The US Air Force’s F-117 Nighthawk, the world’s first operational stealth fighter jet, officially retired in 2008. While many believe that the jet has ceased to exist and may have been dismantled, the Nighthawk was recently spotted in the skies over the mysterious Area 51.
Recently, the “black jets” were seen in action in the ‘Red Flag’ air warfare exercise over the Nevada desert, according to reports.
The F-117 Nighthawk
Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the F-117 Nighthawk is considered the world’s first stealth aircraft. The aircraft flew on its first flight in 1981 and became operational in 1983. But during its initial years, its existence was kept a secret.
It was only in 1988 that the USAF acknowledged the existence of its stealth aircraft and in 1990 it made its first public appearance. The aircraft retired from service in 2008.
Also known as the Frisbee and the Wobblin’ Goblin, the F-117 was developed to infiltrate hostile environments and mount an attack on high-value targets with absolute precision. It served in Panama (Operation Just Cause), Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, conducting night-time missions.
The aircraft is 19.4m long, 3.9m high, and has a wingspan of 13.2 m. The aircraft with its surface and edge profiles can reflect enemy radar into narrow beam signals, and direct it away from the radar detector of the enemy.
Further, its doors and opening panels have saw-toothed forward and trailing edges which also reflect radar. Its outer surface is also coated with a radar-absorbent material (RAM).
Its cockpit is equipped with a head-up display (HUD) and its flight deck has a large video monitor, displaying the infrared imagery from its onboard sensors.
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In its weapons bay, the Nighthawk can carry various armaments such as BLU-109B low-level laser-guided bomb, GBU-10, and GBU-27 laser-guided bomb units, Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick, and Raytheon AGM-88 HARM air-to-surface missiles.
The aircraft is further equipped with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and a downward-looking infrared (DLIR) along with a Raytheon laser designator. It is powered by two low-bypass F404-GE F1D2 turbofan engines.
Area 51 is located approximately 135 km away from Los Angeles, in the Nevada Desert. For decades, the US military has used this “secret” location to develop and test its advanced aircraft.
Through multiple warning signs, surveillance, and armed guards, the area has been kept out of bounds for the public.
Shrouded in mystery for decades, Area 51 has led to many conspiracy theories. It is also located close to two other military areas, the Nevada Test Site and the Nevada Tests and Training Range. The airspace above the area is marked as a no-fly zone for civilian aircraft. Recent satellite images have shown a 3.7 km long runway at the secret site.
During the Cold War, US President Eisenhower gave a nod to the development of a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft named Project Aquatone. To keep the project a secret, Area 51 was established.
Over the years, the US reconnaissance planes, such as the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird were developed at Area 51. For the US military, the location “represents a flexible, realistic and multidimensional battle-space to conduct testing tactics development, and advanced training”.
It took decades for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to accept the existence of the secret Area 51. Before that, Area 51 had been mired in conspiracy theories.
One of the rumors floating around was that an alien spacecraft and its pilots which had crashed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, were kept at Area 51.
In 1955, there had been increased “sightings” of unidentified flying objects or UFOs around Area 51. The “sightings” were in reality the test-flights of the U-2 aircraft of the US Air Force.
The ‘Red Flag’ Exercise
A decade after their presumed retirement, the F-117s are apparently serving as developmental and “red air” training platforms. In red air training, certain aircraft pose as aggressors in air-to-air combat.
The exercise Red Flag 21-3 is being conducted at the Nellis Air Force base and the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). According to The War Zone, it is a US military-centric exercise where advanced capabilities are tested.
During the ongoing exercise, the Nighthawks were seen emerging from the Nevada desert and moving to the east, close to Area 51, at low altitudes.
Experts are of the opinion that using the F-117s with their elusive and dissimilar radar signatures in training is hugely valuable in an era of advanced stealth aircraft and cruise missiles.
At the time of their “retirement” in 2008, the Nighthawks were in good condition. It was believed that the USAF will dismantle four jets each year.
However, surprisingly the jets have been spotted in the skies since 2014, in places around Edwards Air Force Base, Death Valley’s Star Wars Canyon, and the Tonopah Test range.
A similar report by Popular Mechanics stated that the jets may be testing new sensors and radars for the US stealth fighters.
It is also stated that the USAF may have kept the F-117s in Type 1000 storage. This stipulates that the jets are “to be maintained until recalled to active service, should the need arise, during times of national crisis or if pilots need specific training”.
Mostly the aircraft in Type 1000 storage are flight-worthy and can return to flying status after a quality check.
The Nighthawks may thus now function as “Red Air” planes for facilitating advanced training for US pilots. This has been necessitated by the development of advanced stealth fighter aircraft especially by the US adversaries like China’s Chengdu J-20 and the Russian Su-57 Felon fighter.