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F-117: The First Stealth Fighter Changed Everything (Pictures)

The Lockheed F-117A Night Hawk was designed specifically not to be easily seen or detected by the enemy, but as of early April, it is now certainly possible to view one of the aircraft at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Night Hawk #833, nicknamed “ Black Devil,” is just one of the fifty-nine aircraft that was built by Lockheed‘s secretive “Skunk Works” in the 1980s.

Today fewer than ten of the first-generation stealth aircraft are still actively used in tests and experiments, but the Night Hawks have been retired from combat operations. Only a dozen are even on display in museums – including one nicknamed “ Something Wicked” that was shot down over Serbia in March 1999 during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

Meet the Black Devil

Black Devil was publicly unveiled on October 3, 2020, and just recently the restoration efforts were completed.

The F-117 now on display had logged some 5,140 flight hours during its U.S. Air Force career, and took part in numerous combat operations, including over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and the Balkans as part of Operation Allied Force during the Kosovo wαr in 1999, where the aircraft served as the 49th Wing commander’s “personal mount.”

The museum’s new exhibit at the Palm Springs Air Museum features the Night Hawk aircraft and related artifacts and shares some of the history of the nearby legendary Skunk Works plant.

“The air museum is honored to have been selected by the United States Air Force to receive this aircraft,” the Palm Springs Air Museum operations manager Greg Kenny told the Desert Sun. “Very few of them are being released to the public for display and the fact that we were chosen is a big distinction for us.”

The museum will take on the responsibility of interpreting the aircraft and all the related exhibits, Kenny explained. That will include everything from its secret development with the Lockheed Skunk Works to its combat history.

“We’re honored to have it, we’re excited to tell its story,” Kenny added.

History of the Night Hawk

The F-117 was designed to be virtually invisible to radar, and even difficult to spot with the naked eye. The fighter was so secret that it was in service for six years before the U.S. Air Force even admitted its existence. While designated as a fighter, it really operated as a bomber.

As it was developed to address Soviet threats, as the Cold wαr wound down it might have seemed as if the billions spent had been for nothing. However, the F-117 was finally used in action in December 1989 during Operation Just Cause in Panama, when a pair of fighters targeted the Panamanian Defense Forces barracks. It was overkill, and really didn’t prove whether the aircraft could take on a more prepared enemy.

It would be just over a year before the F-117 truly had a chance to show its potential in delivering utter devastation to the enemy when it was used against Iraqi positions in the early stages of the Gulf wαr. From the first night of the attacks, the F-117A was employed against critical strategic Iraqi command and control installations as well as key communication centers, research & development, production, and storage facilities for nuclear and chemical weαpσns. It also was used to target especially hardened aircraft shelters at numerous Iraqi airfields.

Massive Prep

Because of its advanced features, the F-117 Night Hawk was not an aircraft that could be quickly scrambled and taken to the air. In fact, standard F-117 mission preparation could take six hours, while the flight time from al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to Baghdad was another two hours.

During the Gulf wαr, there were certainly some nervous officials who wondered if the aircraft would live up to the hype. Unlike in the mission over Panama, the F-117s had to fly deep inside a super-missile engagement zone that also had an anti-aircraft artillery trap that was prepared for an airborne attack. The small “Black Jets” had to sneak past Iraq’s border radar defenses and it was timed so that they’d be right over Baghdad when the air wαr kicked off at 3am.

It couldn’t have gone better.

Each of the aircraft carried 2,000 pound GBU-27 laser-guided bombs that hit their targets, essentially cutting out the Iraqi military’s eyes in the process. With its stealth capabilities, it was more than up to the job and was the only coalition jet able to strike the targets inside Baghdad’s city limits so undetected.

Major Contribution

Only thirty-six of the stealth fighters were deployed in Desert Storm and accounted for just 2.5 percent of the total force of 1,900 fighters and bombers, yet these flew more than a third of the bombing runs on the first day of the wαr. In total, during the operation, the F-117 conducted more than 1,250 sorties and dropped more than 2,000 tons of bombs during the missions that lasted a combined 6,900 hours.

Four F-117 Nighthawks fly in formation during a sortie over the Antelope Valley recently. After 25 years of history, the aircraft is set to retire soon. As the Air Force’s first stealth fighter, the F-117 is capable of performing reconnaissance missions and bombing critical targets, all without the enemy’s knowledge. (Photo by Bobbi Zapka)

The aircraft were able to avoid the Iraqi air defenses, which consisted of some 3,000 anti-aircraft guns with sixty surface-to-air missile batteries protecting the capital. The F-117 Night Hawks operated from the skies above with total impunity, and not a single F-117 was shot down during the conflict.

In fact, throughout all of its combat missions during the 1990s, only one F-117 was lost to enemy fire, while a second was damaged. The Air Force made no attempt to destroy the crashed Something Wicked as the aircraft was based on 1970s technology. Even if it had been given to Russiα, it was believed the result would have been minimal.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.