F-117. Nighthawk story — operational history.

The second part of Paul and Alison Crickmore’s look at the F-117 brings the story of this highly-specialised aircraft up to date with its operational record.

During the 1980s the f-H7s continued to operate within the security of the ‘black world’. With the Soviet threat diminished and the practicalities and cost of keeping the aircraft hidden from view, it was decided to move the project into the public domain in late 1988. Today the Nighthawk is considered by the public to be the epitome of American technology and with three operational tours under its belt and just a single aircraft lost this is a justifiable accolade.

Aircraft Losses.

Unlike their Senior Trend counterparts at Area 51, the operational pilots at TTR lived a bat like existence — sleeping during the day and flying only at night, it was both highly demanding and chronically tiring. At 01:13 on Friday July 11, 1986, in excellent weather and good visibility, Maj Ross E Mulhare departed Tonopah in aircraft 792, callsign ‘Ariel 31’. Just 31 minutes later, ‘792 ploughed into a hillside 2.280ft (700m) above sea level, killing its pilot. The prime reason behind this horrific accident was almost certainly pilot fatigue and spatial disorientation.

The 4450th lost a second F-117A and pilot on October 14, 1987. Major Michael С Stewart got airborne from Tonopah at 19:53 hours, in aircraft ‘815, callsign BURNR 54. In common with the loss of ‘792, the accident report failed to clearly determine the cause, but yet again, repeated references were made to pilot fatigue and disorientation.

Six days after the tragic loss of Major Stewart, the 4450th became the centre of more unwanted attention, focused around the loss of yet another of its aircraft. On this occasion Major Bruce L Teagarden (Bandit 222) safely ejected from an A-7D after the aircraft lost power. Unfortunately, the A-7 crashed into the Ramada Inn Hotel, near Indianapolis airport, killing nine people in the process. Following a detailed accident investigation, however, Bruce was cleared of all culpability surrounding the tragic incident. Although publicly acknowledged as being a member of the 4450th, the unit was not known to have any links with Tonopah, ensuring that Senior Trend remained in the black.

During a Pentagon press conference on November 10, 1988, Assistant Secretary of Defense J Daniel Howard revealed to the world an extremely ‘grainy’ shot of the F-117 (August, p62) and Senior Trend was slowly eased into the ‘white world’. Gone was the need to shelter the 4450th’s covert activity behind a valid aircraft type. Consequently in September 1989, the Wing said farewell to the trusty Sluff and instead operated far more economical T-38A Talons, and later AT-38Bs, in the chase/pilot proficiency role. Yet another change took place on October 5, 1989; the 4450th TG, together with its component squadrons was redesignated. The parent designation was changed to the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, the 4450th (Nightstalkers) together with the 4451st Test Squadron, became the 415th (Nightstalkers) and the 416th (Ghost Riders) respectively. The 4453rd Test and Evaluation Squadron (Grim Reapers) continued in its responsibility as the Wing’s training squadron, becoming instead the 417th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron (Bandits). The new designations had a firm foothold in a proud history, being the first US night-fighter squadrons of the Second World War.

Just Cause.

The F-117A received its baptism of fire on the night of December 19/20, 1989, whilst participating in a highly controversial action against General Noriega of Panama, codenamed Operation Just Cause. Panama had no defensive radar network, however, it was decided to commit these high-value assets on the basis of their bombing accuracy. Consequently, eight F-117’s from the 415th TFS took off from Tonopah. Two aircraft were airborne spares and returned to Tonopah following completion of the initial Airborne Refuelling (AR), two aircraft in the lead cell, were targeted to attack an army base at Rio Hato, 65 miles (105km) southwest of Panama City. The four remaining aircraft were to take part in an operation which remains classified; but involved special forces attempting to capture Noriega; however, this element of the mission was air aborted through lack of ground intelligence. The 3,000 mile (4,800km) round-trip required five ARs, and was supported by KC-IOs from the 22nd Air Refuelling Wing, out of March AFB. This ever-dependable unit, actually escorted the F-117As from Tonopah, all the way down to the Panamanian coast and back! The objective of Major Greg Feest, flying lead, in aircraft ‘816, and his wingman Major Dale Hanner (Bandit 239) was to drop one weapon apiece, in an open field adjacent to barracks belonging to Battalion 2000, a unit known to be loyal to Noriega. Their purpose was to stun the sleeping soldiers and disorientate them before they had an opportunity to engage parachute landings by the 2nd and elements of the 3rd Ranger Battalion. However, three hours before the invasion was due to begin, the PDF was alerted to the impending attack and deployed to one of the Ranger’s objectives — an air strip. As the two F-117As approached their target area, the wind changed direction, a target change was called, causing confusion; the subsequent bombing results were at best questionable. The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin, later stated that target acquisition problems had also added to the pilots’ confusion because: «The humid, varied, vegetation… lowered the contrast and gave the [IRAD] system problems».

