The famous Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter was that rarest commodity in the American military arsenal -- a well-kept secret. Lockheed began development of the Stealth Fighter at its secret Skunk Works facility in 1976, and by 1977 had subscale-technology demonstrators flying under the code name Have Blue at the famous Area 51 proving grounds at Groom Dry Lake, Nevada.
Led by the late, great Ben Rich, engineers at the Skunk Works developed a formula for stealth by constructing an aircraft with flat surfaces placed at angles so that incoming radar beams are deflected away. (Kelly Johnson, the founding father of the Skunk Works, had stayed on as a consultant, and in his view, Ben's ideas simply would not work. Ben was delighted to be able to prove, for once, that his old boss was wrong.)
This faceted-plate construction technique, combined with the use of radar-absorbent materials and careful attention to the suppression of infrared signals, reduced the radar signature of the supersecret Stealth Fighter to the size of a marble. It was, quite literally, invisible to radar.
The first Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter prototype flew on June 18, 1981, piloted by Harold Farley, Jr., but the existence of the aircraft was not acknowledged by the Air Force until 1988. The need for secrecy stemmed from the unique nature of the F-117A's mission. It was to fly alone against the heaviest enemy defenses, and destroy key command and control centers, radars, and other vital targets with precision-guided munitions.
The term "stealth fighter" is really a misnomer, for the F-117A is purely an attack aircraft, and does not have the armament or the maneuverability to engage in dogfighting. The nature of the mission and the characteristics of the aircraft demanded extremely skilled, well-trained pilots, and competition for the chance to fly the Nighthawk was intense.
The aircraft was introduced into combat on December 19, 1989, in Operation Just Cause, the U.S. attack on Panama to capture President Manuel Noriega. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the F-117As were called into action. Twenty-one Nighthawks flew from their Tonopah, Nevada, base to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. From there, 18 of the aircraft made the 15-hour nonstop flight to King Khalid Air Base in Saudi Arabia, refueling seven times en route.
Keep reading to learn more about the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, and to check out specifications for this airplane.
For more information on airplanes, check out:
Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter Specifications
On January 17, 1991, the Nighthawks wrote a new chapter in air warfare with their attack on Iraq. On the first day of the war, Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighters flew less than three percent of the total sorties, but took out more than 30 percent of the targets. In 1,271 combat sorties during the 43 days of the air offensive, the Nighthawks made 1,669 pinpoint hits on key targets.
The public was utterly fascinated by the release of films taken during the attacks, which show the laser-guided bombs striking windows and airshafts of buildings with an uncanny precision.
Curiously enough, the United States Air Force had not been at all certain that the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter would function as planned. The Iraqi defenses were so heavy, and there was so much barrage fire, it seemed inevitable that sheer chance would see a Nighthawk brought down. Fortunately, this was not the case, and the first loss did not occur until the 1999 war in Bosnia, when a lack of electronic countermeasures (ECM) coverage (and the possibility of a security lapse) caused an F-117A to be shot down.
The United States Air Force purchased only 59 F-117As, and losses have whittled that number down to about 53 in the active inventory. Yet, in every potential combat situation, there is an immediate demand for their services. Consequently, the Air Force reserves them for use against targets of the highest value.
Early in the Nighthawk's career, rumors abounded that it was difficult to fly. However, the multiple computer systems on board compensate for its lack of stability, making it a pleasant aircraft to fly. Its pilots are very loyal to it.
For more information on airplanes, check out:
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How Airplanes Work
- How Stealth Bombers Work
- How Gas Turbine Engines Work
- How F/A-22 Raptors Work
- How Radar Works
- How World War II Fighter Planes Worked
- How Apache Helicopters Work
- How Cruise Missiles Work
- How Smart Bombs Work
- How Hypersonic Planes Will Work
- How Ejection Seats Work
- How Machine Guns Work
- How Night Vision Works