Mark Ayton spoke with Lt Col Frank Rogers, operations officer of Detachment 1, 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, based at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, about the current F-117 ‘Grey Dragon’ test programme.
HOLLOMAN AFB, New Mexico is perhaps best known as the home of the US Air Force F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter, operated by Air Combat Command’s 49th Fighter Wing. There is, however, another unit based at Holloman which operates the F-117: Detachment 1 of the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, known as the ‘Dragons’. Det 1 is one of 17 units, located around the continental United States, within the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group (TEG), which is the operational group managing the flying activities of the 53rd Wing headquartered at Eglin AFB, Florida. The 53rd Wing is responsible for operational testing and evaluation, tactics development, and evaluation projects of proposed new weapons, equipment and systems for US combat air forces. It reports to Air Combat Command through the Air Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
The ‘Grey Dragon’
Det 1 usually operate the F-117 to evaluate modifications and upgrades to the aircraft and its systems and to develop tactics. As of June 2004, however, the unit is preparing for the start of a flight test programme with the F-117 which will evaluate the capabilities and limitations of a new two-tone grey paint scheme and its effectiveness in both daytime and night time operations. It will also evaluate the durability of the paint scheme and its direct impact on the F-117 maintenance schedule.
The aircraft is now referred to as the ‘Grey Dragon’, a nickname derived from the test team’s squadron name. The paint used is the same as on the F/A-22 Raptor, with properties similar to the standard black F-117 paint.
First to receive the grey paint scheme was the 53rd TEG’s own aircraft, serial number 85-0835/’OT’, which was rolled out of the F-117 paint barn at Holloman on December 23, 2003, by Det 1 personnel. By mid May 2004, a second aircraft assigned to Air Force Material Command had received the grey paint scheme at Holloman. The second aircraft is assigned to the 410th Flight Test Squadron, based at AF Plant 42, Palmdale, California, part of the 412th Test Wing at Edwards AFB. California. The 410th FLTS is to fly in conjunction with Det 1, which formulated the original test plan, to conduct developmental work to see how the paint scheme looks.
We asked Lt Col Rogers about the main objectives for applying the paint scheme. He replied: «It all started when the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General John Jumper, had a vision of stealth presence over the battlefield 24 hours per day. We have undertaken other tests that really did not conclude that black was the right paint scheme at night. There are other Air Force aircraft that are painted in grey paint schemes which fly at night, the B-1B and the F-15E, so we said, why not the F-117? We looked into the feasibility and decided on a two-tone paint scheme resembling the F/A-22 Raptor paint scheme. If the F-117 is black in the daytime, it probably would not be a player over the battlefield. If the grey jet is harder to pick up visually, then it would definitely be a player to operate between sunset and sunrise and sometimes during the day.»
Since the roll-out in December, the grey F-117 has been flown on local missions at Holloman. flying the airfield air-traffic pattern and flying with other aircraft types. The official test and evaluation programme — which falls under the F-117 mission effectiveness electronic project order, known as F-117 daytime tactics — is scheduled to begin around July 1 when Det 1 will start to conduct some of the actual test cards. The programme is expected to last until the end of the calendar year and involve approximately 12 missions, most of them flown from Holloman and some from Nellis AFB, Nevada.
Over a six-month programme, 12 missions might seem very few. Time between each mission will be governed by the preparatory work required on the aircraft, which will include a return to the paint barn around August for touch-up work, and the planning and co-ordination of missions with other test aircraft from the 53rd Wing based at Nellis AFB. Lt Col Rogers told us: «We are going to fly the ‘Grey Dragon’ alongside another black F-117, against other fighters and threat systems. The missions flown will be in a very benign environment, as opposed to some type of air warfare exercise environment. We will fly the F-117s [grey and black] against F-15 and F-16 guys doing visual commitments on us, seeing if they can pick up a tally on one aeroplane easier than the other. It is a lot of subjective flying — not much qualitative, other than to determine if our visual detection is reduced by X amount.»
Following completion of the F-117 daytime tactics programme, Det 1 will make recommendations on the effectiveness of the grey paint scheme to the Air Force Chief of Staff. A decision on whether to adopt the grey paint scheme for the F-117 fleet will follow. Changing the black stealth doctrine will no doubt require overcoming a good deal of inertia to paint the F-117 something other than black.