Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

Single-seat fighter and attack plane
Two General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofan engines (96.0 kN)
Length20.08 m (65 ft 11 in)
Wingspan13.20 m (43 ft 4 in)
Height3.78 m (12 ft 5 in)
Wing area73 m2 (784 ft2)
Empty13,381 kg (29,500 lb)
Maximum take-off23,814 kg (52,500 lb)
Maximum speed1040 km/h (646 mph)
Operative range2110 km (1140 nm)
Service ceilingunknown
bombsup to two GBU-10 Paveway II or GBU-27 LGB or BLU-109 LGB
Have Blue (XST)prototype (2 built)
YF-117APre-Production version (5 built)
F-117AProduction version (59 built)
F-117BProposed improvement (0 built)
F-117NProposed naval version (0 built)

The United States Air Force's F-117A Nighthawk is the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. Before it was given an official name, the engineers and test pilots referred to the ungainly aircraft, which went into hiding during daylight to avoid detection by Soviet satellites, as "Cockroaches", a name that is still sometimes used.

The Nighthawk is classified as a fighter (the "F-" designation), but it was designed primarily as a ground attack aircraft. A few websites claim that the F-117 can carry Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, but this seems contrary to the rest of the plane's design and reported missions.

The "F-" designation has never been officially explained. However, military organizations have never been quick to embrace new technologies, and the USAF in particular has always been most proud of its fighters ("F-" aircraft), slightly less so of its strategic bombers ("B-" designations), and has never been enthusiastic about providing direct support of ground troops ("A-" type attack planes). It is possible that an aircraft of radically new design would win support more easily if it was a "sexy" fighter rather than "just" an attack plane.

One of the more common explanations for the "F-" designation of the Nighthawk was that it was for security reasons. The aircraft does not exhibit the characteristics of an attack ("A-" designation) aircraft in that it does not have a gun, nor rockets to engage enemy ground targets and provide close-in air support (CAS) for friendly personnel on the ground. Also, the typical role of an attack jet is to operate during daylight hours and/or at low altitudes, which is contradictory to the concept of this platform. The Nighthawk is by default and definition, a strategic aircraft and deserving of the "B-" designation for bombers. The given reasoning behind the misleading title Stealth "Fighter" was to disuade and misdirect possible foreign espionage attempts to gather accurate intelligence on the project.

The unique design of the single-seat F-117A provides exceptional combat capabilities. About the size of an F-15 Eagle, the twin-engine aircraft is powered by two General Electric F404 turbofan engines and has quadruple redundant fly-by-wire flight controls. Air refuelable, it supports worldwide commitments and adds to the deterrent strength of the U.S. military forces.

The F-117A can employ a variety of weapons and is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a state-of-the-art digital avionics suite that increases mission effectiveness and reduces pilot workload. Detailed planning for missions into highly defended target areas is accomplished by an automated mission planning system developed, specifically, to take advantage of the unique capabilities of the F-117A.

The first F-117A was delivered in 1982, and the last delivery was in the summer of 1990. The F-117A production decision was made in 1978 with a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, the "Skunk Works," in Burbank, California. The first flight was in 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision. Air Combat Command's only F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group, (now the 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.), achieved operational capability in October 1983.

Streamlined management by Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, combined breakthrough stealth technology with concurrent development and production to rapidly field the aircraft.

The F-117A program has demonstrated that a stealth aircraft can be designed for reliability and maintainability. The aircraft maintenance statistics are comparable to other tactical fighters of similar complexity. Logistically supported by Sacramento Air Logistics Center, McClellan AFB, California, the F-117A is kept at the forefront of technology through a planned weapon system improvement program located at USAF Plant 42 at Palmdale, California.

Combat losses

At least one F-117 has been lost in combat. On March 27, 1999, during the Kosovo War, the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Missile Brigade, equipped with the Neva-M (SA-3 Goa), downed F-117A #82-806 with a liquid-fuelled Neva missile. According to Wesley Clark and other NATO generals, Yugoslav air defences tracked F-117s with old Russian radars operating on long wavelengths. This, combined with the loss of stealth when the jets got wet or opened their bomb bays, made them highly visible on radar screens.