Desert Storm.

At about 2am (Baghdad time) on August 1/2, 1990, three Iraqi Republican Guard divisions invaded Kuwait. In just four days, Iraqi soldiers secured the annexation of Kuwait and were amassed, menacingly along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. A further push into Saudi Arabia would not only establish Iraq as the secular leader of the Arab world, but would result in it controlling 45% of the world’s oil.

Within two days, F-15C Eagles, KC-10 tankers, E-3 AWACS and C-5 Galaxy transporters carrying advanced elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, had arrived in Saudi Arabia to draw «a line in the sand», Operation Desert Shield, had begun.

Eighteen F-117s from the 415 TFS, led by Lt Col Greg Feest, arrived at King Khalid AB, at around noon, local time on Tuesday August 21. Soon nicknamed ‘Tonopah East’, the facilities offered at the air base were second to none and lay well beyond the range of Iraqi Scud-B missiles. However, on the down side, the return distance from the base to Baghdad necessitated the need for three ARs per sortie, with a typical mission lasting five hours.

The air armada ranged against Saddam Hussein continued to build, as did the planning on how to deploy such an awesome force to maximum effectiveness. General Chuck Horner, commander of Joint Air Forces (CENTAF) selected a white-haired North Carolinan to develop the air campaign, one, Brig Gen Buster Glosson. An F-4 ‘jock’ in Vietnam, Glosson’s background had a profound impact on the management of Senior Trend, during the war-planning process. His most memorable experience of the F-117 occurred in 1987, while as commander of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, he recalls: “…I had spent enough time in the F-15 trying to successfully intercept the F-117, that I was a believer!…” The initial 24 hours of the Gulf War was meticulously planned. I directed the planners to ask themselves three questions about every target they considered — what system had the highest probability of destroying it; what system had the highest probability of its pilot coming back alive, and what system had the highest probability of no civilian casualties? As you may expect, 99% of the time, the answer to these questions was F-117. We did not have enough F-117s to attack every target, so, I directed the F-117 to be used against the most critical, the most highly-defended and difficult to hit targets. That gave us the greatest probability of accomplishing our strategic objectives and creating the utmost confusion and disruption. I used all the other systems, be they cruise missiles, fighters or bombers, as fillers.»

On December 4, 20 F-117s from the 416th, ‘Ghost Riders’, deployed safely to King Khalid AB, and on the night of January 16/17, 1991, offensive air operations against Iraq began. Col Greg Feest recalls the night that validated stealth technology: «The entire first wave of F-117As launched without radio communications — we didn’t want the Iraqis to get a ‘heads-up’ as to our plan. My callsign was ‘Thunder 36′ and wingman, Captain Dave Dogman Francis was ‘Thunder 37′. We took off and flew to the tanker without saying a word to each other. My radio was on but remained silent. Since the F-117A is a single seat fighter, there was no co-pilot to talk to and the next several hours would be extremely quiet. Having rendezvoused with the KC-135 tankers, we air-refuelled and headed north towards Iraq, while flying on each wing of the tanker. The night was extremely dark and I was thankful, since I did not want the moon to silhouette my jet as I flew into Iraq.»

“At approximately 2:30am, I topped off with fuel, ‘stealthed-up’ my aircraft and departed the tanker. In 20 minutes I would drop the first bomb of Operation Desert Storm.Crossing the Iraqi border, I was nervous as I armed my weapons. My target was an IOC [Intercept Operations Centre] located in an underground bunker, southwest of Baghdad, near Nukhayb. This IOC was a key link between border radar sites and the air defence headquarters in Baghdad. Destroying it would allow other non-stealthy aircraft to enter Iraq undetected.»

«Approaching the target, I was apprehensive. Two thoughts crossed my mind. First, would I be able to identify the target? Second, did the Air Force really want me to drop this bomb? These thoughts only lasted several seconds. I had practised for three years and I could find and destroy any target within one second of my scheduled time-over-target [TOT], Having trained for so long, nothing was going to stop me from dropping my bombs. All I had to do was play, what I called, a highly sophisticated video game, and in 30 minutes, I would be back in Saudi Arabia.”

