Test Pilot Recounts F-117’s Wobbly First Flight And Entering Into Its Top Secret World

Skunk Works test pilot Harold “Hal” Farley Jr. was at the controls of the YF-117 as it wobbled into the skies for the first time over Area 51.

byTyler Rogoway|
F-117 photo


The F-117 was officially retired over a decade ago, but it continues to capture imaginations as it mysteriously roars over the deserts of California and Nevada. The aircraft's genesis, which is largely considered the birth of stealth technology—although there's a bit more to that story—is absolutely legendary within aerospace, defense, and military history circles. The secrecy surrounding it is, too. The man who took this outstandingly exotic and revolutionary airframe into the air for the very first time was Harold "Hal" Farley Jr.—a Navy fighter pilot turned Grumman test pilot before descending into the shadowy world of Lockheed's Skunk Works to fly the F-117 Nighthawk

In a remarkably wide-ranging interview with Hal, he goes from discussing being brought into the highly classified program, to describing the unique competitive tension between civilian and military test pilots assigned to elite aerospace development programs, to whether he had ever seen a UFO or not. There are also some great photos and video clips mixed in. Yet the most interesting and historic part of the interview is his recollection of taking the F-117 into the air for the very first time. 

The flight occurred on June 18th, 1981, at 6AM at Groom Lake. Keep in mind, the F-117 and the stealth technology behind it was still totally new at the time. The Have Blue demonstrator proved that a stealth aircraft could actually fly and evade radars well enough to survive deep in enemy airspace, but YF-117 serial number 79-10780 was the first aircraft that packaged those technologies and many more into a single airframe that could eventually mature into something that could actually go to war.  

YF-117 in flight. , Public Domain

It turns out that even with all of the Skunk Works' modeling and wind tunnel testing, and with lead ballast installed in the aircraft's nose to make it more inherently stable and less dependent on its fly-by-wire control system, the YF-117 wasn't quite ready for stable flight. 

Check out the awesome interview in full:

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In the end, Hal Farley became the first "Bandit," a coveted moniker given to the small group of pilots that flew the F-117 throughout its career. He amassed 600 hours in F-117s by the time he retired as a Chief Test Pilot and Director of Flight Operations for the Skunk Works in 1991. 

An amazing and history-making aviator.  

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com