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F-117A Nighthawk History

The Lockheed F-117A was developed in response to an Air Force request for an aircraft capable of attacking high value targets without being detected by hostile radar systems. By the 1970s, special materials and techniques had become available to aircraft designers that would allow them to design an aircraft with radar-evading or "stealth" qualities. Streamlined management by Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, combined breakthrough stealth technology with concurrent development and production to rapidly field the aircraft. Lockheed engineers developed the HAVE BLUE XST into a larger bomber aircraft, given the designation F-117. Despite being designated a "fighter," the plane was always intended only to drop bombs, not fight other aircraft. The DARPA stealth program was immediately transitioned to a Service acquisition program (SENIOR TREND) with an aggressive initial operating capability (IOC) of only 4 years - forgoing the normal development and prototyping stage.

On Nov. 16, 1978, Lockheed received a contract for full-scale engineering development of what would become the F-117 SENIOR TREND. To obtain the required support from the Air Force, Perry, like Currie before him, worked closely with General David Jones, the Air Force chief of staff, and General Alton Slay, the Air Force R&D Director. The objective was to build and deploy a wing of stealth tactical fighter-bombers (75 planes) as rapidly as possible. Furthermore, in order to obtain the largest possible technical lead, it was deemed necessary to hide the SENIOR TREND acquisition as a highly secret "black" program, similar to HAVE BLUE.

Perry established efficient and effective stealth program management processes. Changes in mission and redirection of funding are the common issues in the traditional development process, in which a program must regularly defend its budget against other programs and respond to the preferences of members of Congress. These forces were blunted by Perry's hands-on management efforts and the fact that this was a "black" program. Perry chaired special executive review panels, which met every 2 months. He retained decision authority-there was no voting. The Air Force PM was instructed to highlight problems with bureaucratic delays and with technology, which Perry would address personally. (After a few such interventions, there were far fewer bureaucratic obstructions.)

Perry created a special umbrella program office that included stealth programs for ships, satellites, helicopters, tanks, reconnaissance aircraft, advanced cruise missiles, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and strategic bombers, as well as stealth countermeasures. This created a mechanism through which different stealth programs at different stages could experiment with different approaches and learn from each other, as well as maintaining support for the underlying technology base. Colonel Paul Kaminski eventually became the head of this program office as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, 1977-1981; [Kaminski later rose to become Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, October 1994 - May 1997]. This helped ensure continuity of development efforts beyond the F-117A. DARPA's TACIT BLUE program for a stealthy reconnaissance aircraft led to the B-2 Stealth Bomber. The Sea Shadow tested stealth concepts on a surface ship for the US Navy.

Because the program was highly classified, special subcommittees of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees were established. Congressional support was secured and maintained through honest communication of both successes and problems. This built trust with the committees, which was indispensable. The counter-stealth programs maintained under the umbrella stealth program helped to ensure that the high level of classification did not result in lack of independent review and criticism.

The Air Force supported Lockheed's development of the aircraft, made provisions for an operational wing to be deployed, undertook an extensive testing program, and developed new operational practices to take advantage of the F-117A's special capabilities. Despite a variety of problems discovered during operational testing-such risks, arising from concurrent development due to the accelerated schedule, were understood and accepted and hence did not disrupt the program.

For the first time, every aspect of the F-117 was designed around stealth. For the plane's designers, reducing the radar signature was similar to the way that airplane designers of the 1920s had reduced drag: they identified the biggest causes of the problem and then eliminated them one by one. The cockpit, which is essentially a cavity that reflects radar in much the same way that an animal's eyes reflect light from a flashlight at night, was sharply angled and coated with a reflective material that deflected the radar energy in different directions. The airplane had no radar and its sensors and antennas could be retracted into the fuselage. The bombs, a major source of radar reflection on most airplanes, were stored internally in a bomb bay so that they reflected no radar energy. The inlets for the jet engines were covered with fine screens to prevent radar energy from reaching the face of the engine turbines. The exhaust was channeled through long narrow ducts lined with heat-absorbing material so that it was cooler by the time it exited the plane and therefore did not show up as well on heat detectors.

The first F-117A was delivered in 1982, and the last delivery was in the summer of 1990. The F-117A production decision was made in 1978 with a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, the "Skunk Works," in Burbank, Calif. The first flight was in 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision. Lockheed-Martin delivered 59 stealth fighters to the Air Force between August 1982 and July 1990. Five additional test aircraft belong to the company.

Air Combat Command's only F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group, achieved operational capability in October 1983. Since the F-117's first Air Force flight in 1982, the aircraft has flown under different unit designations, including the 4450th Tactical Group and the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at Tonapah Test Range, NV; the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing, Nellis AFB, NV; the 410th Flight Test Squadron/410th Test Squadron, Palmdale, CA; and Detachment 1, Test Evaluation Group, also at Holloman, which falls under the 53rd Wing, Eglin AFB, FL.

The stealth fighter emerged from the classified world while stationed at Tonapah Airfield with an announcement by the Pentagon in November 1988 and was first shown publicly at Nellis in April 1990. The 4450th TG was deactivated in October 1989, and was reactivated as the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing.

In 1992 the F-117A Nighthawk made its new home at Holloman Air Force Base. The official arrival ceremony for the F-117 to Holloman AFB was conducted 09 May 1992. The 49th Fighter Wing (49FW) at Holloman serves as the only F-117 Home Station. The 49th Operations Group operates and maintains the F-117A aircraft. The 7th CTS "Screamin' Demons" serves as the transition training unit, preparing experienced Air Force pilots for assignment to the F-117A Nighthawk. The 8th and 9th Fighter Squadrons were designated to employ the F-117A Nighthawk in combat. Once an F-117 pilot has successfully completed training, he was then assigned to one of only two operational Nighthawk squadrons--the 8th FS "Black Sheep" and the 9th FS "Flying Knights." The 49FW provides full compliment of flightline maintenance capabilities as well as back-shop support. The F-117 deployed in support of contingency operations, as directed by National Command Authorities. Flightline maintenance support was deployed concurrent with the aircraft. Depending on the deployment duration, varying levels of back shop maintenance support may also be deployed.

A member of the 49th Fighter Wing made aviation history 02 November 1995 when he became the first operational Air Force pilot to log 1,000 hours in the F-117A Nighthawk. Lt. Col. Greg Feest, 9th Fighter Squadron commander, was a senior pilot with 3,350 total hours in the F-117, F-15, A-7 and AT-38, including 130 combat flying hours in the F-117.

The F-117 stealth fighter completed flying its 150,000 flying hour when Brig. Gen. Bill Lake, 49th Fighter Wing commander, touched down on Holloman's runway 25 August 1998. The flying milestone was measured from the first F-117 flight by Lockheed Martin test pilot Hal Farley on June 18, 1981. The first Air Force pilot to fly the F-117 was then Maj. Al Whitley on Oct. 15, 1982.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:30:17 ZULU