In April 2008, the United States completed the process of withdrawing from F-117 Nighthawk of his battle fleet. Thus, the mythical stealth plane closed a 25-year tour of active service in the US Air Force, several of which were operating under absolute secrecy. However, contrary to what many think, the aircraft never stopped flying and is still active today.
Was the retirement announced almost 15 years ago a hoax, then? Not precisely. The F-117 Nighthawk is no longer combat-ready, but it still has a lot to offer the USAF. To the point that it could continue to cross the American sky for at least another decade.
Undoubtedly, we are facing a very striking case. Many will wonder Why remove the aircraft from active service, and then put it back into service?. And the questioning has its logic, but there is an explanation.
The original F-117 Nighthawk farewell
The first thing we should mention is that the original intention of the United States Air Force was to retire the F-117 Nighthawk in 2011. However, in 2005 it was decided to move up its departure from service to take place between fiscal years 2007 and 2008. The reason for such a decision was none other than the economy, since it was sought to release a little more than 1,000 million dollars from the budget to buy more units of the F-22 Raptor.
Thus, the withdrawal of the stealth attack aircraft was launched in seven stages, until the last one that concluded in April 2008. However, unlike other aircraft that are destroyed after their withdrawal to avoid the traffic of spare parts and components, or to prevent the disclosure of secret information, the F-117 Nighthawks were partially disassembled for storage in their original hangars —and specially conditioned— from the airport of the Tonopah Proving Grounds, in Nevada.
This was due to the entry into force of a 2006 law that forced to maintain the aircraft in condition to return to service in case it was necessary. This requirement was maintained until 2016, when it was decided that the conditions were already in place to say goodbye. However, that didn’t happen either.
While the general public believed that the F-117 Nighthawk had become a museum piece, the reality was never further from that. Starting in 2014, sightings of the stealth aircraft became more and more frequent.. But the US Air Force never explained why they would reappear on the scene from time to time.
In fact, in 2019 journalistic reports emerged revealing that, supposedly, in 2016 four units of the attack aircraft they had unfolded secretly in the middle east. The reason for the mission was never disclosed, and if the information came to light it was because one of the devices was seen in Kuwait after an apparent emergency landing.
In recent years, sightings of the F-117 Nighthawk have become increasingly frequent and viral, thanks to social media. Although it was not until 2021 that the USAF publicly acknowledged that the aircraft was being used again in different exercises, through the publication of images on its press portal.
What role do the F-117 Nighthawks play today?
On several occasions, Active F-117 Nighthawks have been seen using an “aggressor” paint scheme. What does this mean? That fulfill the role of “enemies” during combat exercises in which they participate with other aircraft. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see them fly escorted by fighters such as the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon or F-22 Raptor.
Although this stealthy aircraft was never intended to be involved in close air combat situations (dogfight), it has become an interesting piece for what is known as DACT or dissimilar air combat training. But not only that, since it is also used as a research and development platform for new stealth technologies.
It is clear that the F-117 Nighthawk has far exceeded its operational record, even though it is no longer a combat-ready aircraft. But you still seem to have quite a bit of thread on the spool. In 2017, the United States Air Force committed to drop four units per year until ending fleet operations, though again he appears to have changed his mind.
In 2022, a request for information submitted by the US Air Force Flight Test Center came to light in order to extend F-117 Nighthawk operations through 2034. It is not yet known how many of the 45 units remaining in inventory this initiative would cover, but the USAF’s idea would be to slow the retirement process to no more than two or three aircraft per year.
It is a reality that the F-117 Nighthawk can’t fly foreverbut everything indicates that it continues to be an asset of great value for US military aviation.