The Retired F-117A Nighthawk Is Doing…Something…in the Desert
The F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter, the world’s first purpose-designed stealth aircraft, was recently sighted high in the skies over Death Valley, California. The fighter, part of a fleet of jets retired in 2008, was sporting a brand new camouflage paint job and accompanied by a NASA jet and aerial refueling tanker. What was it doing? That’s anyone’s guess.
The F-117A was spotted on by plane spotter Steve Lewis on July 11. The fighter was refueling from a KC-135R Stratotanker and was accompanied by a NASA F-15D fighter. Intriguingly, the F-15D was “carrying an unidentified podded sensor under its starboard wing.” The plane completed refueling and then headed east to Nevada.
The F-117A Nighthawk was the world’s first aircraft with stealth as a major—if not the primary—design factor. The alien-looking F-117 featured a diamond-like, faceted exterior designed to reduce radar returns and minimize its signature on enemy radars. This allowed it to sneak past enemy air defenses, attack targets on the ground with GBU-27 Paveway laser-guided bombs, and sneak back out again.
Although commonly called a “stealth fighter,” this was a misnomer. It did not have the ability to engage other aircraft and was strictly an attack plane or light bomber.
The Air Force’s inventory of 58 Nighthawks was retired in 2008, put away in “flyable storage” condition. A handful are permanently disposed of every year. An unknown number are still flying however, with sightings of the jets in 2016 and 2018. The image above is from February 2019.
In this latest sighting, the F-117A sported a blocky, white, gray, and black paint job similar to those used by the Air Force’s aggressor squadrons, which train to replicate enemy weapons and tactics.
Nobody knows what the Air Force is doing with the F-117A. The service literally has thousands of aircraft, so whatever it is doing requires the use of a low-observable, stealthy aircraft. The Air Force also has stealthy F-22 Raptor and F-35A Joint Strike Fighters but for some reason the service is using older Nighthawks for…whatever it is doing.
The presence of an unidentified “podded sensor” on the F-15 might be a clue the service is testing a new sensor designed to pick up stealth aircraft. The “aggressor” paint job could also be a sign the Nighthawk is being used as a stand-in for Russian and Chinese fighter planes.
Source: Combat Aircraft