F-117 Aggressors Photographed Low Over The Nevada Desert During Red Flag War Games

The officially retired F-117 Nighthawks are busier than ever playing the role of stealthy bad guys.

byTyler Rogoway|
Red Flag photo


More and more as of late, some of the F-117 Nighthawks long retired from active duty are now enjoying their secretive second life as developmental and red air aggressor platforms. The Air Force Test Center pilots that fly the Air Force Materiel Command-owned jets out of the shadowy Tonopah Test Range Airport (TTR) have been steadily expanding their operations in recent months with the type operating from other installations, refueling from standard tankers, and even frequenting Nellis AFB, home of the USAF's aggressors. We have reported extensively on this unique role for the F-117s, including their first known appearance at the giant Red Flag air warfare exercises last August. Now we have new images that show "Black Jets" in action, roaring low over the Nevada desert during a Red Flag sortie.

The images come to us from Joerg Arnu, the proprietor of the always awesome Dreamlandresort.com. He captured the jets from Coyote Summit egressing to the east at low altitude. Coyote Summit is a famous locale for military aviation aficionados and photographers looking to take in some of the Red Flag action from the ground. It is located just to the southeast of Rachel, Nevada, which is famous for its proximity to Area 51. 

Joerg Arnu/Dreamlandresort.com

Red Flag 21-3 is currently underway out of Nellis AFB and over the giant Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) that lies to the north of it. It was along the eastern edge of this sprawling jigsaw puzzle of restricted aerial ranges that Joerg had his encounters with the F-117s. 


Red Flag 21-3 appears to be a U.S. forces-centric exercise. During these unique Red Flag events, where international players are at a minimum, more advanced capabilities are usually brought to the fight. 

Joerg Arnu/Dreamlandresort.com

As for the F-117s, part of their duties includes serving as low-observable aggressors, which has become a necessity in a world where stealthy aircraft and cruise missiles are proliferating. They also work in a developmental role for low-observable and counter-low observable technologies. For Red Flag, they are part of the bad guys' team. While flying missions during broad daylight may not have been on the docket during their operational career, these jets provide a target unlike anything fleet aircrews have encountered before. One can imagine how their elusive radar signature can only become harder to detect while flying amongst the ground clutter.

One of the jets is wearing a striking all-red TR tail code and tail band, the TR standing for their home at TTR. The other is seen with a white TR tail code and what looks like some sort of round emblem, the details of which we cannot make out. Also of note, the F-117s have their retractable antennas extended, which does impact their low-observable cloak from certain angles. This could be a necessity for taking part in the exercise or it could be because the aircraft are leaving the training area and can communicate more freely as they are no longer valid targets. It's also worth noting that radar reflectors are not mounted on the aircraft, so they are in a low-observable configuration.  

Joerg Arnu/Dreamlandresort.com

According to Joerg, this was the flow of what he saw during his time at Coyote Summit, indicating multiple regenerations or runs by the aggressor Nighthawks:

Here is a timeline:

1:33pm: Group of two F-117 heading east

1:44pm: Group of two F-117 heading back west at higher altitude (approx 15,000ft.)

1:52pm: Group of two F-117 heading east; one was less than 500ft. from my location

2:17pm: Single F-117 heading east; about 770ft. from my location

Make sure to check out Dreamlandresort.com for all of Joerg's photos from this encounter.

It's great to see these old jets still providing value well over a decade after they were formally retired. While the USAF is standing up a new 'stealth equipped' aggressor unit using early-block F-35As, we could see the F-117s serve beyond the unit's establishment as they provide a very different form of 'stealth' than their higher-performance F-35 successors. 

We will keep you in the loop if we find out more about the Nighthawk's participation in this Red Flag. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com