

The aircraft are re-preserved in 4 year periods and due to the type of storage, they are to be capable of being brought back into operation within the period of 30-120 days.

Cool.

This means that the U.S. considers the F-117 somehow useful in a current or future scenario so much so, they continue to fly some of the preserved jets, every now and then, in plain sight, to keep the pilots current and the aircraft airworthy and ready. But ready for what?

f117-3

f117-5

Designed in the 1970s, subsonic, optimized for the evasion of the C, X and Ku-bands, and completely unable to dynamically map out threat emitters in real-time as the F-22 or the F-35 can do, the F-117 is *probably* still relevant in some low or medium-lethality scenarios but unable to keep pace with most modern threats.

The service is struggling to retire some active, possibly hard-to-replace aircraft (as the A-10 Thunderbolt) because they are not suitable to modern scenarios and to save money for more advanced weapons systems (such as the F-35).

f117-7

Thus, why is the Air Force spending money to keep the iconic, archaic aircraft in flyable conditions?

As we already reported in the past, there is someone who speculates the aircraft is also used for something else, possibly serving as a testbed for some new technologies: radar or Infra Red Search and Track systems, SAM (surface to air missiles) batteries, 6th generation fighter planes, next generation AEW (Airborne Early Warning) platforms or UAVs (unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

f117-8

There is someone who’s also suggested the aircraft may be actually “unmanned” and used as fast, combat capable, stealth UCAVs.

Here’s something “Sammamishman” wrote about the flying activities he observed and photographed.

“In examining the photos I sent to you, I 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.”

f117-9

“When observing the TTR airbase just at sun rise, a number of vehicles gathered around the hangars that the two F-117’s were photographed inside. They were then prepped and took off together as seen in the pics. They flew at low altitude making a couple runs at lower altitude through the test range airspace to the South of the base, then returned to the airbase [as seen in the other video below]. Total time in the air was about 45 minutes to an hour. I don’t believe that the flight of these two Nighthawks were standard post retirement flight due to the fact that the group of vehicles that gathered at the hangars returned early in the morning and went to one of the same hangars the Nighthawks that had flow from the previous day. It was also on that second day that they also opened another hanger adjacent and appeared to be prepping an unknown craft (as I couldn’t see into the hangar but presumably another F-117) for flight. In pictures of the Nighthawks it appears that one of the craft may have been modified but it is hard to tell,” said “Sammamishman” in an email.

Indeed, one of the two F-117 seems to have a slightly different shape but we can’t be 100 percent sure, as the photographs were taken from far away and heavily distorted by the high temperature and distance.

You judge.

Here below, the video.

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