F-117A Nighthawk Losses and Accidents
- The first crash of a production F-117A occurred on April 20, 1982 during its first test flight, flown by Lockheed test pilot Ltc Bob Ridenhauer. The flight control system on the aircraft had been assembled incorrectly at the factory in Burbank. Ridenauer never had the chance to eject before the F-117A lost control on take-off, inverted and augered in on the side of the lake bed just off therunway, catching fire in the process. Ridenauer survived, but was seriously injured and spent eight months in the hospital.
- Air Force Major Ross E. Mulhare died in the crash of F-117A #81-792 on 11 July 1986 near Bakersfield, CA. It is believed that he had become spatially disorientated and flew his plane into the ground. Air Force spokesman Don Haley said "The Air Force has no comment on what type of aircraft it was, where it came from, what it was doing and its mission." Haley said the Air Force was taking special precautions in releasing information about the crash. Air Force officials investigating the crash said the aircraft "was not an F-19."
- On 14 October 1987 Major Michael C. Stewart was kiled when his F-117A #83-815 crashed, about 100 miles north of Nellis AFB, just east of Tonopah. No apparent attempt was made to eject and spatial disorientation was the likely cause.
- On 04 August 1992, F-117A #85-801 piloted by Capt. John B. Mills assigned to the 416th FS crashed at 9:20 PM shortly after taking off for a night mission from Holloman Air Force Base about 8 miles northeast of the base. Almost immediately after takeoff (his callsign was SHABA 67), the jet went into an uncommanded roll and quickly caught fire.
- An Air Force F-117A Nighthawk from the 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman AFB, N.M., crashed 7 miles south of Zuni, New Mexico, 10 May 1995. The pilot, Capt. Kenneth W. Levens, 9th Fighter Squadron, was killed in the crash. The stealth jet was on a training mission when the accident occurred. The circumstances argue very strongly in favor of the notion that the pilot became spatially disoriented and did not recognize when his aircraft entered an altitude from which recovery was impossible.
The F-117A had an excellent year during FY96. There were no Class A's, only one Class B, and four Class C mishaps. This was an impressive record. The Class B resulted from a failed power takeoff (PTO) shaft. The pilot did an excellent job of determining the proper emergency procedures to follow and recovered a valuable national resource. The Class C mishaps involved a misrouted cross-bleed detector loop, failed oil pressure transducer, damage to a UHF antenna which occurred during air refueling, and failure of the right main landing gear upper scissor link.
From a historical perspective, by the end of 1996 there had been three Class A and three Class B mishaps in the F-117 world. This total included only those mishaps since the aircraft officially came into the Air Force inventory. The Class A's include a bleed air leak which eventually caused the pilot to eject, an engine fire due to an engine manifold leak, and failure to recover from an unusual attitude. The Class B's include a brake failure on landing roll which caused damage upon barrier engagement, a lost canopy during flight, and the failed PTO shaft.
- On 14 September 1997 an Air Force F-117A Nighthawk crashed while performing a fly-by demonstration for an airshow at Martin State Airport, 12 miles northeast of Baltimore. The pilot, Maj. Bryan Knight, safely ejected. He suffered minor injuries. Four people on the ground were injured and 10 families displaced by the crash, which caused extensive fire damage to several homes and vehicles. There were no fatalities or serious injuries. The aircraft had just completed its third pass of an air show flyover at Martin State Airport near Baltimore. The pilot was initiating his climb out for departure when he felt the aircraft shudder and the left wing broke off. The accident investigation report concluded that the cause of the accident was structural failure of a support assembly, known as the Brooklyn Bridge, in the left wing due to four missing fasteners of the 39 in the assembly. The Brooklyn Bridge assembly was apparently improperly reinstalled during a scheduled periodic inspection in Jan. 1996. The entire fleet of 53 F-117 Nighthawks was inspected during a command-directed precautionary stand down and none were found to have the same defect.
- On 21 November 1997, Major Ward Juedeman (Bandit 11) was returning to base from an F-117A day surface attack tactics training mission with approximately 15 minutes of fuel remaining. Maj Juedeman reported initial and set up for his base turn. After lowering the gear handle, Maj Juedeman noted that he only had a nose and right main gear down and locked indication with a red light in the handle. He quickly tested the lights, which checked good, and proceeded to break out of the overhead pattern leaving the gear down. Maj Juedeman declared an emergency, switched to the single frequency approach, and requested a safety chase. Since no other aircraft were airborne, the supervisor of flying immediately launched a T-38A that was taxiing for takeoff. After rejoining with the safety chase, Maj Juedeman was informed that the nose and right main gear were indeed down and locked with the left main gear up and the gear door closed. Referencing the checklist, Maj Juedeman attempted to raise the landing gear, but neither gear moved, leaving the aircraft in a configuration which recommends ejection. Maj Juedeman put the gear handle back down with no effect, and then attempted to lower the gear using the landing gear emergency extension system. After approximately 5 seconds the left main gear unlocked, deployed by gravity and air loads, and appeared to lock into place. Maj Juedeman then flew a flawless straight-in approach and landing.
- One F-117 fighter was lost over Yugoslavia on 27 March 1999. A US search and rescue team picked up the pilot several hours after the F-117 went down outside Belgrade. The loss is significant. Combined with advancing anti-stealth technology, it portends the end of the unfettered advantage conferred by the F-117A. After the F-117A was shot down in Kosovo and a second was damaged, Navy EA-6B Prowlers jamming aircraft accompanied all F-117A and B-2 aircraft. Also, rather than confront NATO airpower directly, Serb forces undertook strategies to disrupt operations. They used their weapons sparingly and only when they had a reasonable chance of success, which was enough to keep NATO aircraft above 15,000 feet, where they were ineffective against the targets associated with the ongoing ground operations in Kosovo.
One of the curious things about the loss of this aircraft, assuming that there's a high probability that it might have been shot down in some ways, why in this whole conflict with thousands of sorties, the only plane that apparently has been brought down is the stealthy F-117, which in theory, should be one of the hardest planes to bring down.
The SA-3, which brought down three USAF airplanes in the 1990s: an F-16 over Baghdad in 1991, another F-16 over Serbia in 1999, and, most notably, an F-117, also over Serbia in 1999. The stealthy F-117 was supposed to be almost invisible to enemy radar and infrared tracking systems, making it virtually immune to antiaircraft systems. The Serbs managed to bring one down anyway, probably by focusing on the aircraft's expected path and time. One tactical method for reducing aircraft attrition is to fly varied routes and schedules to reduce predictability. The predictability of the F-117 flight over Serbia on 27 March 1999 might have contributed to its loss. If the enemy knows where an aircraft will be at a certain time, his radar and infrared sensors are less necessary. A very fast missile with a relatively large warhead, the SA-3 is vulnerable to countermeasures because it is usually launched from a fixed position rather than a vehicle. The SA-3 surface-to-air missile that brought down the F-117 was probably not used in a normal fashion, with its operators relying on their own local radars to detect the target leaving them vulnerable to anti-radiation missiles. Spotters in Serbia, and perhaps in Bosnia and along the Montenegrin coast, may have patched together enough quick glimpses of the warplane from scattered radars to track the elusive aircraft, however briefly, and to fire a missile at it from a battery near Belgrade.
On the technology side, a report on Chinese military modernization noted efforts to build ultrawideband and bistatic/multistatic radars and to fuse data from networks of sensors in order to reduce the value of stealth aircraft. Samples of the radar-absorbing material from the downed F-117A likely found their way to Russian anti-aircraft design houses.
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