«As I approached the target area, my adrenaline was up, and instincts took over. My bomb was armed and my systems checked good. I found the target on my infra-red display and concentrated on tracking the target by slewing the cross-hairs over the aimpoint. The target had been easier to find than I envisioned. I was able to take time to glance outside the cockpit. Everything was dark except for a few lights in the town. It appeared that no-one knew I was in the sky. Looking back at my display, my laser began to fire as I tracked the target. I waited for the display to tell me I was ‘in range’ and I depressed the ‘pickle’ button. Several seconds later, the weapons bay door snapped open and I felt the 2,0001b bomb depart the aircraft. The bay door slammed closed as I watched the IR display while continuing to keep the cross-hairs on the target. The bomb appeared at the bottom of the display just before it hit. At exactly 2:51am, I saw the bomb go through the cross-hairs and penetrate the bunker. The explosion came out of the hole the bomb had made and blew out the doors of the bunker. I knew I had knocked out the target. The video game was over.»

“Having destroyed the target, I turned my aircraft 210 degrees left to head for my second target. While in the turn, I decided to try and see my wingman’s bomb hit, since his was due one minute after mine. As I looked back I saw something completely unfamiliar. It looked like fireworks, big bursts of red and orange, flying at me and lighting up the sky. After being stunned for several seconds, I realised it was tracers from triple A. During all my peacetime training missions flying exercises like Red Flag, I had never anticipated what actual triple A would look like. After all it cannot be simulated. I snapped my head forward and pushed the throttles up as far as they would go. I wanted out of the target area as fast as I could.”

«As I headed towards my second target, an Iraqi SOC [Sector Operations Centre] at the H-3 airfield in western Iraq, I looked out in front of my aircraft. I now saw what everybody at home saw on television. Tracers, flashes and flak were all over the place. The whole country had come alive with more triple A than I could ever imagine. I watched several SAMs launch into the sky and fly through my altitude both in front and behind me. But none of them appeared to be guided. Stealth, technology really seemed to work! Even if the AAA and SAMs were not guided, the intense ‘barrage fire’ in my target area was scary. All it would take was a lucky hit.

I decided to ignore what was happening outside my jet. I lowered my seat and concentrated on my displays. After all, what I couldn’t see couldn’t hurt me! I dropped my second bomb and turned as fast as I could back towards Saudi Arabia. I don’t think I ever manoeuvred the F-117A as aggressively as I did coming off my second target. For a second time in less than 30 minutes, I wanted out of the target area as fast as possible.»

‘‘Having made it safely out of the area, my thoughts turned to my wingman. Dogman was again one minute behind me. I knew he had to fly through the same air defences I had just flown through. I didn’t think he would make it. For both of us to survive untouched would require too much good luck.”

Having hit both targets, Greg remembers the flight back to King Khalid, “Just prior to crossing the border into Saudi Arabia, I performed my de-stealth procedures. My task now was to find the post-mission tanker, so I could top off with fuel and make it back to home base. After confirming the tanker was on-station and waiting for my two-ship, I headed for the rejoin point. At a pre designated time, I called Dogman on the radio to see if he was ready to rejoin. I prayed I would hear a response. I didn’t hear an answer, so I waited several seconds and tried again. This time I heard him answer. He said he had my aircraft in sight and was ready to rejoin. Now the question was, how many other Stealth fighters would make it home.»

Today of course we know that all F-117s made it home, not just that night, but every night of the 43-day campaign. On February 24 at 03:00 hours (local), the Coalition ground assault began. In true blitzkrieg fashion, it was all over in just three days. On February 27, Kuwait City was liberated and a cease fire declared.

Post Desert Storm.

Back at Tonopah, arrangements were finalised to relocate the 37th Wing to Holloman AFB, New Mexico (NM). The first aircraft to be delivered was 791, which arrived from Tonopah on January 7, 1992, for maintenance familiarisation. The move officially got underway however, on May 8, when aircraft 814, flown by Lt Col ‘Moose’ Merritt of the 416th FS touched down. On July 8, 1992, the 37th FW at Tonopah Test Range took part in an inactivation ceremony, commensurate with the move, the 37FW was deactivated and its assets transferred across to the 49FW. Similarly, command of the F-117A wing was also transferred from Col Al Whitley to Brig Gen Lloyd ‘Fig’ Newton. Unusually, however, the squadron designations of the F-117A units remained initially unchanged until 1993 when they became the 7/8/9th FS. The move at last reunited families, enabling them to join their loved ones in living quarters on or close to the base. It also eradicated the need for Key Airlines to shuttle over 2,500 personnel on 75 weekly flights to and from their place of work -an action that would, in itself save millions of dollars a year.

