Behold The Most Detailed Photo Taken Of An Airborne F-117 Nighthawk In Over A Decade (Updated)

It’s far from a secret, the F-117 is still flying over a decade after it was officially retired from service and put into storage at Tonopah Test Range Airport—its first operational home. The F-117’s unique status is something I have been reporting on and explaining in detail for years. Just as recently as last July, we got some video footage of an F-117 operating over the Nevada Test and Training Range. That same encounter also resulted in some great radio traffic that gave us new insights as to what the handful of flyable F-117s are up to. Fast forward seven months and we are blessed with absolutely the best photo of an F-117 in flight since the type’s retirement 11 years ago. 

The image comes to us from our good friends over at my favorite magazine on the planet, Combat Aircraft. And there are more where this one came from. Make sure to check out the whole set on their website

The amazing detailed image was taken on the R-2508 range complex near Death Valley in California. According to Combat Aircraft, a single F-117 was blasting through the area at low-level while a pair of F-16s were following in trail from above. To my knowledge, this is the first time a Nighthawk has been seen outside of the Nevada Test and Training Range since the type’s retirement. 

As for what exactly it was doing there, we can’t say for sure. But as I have stated for years, the F-117 is an incredibly valuable and well understood stealthy target to test new sensor systems against and new low-observable (stealthy) coatings on. The F-16s may very well have been putting a new infrared search and track (IRST) pod to the test or some other sensor system, or maybe they were just all out for a flight through the area to keep up basic competency. We just don’t know. 

The F-117’s story has been something of an obsession of mine over the years. As a result, I have covered some of its most prominent as well as its most obscure elements. From its developmental origins, to the prototype that predated it, to it’s early secret life at Tonopah Test Range Airport and even the futuristic hand scanners used there for security, to by far its strangest paint job, to previously unknown features, to its own “Klingon cloaking device,” to its only combat loss, and more. So to say the least, it is a personal joy to see a stunning photo like this snapped in the year 2019. 

F-117s stuffed five to a hangar at Tonopah Test Range Airport. The largely mothballed fleet is slowly being drawn down by four aircraft per year. , DoD

You better soak this image up why you still can, though! The F-117s are slowly disappearing into the abyss. Congress’s former mandate to keep the fleet of roughly 52 jets in Type 1000 regenerative storage indefinitely at the high-security Tonopah Test Range Airport has ended. Four of the iconic ‘Black Jets’ will be removed from storage each year and disposed of in a way that remains undisclosed even though the process has been underway now for a couple years. As such, the 2020s will mark a final end to the game-changing Nighthawk’s amazing story. 

A big thanks for our friends over at Combat Aircraft for sharing the picture with us. If you don’t get the magazine you are seriously missing out. It is the perfect companion to this site and is packed with the best military aviation photography in the world. Read it on your Ipad, you will thank me!

UPDATE: 2/27/18 2:40pm PST—

The F-117 is back in Death Valley today oddly enough, resulting in this awesome clip. 

Returning for a second day over the same location is very intriguing and seems quite uncharacteristic of how we have seen these aircraft operated over the last decade. We are looking into the peculiar situation and will report back when we find out more. 

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.