New Video Of F-117s Flying Out Of Tonopah Emerges Despite Their Fates Being Sealed

The F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack jet is still one of the most enigmatic flying machines ever created. The sinister-looking aircraft that was born into a top-secret realm still has many stories to tell even a decade after its official retirement. In fact, those stories don’t just include tales from its operational life. The aircraft had continued to fly without explanation out of its original home at the shadowy Tonopah Test Range Airport located in the northern reaches of the remote Nevada Test and Training Range. As a new video shot last week shows, this is still the case even after Congress had put in motion a plan that would see the F-117s pulled from their crypt-like hangars at Tonopah and finally put to rest.  

The video, which was supposedly shot on July 26th, 2018, shows a pair of F-117s taking off from Tonopah with one staying over the air base and executing some pattern work and the other heading south for a test mission. The poster describes the video as such:

“Night 17 and 19 departed and tanked with Sierra 98 (KC-135 Fairchild AFB). Night 17 then flew a test mission while Night 19 returned to the Tonopah Test area.”

The callsigns Night 17 and Night 19 are not surprising for the F-117s and neither is Sierra 98 for the tanker. Sierra 99 is the callsign given to KC-10s out of Travis AFB that usually refuels secretive test flights emanating from Tonopah or Area 51. Sierra 98 is used by KC-135s with a similar mission. 

Whenever a video like this surfaces—and they have from time-to-time—the big questions always are what are these supposedly retired aircraft doing? Why are their operations kept secretive? And who is flying them? 

I broke down all the different possibilities five years ago, which you can read here. Since then, it has been made clear to The War Zone that roughly six of the F-117s are kept flyable at any given time and it seems that contractor pilots, likely working for Lockheed Martin, are at the controls of the stealth jets when they are airborne. This tiny flying force is maintained in addition to any other undisclosed programs that may have been executed over the years involving the mothballed Nighthawks.

This video is particularly interesting as it was taken over a year after the congressional mandate to keep the F-117 force in ‘Type 1000’ storage—where they could be returned to flying status relatively quickly during a crisis—was terminated. The change stated that the Nighthawks would be disposed of at a rate of four per year, with the entire fleet decommissioned or destroyed by the latter half of the coming decade. The process appears to have already begun many months ago.

It’s also interesting in that the videographer notes that one of the Nighthawks continued on its way south for a test mission while the other hung back and did pattern work before recovering. The jet that stayed back was almost certainly an air-spare that could have undertook the mission if the other F-117 had a mechanical issue. I have long posited that the F-117 continues with testing of low-observable (stealthy) treatments as part of the type’s small ongoing flight program, stating

“At the time of the F-117s official retirement, and its subsequent banishment to tomb-like hangars deep in the Nevada Desert, the aircraft was the most understood low observable platform in the history of aeronautics. Hundreds of thousands of hours were flown on the fleet of 64 aircraft (including pre-production versions), crashes were deeply investigated and improvements on the effectiveness of the aircraft were constantly being made.

In other words, the F-117 is a known commodity to the DoD and the USAF, and this is especially true when it comes to the aircraft’s unique radar, radio and infrared signature. In fact, I would not be surprised if the F-117 represents the most studied aircraft “signature” of all time. With this in mind, the F-117 could be theoretically used as something of a “flying measuring stick” for evaluating a radar system’s ability to detect and track low-observable flying objects. Or conversely, it could be used as a surrogate to test new radar absorbent materials and coatings applied to its flat, facet like structure that was originally built to accept such applications.

By specifically utilizing the F-117 for such-real life tests and evaluations, defense program managers could have a control variable, in this case, the F-117′s well-documented radar cross-section, infrared, and visual signature, and an independent variable for which to test upon it. That independent variable being an experimental radar absorbent material or other signature control application.

Testers of new signature control applications, such as an innovative new version of radar absorbent material (RAM), could leverage highly accurate real-life metrics and historical data collected throughout the life and development of the F-117. They can then fly their new application on the jet so that new data can be collected for which to compare and help judge the effectiveness of the experimental capability being tested.

On the radar and infrared tracking side of the argument, the F-117 is also a near-perfect and highly available low observable aircraft to test everything from ground-based radars and SAM systems, both foreign and domestic, AWACS modifications, fighter radars and even infrared search and track systems.

By doing so, testers can come up with a clear idea of what the capabilities of the system being tested are against a hard to detect target. In doing so, tacticians can work on solutions for defeating any weaknesses in the system while at the same time working on emphasizing its unique strengths. Even keeping a couple “sterile” F-117s available for calibrating and improving the DYCOMS array at Groom Lake, used for measuring the radar cross sections of aircraft flying under real-world conditions, may be in itself an entirely necessary and worthwhile reason to keep a small cadre of F-117s operational.”

Over the last decade, F-117s have been seen making runs over Area 51 (where the DYCOMS signature measurement facility is located) and interacting with airborne testbeds—in particular, the somewhat horrendously modified and phantom-like NT-43, better known by its callsign ‘Rat 55.’ This aircraft is loaded with radar and infrared sensors that allow it to take measurements of aircraft in an air-to-air manner. The very shy 737 derivative is said to be one of the Pentagon’s most important tools when it comes to low-observable aircraft development and for understanding the unique signatures of existing non-stealthy combat aircraft, both of domestic and foreign origin.

It seems abundantly clear that the Nighthawk still provides a very valuable service to the USAF and its industry partners as the cost of keeping a handful of the exotic and finicky airframes flyable isn’t cheap. Maybe, in a decade’s time, when the last of the F-117s are about to meet their final end, we will get to see the Nighthawk close-up in a flying state one last time and get a better idea of what it has been up to for all these years during its supposed retirement out at Tonopah Test Range Airport.

As for where the F-117s will end up once they are pulled from their climate-controlled hangars once and for all? That remains unclear. But turning them into museum pieces is a notoriously costly and intricate affair. With this in mind, they have a better chance of being ripped apart or even buried than being shipped to your local aviation museum. As we recently noted, the B-2 Spirit will also likely find itself in a similar predicament when it begins to be put out of service in the late 2020s.

In the meantime, somehow it’s comforting to know that there is a place where the Skunk Works’ famous ‘Black Jets’—an aircraft that began the stealth revolution—is still wheeling around the sky. 

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