The Secret Doings at Tonopah

Jan. 1, 1993

On November 10, 1988, Col. Al Whitley was relaxing in front of the television with his wife, Ann, after a long day at Nellis AFB, Nev. On the evening news, the network’s anchor was running down the lead stories. The Pentagon, he reported, had officially confirmed the existence of a supersecret squadron of “stealth” aircraft based in Nevada.

Suddenly, Colonel Whitley wasn’t relaxing anymore.

As a blurry photo of the exotic F-117A appeared on the screen and the news anchor recalled previous reports of an aircraft that had been the subject of years of wild media speculation, Whitley began to fidget. His wife was casting increasingly pointed looks in his direction.

Ann Whitley didn’t know that she was sitting next to the first operational Air Force pilot to fly a war-ready F-117A. She could not have guessed that, in about two years, her husband would lead the 37th Fighter Wing into combat in the first sustained wartime test of stealth. All she knew was that, for five years, he left for work early Monday morning and returned Friday afternoon. She understood that she must never ask where he had been. Maybe her children believed that all fathers only appeared for three days at a time.

F-117 pilots like Colonel Whitley called themselves “Night Hawks,” and they led double lives. They came out only at night and could not divulge their true identities even to their families or closest friends. Thus the official confirmation the Whitleys watched on television marked the end of an extraordinary chapter in the fielding of an Air Force weapon system, among the most closely guarded since the development of the atomic bomb. Colonel Whitley had been in on it almost from the beginning, yet even now he could do no more than nod at his wife’s implicit question. Both of them knew there was nothing to say.

Whitley’s participation began in the fall of 1980, with a knock on the door of Room 10 in visiting officers quarters Building 545 at Nellis. Whitley, then a major, was an A-10 instructor at the Fighter Weapons School on base. He had been asked to report to this room at a specific hour. Nothing else was explained.

The door opened a few inches.

“Are you Whitley?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let me see your ID card.”

The door shut. It opened again a few minutes later. “Well, it looks good. I guess you can come in.”

Fly A-7s Again

In this way was Major Whitley introduced to Col. Bob “Burner” Jackson, a former Thunderbirds pilot on the requirements staff at Hq. Tactical Air Command (TAC), Langley AFB, Va. Colonel Jackson already knew that Whitley had flown F-100s and A-7s in Vietnam and that he was scheduled to leave soon to attend the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Could Whitley postpone school, Jackson wanted to know, and stay at Nellis flying A-7s again

A host of questions occurred to Whitley. Chief among them: Why in the world would the Air Force want to bring back the A-7, a converted Navy plane well on its way out of the inventory? Colonel Jackson made clear, however, that he was asking all the questions, and Major Whitley would have to come up with his answer before leaving the room. There would be no mulling over the options or talking it over with his wife.

In the end the decision was simple. The Whitleys wouldn’t have to sell their house in Las Vegas, Ann wouldn’t have to quit her job, and Major Whitley wouldn’t have to trade a cockpit for a classroom. “Where do I sign up?” he responded.

The first home for the 4450th Tactical Group (TG), which would become one of the most secretive units in the Air Force, was an isolated corner of Nellis known as the Lake Mead Base, officially designated Nellis Area Two. A handful of officers and enlisted men recruited into the program by early 1981 were told that they were laying the groundwork for a unit whose mission would be to run avionics tests and evaluations for A-7 weapon systems. The A-7s were coming from England AFB, La., which was converting to the A-10. The first order of business was to set up acceptance procedures for the aircraft and develop an A-7 training program.

If it seemed strange to the pilots that the Air Force was spending so much money on security and classified communications capability for an isolated little building on the old Lake Mead Base, no one said anything. Everything in Colonel Jackson’s instructions and demeanor emphasized security. Loose lips and speculation, even among group members, would not be tolerated. There was a sense of expectancy, as well as a feeling that they were all still on some sort of probation. As pilots recruited to the program from all over the Air Force began showing up at Lake Mead, however, Major Whitley noted that, except for a few young pilots who came with the A-7s from England AFB, most of these men were combat veterans.

Someone was clearly assembling an inordinately experienced group of flyers.

No Fanfare

The pilots were read into their real mission one at a time and without fanfare, whenever someone higher up decided they were ready. A few months into the assignment, Lt. Col. Jerry Fleming, the director of operations, finally briefed Major Whitley on what was really going on at the Lake Mead Base. As Whitley looked at drawings and a photograph of a ground-test model of the F-117A Stealth fighter, the whole operation at Nellis Area Two came into focus. He had heard rumors about a revolutionary, radar-defying technology called “stealth.” Indeed, the technology had become a topic in the 1980 Presidential campaign the previous fall after Secretary of Defense Harold Brown confirmed its existence. Though Secretary Brown’s remark referred to an advanced technology bomber, not a fighter, here was an actual photo of a model of a stealthy aircraft.

“ How fast do you think it will go?” Colonel Fleming asked. Major Whitley closely studied the picture of the strange aircraft, noticing its sharp angles and apparent lack of flaps or even an engine intake. It looked like an old-fashioned household iron. “Well, I’d guess somewhere between subsonic and Mach 3,” Whitley said, and they both laughed.

Learning that Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” had been working since November 1978 to produce five flight test F-117s, Major Whitley realized just how big a challenge the 4450th TG faced. A typical program followed a linear sequence of development—production, training, and workup to operational capability—over a decade or more. Yet here they were at Nellis Area Two, forming an operational unit and already training pilots to fly an aircraft that hadn’t even been produced and would be unlike any ever flown. The schedule called for reaching initial operational capability in less than three years from that day.

