The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Is Getting An F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jet

The U.S. Air Force has permanently loaned one of its remaining F-117A Nighthawk stealth combat aircraft to the Reagan Presidential Foundation, for eventual display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. President Reagan was a major proponent of the then top-secret F-117 program, at one point even personally inviting the United Kingdom to become a partner in it. The Nighthawk will join a number of other storied aircraft at the museum.

The F-117A Nighthawk destined for the Reagan Presidential Library is one of a dozen the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, or NMUSAF, has set aside to demilitarize and deeply modify so that it can loan them to museums, including those within the service itself, as part of the U.S. Air Force Heritage Program, Brian Brackens, an Air Force spokesperson, told The War Zone in an Email. NMUSAF has already taken delivery of its own F-117, which joins a pre-production YF-117 in that museum’s collection. Another 51 Nighthawks are still at the secretive Tonopah Test Range Airport in Nevada and the service eventually plans to physically destroy the remaining 40 examples per Congressional mandate, as The War Zone

was first to report.

Development of the F-117 and its immediate predecessors certainly predates Reagan’s administration. The aircraft’s manufacturer Lockheed, now Lockheed Martin, had been at the forefront of the development of stealth technologies since the 1950s. 

The company’s Advanced Projects Division, better known as Skunk Works, developed the Have Blue stealth jet demonstrator in the 1970s and flew it for the first time just short of a year after President Jimmy Carter took office. Carter was still President when the development of the F-117, under program Senior Trend, formally began in 1978.

An F-117 Nighthawk at Tonopah Test Range Airport in the 1980s., USAF

It was the Reagan Administration that oversaw much of the Nighthawk’s development and its transition to operational status while still remaining in the heavily classified “black” realm. The first YF-117 flew some six months after Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981. The plane’s very existence remained secret until November 1988, less than six months before President George H.W. Bush took office.

Though the program was top-secret, Reagan was certainly very impressed with the aircraft and considered employing them operationally during his tenure. In 1986, the U.S. Air Force’s 4450th Tactical Group, technically equipped with A-7 Corsair II aircraft, which served as a cover for the F-117s, received notice that they could be called upon to fly their first-ever combat mission in Libya. Earlier that year, Libyan agents had bombed the La Belle discothèque in what was then West Berlin, killing two American troops and a Turkish civilian and wounding more than 200 more people.

Concerns about compromising the F-117 program eventually led non-stealthy U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft to conduct retaliatory strikes in Libya as part of Operation El Dorado Canyon. The Nighthawk’s first combat mission eventually came under President H.W. Bush during the American intervention in Panama in 1989, nicknamed Operation Just Cause.

Reagan was also interested in offering one of America’s most prominent allies, the United Kingdom, a chance to acquire their own fleet of F-117s. In 2017, unsealed U.K. government records showed that the President had approached his British counterpart at the time, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, about joining the program in 1986. This was reportedly in part because of the United Kingdom had allowed the use of bases in its country for the El Dorado Canyon strikes.

Former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, left, and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, right, meet in 1990., Press Association via AP

“Dear Margaret, I am delighted to hear that you will be able to see Cap [Caspar Weinberger, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense] to discuss the special program I wrote you about… I look forward to receiving your reaction. Sincerely, Ron,” one letter said. Someone had also written “STEALTH” lightly in pencil on the missive.

“Dear Ron, I was immensely impressed by your splendid achievement: three cheers for America! … I was also very touched by the generosity of the offer of participation which [Cap] brought,” Thatcher had replied. Two Royal Air Force pilots had a chance to evaluate the aircraft directly, but the United Kingdom decided against buying any Nighthawks while the program was still “black.” Lockheed did pitch a derivative of the F-117 to the RAF again after the aircraft emerged into the public domain, but the U.K. Ministry of Defense again declined the offer, a separate story you can read about more in this past War Zone piece.

The F-117 will be in good company at the Reagan Presidential Library, as well. The museum already has a U.S. Navy F-14A Tomcat fighter jet painted to represent an aircraft that took part in the Gulf of Sidra Incident off the coast of Libya in 1981. During that altercation, a pair of F-14s shot down two Soviet-made Libyan Air Force Su-22 Fitter combat jets.

The F-14 Tomcat on display at the Reagan Presidential Library., Lisa Barnum via Wikimedia

A VC-137C that was used as “Air Force One,” a customized derivative of the Boeing 707 airliner, is also on display. The Air Force first began flying this aircraft, also known as SAM 27000, in 1972, under President Richard Nixon and served President’s Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, as well. Under Carter, it flew the triumphant U.S. Men’s Hockey Team to Washington, D.C. after their victory against the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. Carter’s last trip onboard came in 1981, when Reagan sent the former president and the jet to repatriate the last American 52 hostages that Iran had previously that Iran had held in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution against the Shah. 

Reagan is understood to have been its most prolific passenger, however, logging approximately 675,000 miles in travel on the plane in total across his two terms. It took him across the world, including to the three overseas summits he held with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. His last flight aboard SAM 27000 was in January 1989, when it flew him and former First Lady Nancy Reagan back to California after George H.W. Bush’s inauguration.

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan wave from the doorway of SAM 27000., Reagan Presidential Library

SAM 2700 remained in service in the role as Air Force One until 1990, when the first of two new Boeing 747-based VC-25A Air Force One jets arrived. President Reagan had overseen the program to acquire these aircraft and Nancy Reagan was heavily involved in the crafting of their interior decor. The older VC-137C remained available as a backup aircraft and continued to perform other VVIP transport duties and ceremonial roles, including flying the body of former President Nixon to his final resting place at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. 

Its last flight was to ferry President George W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush to Texas in 2001. That same year, the Air Force retired it for good and turned it over to the Reagan Presidential Foundation. It now sits in the museum alongside a VH-3 Marine One helicopter, which Reagan also flew on during his two terms, and limousines and other vehicles that were part of or otherwise related to the motorcades he used during his presidency. 

The elaborate display of SAM 27000 at the library is absolutely breathtaking. 

SAM 27000 now on display at the Reagan Presidential Library., Reagan Presidential Library

It’s not clear yet when the F-117 will go on display at the Reagan Presidential Library. When it does, though, it will join a short list of just four other F-117s that have been modified and placed on public display. 

The Nighthawk is sure to become another major draw for the museum, both for individuals interested in the President’s history and legacy and aviation enthusiasts, among whom the Nighthawk continues to be a hot topic of interest more than a decade after its official retirement.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.