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F-117A Nighthawk retirement ceremony

Guest Derek Kaufman

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Guest Derek Kaufman

retirement ceremony to honor the contributions of the F-117A Nighthawk, the world's first attack aircraft to employ stealth technology, will take place here March 11.


The retirement ceremony is not open to the general public, however, Wright-Patterson employees, retirees and family members with base access are welcome to attend. The 10 a.m. event will take place at Base Operations Hangar 206N where an F-117A from the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, N.M. will be displayed. The ceremony will conclude with a flyover at 10:25 a.m.


Hangar doors will open at 9 a.m. to allow viewing of the F-117A static display and other historical memorabilia prior to the 10 a.m. ceremony. Due to limited parking at Base Operations, attendees are directed to park at the large lot south of the Fire Department near the intersection of Wright and Skeel Avenues, where shuttle buses will commence starting at 9 a.m. Carpooling is highly encouraged.


The Air Force decided to accelerate retirement of the venerable stealth fighter fleet to free up funding for modernization. Ten aircraft were retired in Fiscal Year 2007 and 27 so far in 2008. Holloman's remaining aircraft will go into storage next month, said Diana Filliman, director of the 650th Aeronautical Systems Squadron here, which provides F-117A program management.


"With aging aircraft fleets and infrastructure, senior Air Force leadership has made hard choices to pay for modernization of our overall aircraft inventory," Filliman said. "One of these decisions was to accelerate the retirement of the F-117, and use the savings generated to accelerate the recapitalization and modernization efforts underway across the fleet."


A total of 59 production black jets were built. While not invisible to radar, the Nighthawk's distinctive, faceted shape and a special low observable coating combined to greatly reduce its radar cross section and any adversary's ability to target it.


Although the strike aircraft has been in service for 27 years, its existence was first publicly acknowledged only in November 1988, when the Air Force released a grainy photograph of a Nighthawk in flight. Its first formal public appearance came in April 1990 at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Nighthawk static displays and flyovers would soon attract large crowds at air shows across the country and around the world.


In the program's early years, Airmen from the 4450th Test Group assigned at Nellis would commute via contracted airlift to the Tonopah, Nev. airfield from which the F-117s flew almost exclusively at night.


Later, publicly acknowledging the fighter became a priority to enable daylight flying, as well as exercise and deployment participation and full integration into the combat air forces. Men and women associated with the 4450th Test Group continued to fly and maintain the F-117A at Tonopah as members of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing.


Combat debut for the F-117A came in December 1989, during Operational Just Cause when Maj. Gregory Feest led a flight of two jets which dropped laser-guided bombs to shock Panamanian Defense Forces in preparation for an assault by U.S. Army Rangers.


Feest and the F-117A would return to combat in January 1991, when Nighthawks opened Operation Desert Storm destroying critical and highly defended targets throughout Iraq and Kuwait. Despite thousands of anti-aircraft guns and batteries of surface-to-air missiles, F-117s flew with impunity over Baghdad precisely striking targets with its payload of two 2,000 lb. GBU-27 laser-guided weapons.


The jet's combination of stealth and precision made it the natural choice for opening strikes over the former Yugoslavia during Operation Allied Force in 1999 and again over Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.


Of the 59 production F-117 aircraft, 7 were lost, including one in combat during Operation Allied Force, according to the program office. All of the remaining jets will return to their original secure home at Tonopah and hangared in "recallable storage," Filliman said.


The F-117 production decision was made in 1978 with a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, the "Skunk Works." First flight over Tonopah Test Range was on June 18, 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision, Filliman said.


"We are extremely proud of the long legacy of the F-117 and are committed to retiring this first generation stealth fighter with honor and dignity," Filliman said. "The F-117 program created a revolution in military warfare by incorporating low-observable technology into an operational aircraft."


The F-117A fleet relocated to Holloman Air Force Base reflagged to the 49th Fighter Wing in 1992, where the active fleet remains today. Beginning early in 2009, Holloman is slated to replace its retiring F-117s with two squadrons of F-22 Raptors.

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