Stealth fighter honored at Wright-Patterson

by Derek Kaufman 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

From the USAF Website, Accessed 5/11/2008

3/12/2008 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The Air Force-industry team responsible for providing program oversight to the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter aircraft said farewell during a ceremony March 11 here.

More than 350 Airmen, base employees, industry partners and family members gathered for one last close-up look at the F-117, which made its first flight in 1981, just months after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th U.S. President.

Three F-117s and Airmen from the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. were on hand to enable Air Force Materiel Command and Aeronautical Systems Center officials an opportunity to reflect on the jet's legacy. The ceremony concluded with a fly-by of one jet painted red, white and blue on its belly.

"The United State Air Force developed, in partnership with industry, an airplane that has served this nation remarkably well over a quarter of a century," Gen. Bruce Carlson, the AFMC commander said.

The Air Force decided to retire the F-117 fleet because a new generation of stealth aircraft including the B-2 Spirit, F-22 Raptor and soon-to-be-fielded F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have better capabilities, and because the F-117 is expensive to fly and maintain, General Carlson said.

"Taking them out of service will allow us to use that money to recapitalize the Air Force," he said.

The F-117s will be placed in storage at an airfield in the Tonopah Test Range, Nev., where the jets flew in total secrecy and only at night until November 1988.

Holloman AFB's 49th FW became the F-117's home in 1992.

In 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, F-117s flew nearly 1,300 sorties over Iraq and Kuwait without a single combat loss, General Carlson said. Nighthawk pilots flew only two percent of the total combat sorties but struck 40 percent of the most highly defended, strategic targets.

"It was a remarkable contribution to that war and all done over one of the most hostile air environments in the history of the world," he said.

Lessons learned operating and maintaining the F-117 contributed significantly to the development of the new mix of U.S. stealth aircraft which now have vastly superior capabilities, General Carlson said.

"This airplane was the foundation for low-observable technology in the United States of America," he said.

The F-117 is nearly completely covered with a radar absorbing material which is laborious and expensive to maintain. After each mission, maintenance specialists closely examine the aircraft's special coating to identify any needed repairs. If required, coatings are reapplied, allowed to cure, and re-inspected, said Col. George Torres Jr., the commander of Holloman's 49th Maintenance Group.

"We can do a quick turn and get these aircraft up very quickly to support operational training requirements," said Colonel Torres. But in combat situations, extra time and attention are the rule of the day to ensure the F-117's stealth characteristics are intact.

"The aircraft won't go out until it's ready," Colonel Torres said.

Few people realize the F-117 has no defensive systems or radar, said Col. John Forsythe, the 49th Operations Group commander. "We depend exclusively on the stealth provided by our maintainers."

Holloman AFB's pilot and maintenance teams will launch their last "4-ship" of stealth fighters on April 21, Colonel Forsythe said. They will make a brief overnight stop at the F-117s logistics support center in Palmdale, Calif., for a final ceremony before retiring to Tonopah where their wings and tails removed and the aircraft stored in protective hangars. A portion of the fleet will be rapidly recallable to fly again, if ever needed.

The 49th Fighter Wing's focus will then turn to getting ready to receive the Air Force's newest stealthy jet, the F-22 Raptor.