On Tuesday August 4, 1992, the first Holloman-based F-117A was lost in an accident. Capt John В Mills of the 416th FS, was forced to eject from Aircraft 801 (not 810 or 802 as reported elsewhere), after it entered an uncommanded roll and caught fire. The crash occurred just 8 miles (13km) northwest of Holloman — a subsequent investigation identified the cause as an improperly reinstalled bleed air duct, which led to a hydraulic line malfunction to flight controls and a fire.

The move to Holloman also signalled a steady integration of the F-117A into theatre operational planning, enabling it to become a true ‘force multiplier’, something impossible to achieve during its years in the ‘black’. Accordingly, the 416th participated in Exercise Team Spirit, a short deployment to South Korea. And in June 1993, eight F-117As from the 415th deployed briefly to Gilze-Rijen in the Netherlands, for Exercise Central Enterprise. The sixth F-117A to be lost in an accident, occurred publicly and in spectacular fashion. On September 14, 1997, Maj Bryan Knight, an instructor with the 7th FS, flying Aircraft 793, was coming to the end of his expertly choreographed display routine, during an airshow at Chesapeake Bay, near Baltimore, Md. Flying at 380kts and at a height of between 600-700ft (183-213m), he entered a 15° climb when the left outboard elevon made at least four rapid oscillations, causing a 2.5ft (76cm) section of the inboard elevon to become detached. The aircraft then rolled rapidly left (90″ within 0.8 seconds) and then pitched sharply up into a high angle of attack. The subsequent accident investigation determined that the incident had occurred because four Hi-Lok fasteners used to secure the elevon hydraulic actuator to a spanwise, ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ I beam, had not been reinstalled, following maintenance conducted at Holloman, in January 1996.

Flight Test.

March 25, 1991, saw the completion of a move for F-117 flight test operations from Area 51, to Palmdale. Activity from the new base continued at a brisk pace, with Aircraft 831, flown by Lt Col Chris Seat, completing Det.5’s first flight from Palmdale the day before. However, the first Senior Trend test sortie from Palmdale, was a weapons evaluations flight, flown in Aircraft 784 by Jim Thomas on April 23, 1992.

Over the years, other parties have evaluated the F-117A’s capabilities. The first of these being the United States Navy. In total, two Navy pilots flew the aircraft on eight occasions, during each flight they were chased by an instructor pilot in a T-38.

In conclusion of the trials, Lt Cdr Kenny Linn recalls: “We conducted a thorough performance review, and evaluated the F-117A for suitability in the carrier environment. Unremarkably, it was not suitable at that time for CV use, although it had quite nice handling characteristics in the pattern, landing speeds were too high, and the sink rate limitations were too low. The F-117A had not been built as a CV aircraft, and was not going to turn into one overnight!»

The Balkans.

Following the collapse of European Communism, few countries were better placed to successfully complete the transition into a free market economy and democracy than Yugoslavia. However, nationalism, spurred on by the Milosevic regime have conspired to drag the region into, ‘a new dark age’.

The planning and implementation by Serbia of Operation Horseshoe — the systematic ‘ethnic cleansing’ (sic — deportation and genocide) of the Kosovar Albanians, took ships and aircraft of NATO to war. At approximately 20:38 (local) on Saturday, March 27, 1999, F-117A, 806, of the 8th FS, flown by Capt Dale Zelco, crashed 40 miles (64km) from Belgrade whilst participating in Operation Allied Force. Although speculation surrounding the loss of this aircraft is rife, nothing has been officially released at the time of writing, other than the fact that Zelco was safely extracted from the area by a combat rescue team (Stealth Down! June, p66). Throughout the 78 days of Allied Force some 24 F-117As of the 49th FW flew missions from Aviano AB in Italy and Spangdahlem AB in Germany against strategic targets in Serbia and Kosovo. Although the Yugoslavs claim to have shot down more of them there is absolutely no evidence to support these claims. During the daily NATO and DoD briefings repeated use of targeting imagery from F-117s was a clear indication that this remarkable aircraft is still one of the most valuable assets within the USAF inventory, a place it looks set to retain for another decade.

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