The Air Force called the overlap in the F-117A program “concurrency.” It was a direct by-product of the intensification of the cold war. Behind the scenes, Colonel Jackson and the rest of the 4450th TG raced to keep up. As they would soon discover, the unprecedented level of concurrency and secrecy would color nearly every aspect of the F-117 program.

By the summer of 1981, the A-7s of the 4450th were a common if puzzling sight along the Nellis flight line, as were the two off-limits house trailers that served as the group’s operational and maintenance headquarters. The pilots were forbidden to discuss the program with anyone. Outside their ranks, the only person on Nellis read into their true mission was the Fighter Weapons Center commander, a two-star general. Colonel Jackson continued to report to the director of operations at Hq. TAC at Langley.

A Dilapidated Desert Base

The officers of the 4450th were beginning to feel badly stretched by the demands of the program. Colonel Jackson and a number of senior staff were spending an increasing amount of time at Tonopah, a remote and largely abandoned facility in central Nevada that had been used for pilot training during World War II. There they began the long and laborious process of preparing facilities and infrastructure to bed down the F-117s once deliveries began in the summer of 1982. The Night Hawks remaining at Nellis focused on getting new pilots in the program current in the A-7.

The A-7 had been chosen as an interim trainer because its cockpit layout and avionics were considered similar to those in the planned F-117. Training demands, however, soon forced the 4450th to delegate initial A-7 training and checkouts to a Tucson, Ariz., National Guard unit, which was responsible for training Guard pilots in the aircraft. Thus, pilots arrived at Nellis already proficient in the A-7 and spent roughly six months flying profiles similar to those projected for the F-117.

Meanwhile, Major Whitley was spending more time in Lockheed’s Building 311, a hangar-like facility at the company’s Burbank, Calif., plant, the site of the Skunk Works. He had been designated to establish the flight training regimen for an aircraft he had never seen, and he was anxious to hear from the engineers about the likely flight characteristics of the F-117. Behind the opaque green windows of what was once a World War II airplane factory, Major Whitley got a firsthand look at the technology that would dramatically reshape the future of military aircraft.

The future looked like nothing he had ever seen. It was larger than he had imagined, roughly the size of an F-15. There were no visible flaps. Even though the F-117 was there in the radar-absorbent flesh, the engineers spoke as if it were still a theory.

When discussing its flight profiles, handling, and stealth characteristics, they often used such phrases as “ought to,” “should,” or “probably.” It was clear that the program was a radical departure for all concerned.

Though radically different in shape and design, the F-117 had a cockpit with a surprisingly familiar look and feel. Because they concentrated on breakthrough technologies associated with stealthiness, the Skunk Works engineers were forced by the pace of the program to rely to an unusual degree on off-the-shelf hardware.

Many on-board systems, as well as the General Electric F404 engines, were borrowed from the Navy F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter. The B-52 contributed its navigation system, the F-16 its fly-by-wire flight-control computer, and a Gulfstream jet its wheels and brakes. A question on the minds of everyone associated with the program was exactly how these disparate components would work with the F-117’s radical design.

Devastating News

An important answer was expected to come with first flight of an operational F-117 fighter in June 1982. Everyone aware of the top-secret flight waited with an expectancy reminiscent of the early space launches. Then came the devastating news that the aircraft, flown by a Lockheed pilot, had crashed on takeoff.

Several months later, it was time for another try. Though Major Whitley could remember scrambling from an alert pad at night as a young lieutenant in Vietnam, it is doubtful that he was any more keyed up in combat than he was on the night of October 15, 1982, sitting in an operational F-117A at the end of the runway at Tonopah. The flinty sparkle of the stars in the desert sky seemed to accentuate the vast blackness, reminding him that night operations were always scary.

Major Whitley had ground-aborted on several previous takeoff attempts, with a hydraulic problem or flight computer failure always appearing at the last moment. Of course, the maintenance guys were as unfamiliar with the aircraft as Whitley was, and no one was taking any chances. That was one major advantage of working in an entirely covert program: There was no pressure from the paper-pushers or media to get on with it, nor was there ridicule for aborted takeoffs or launches. Still, the delays were agonizing.

Then there was the matter of the crash of the first operational plane. The Lockheed engineers had discovered that the crash was caused by a mix-up in the pitch and yaw controls and had fixed the problem for subsequent flights. It was not the kind of omen, however, that filled a pilot with confidence on the eve of his maiden flight in a new aircraft with a revolutionary design. Any college engineering student with a slide rule and calculator could figure out that, given this aircraft’s shape and relatively anemic thrust-to-weight ratio, a last-second problem on takeoff could quickly turn an F-117 into the world’s fastest tricycle.

Finally cleared for takeoff, Major Whitley pushed the throttles forward and scanned the F-117’s instruments for any warnings as the aircraft lumbered noisily down the runway. After passing the point of no return, he gripped the controls hard, willing the F-117 into the air. Then, as he climbed into the darkness, he thought about the small American flag he had stuffed into the pocket of his G-suit for this historic occasion. He would be the first Night Hawk to go aloft in an F-117. It would make a great story for his grandkids. As far as Major Whitley could tell, his children might be grown before he could tell them about it.

White-Knuckle Trips

Because there was neither a simulator nor a two-seat trainer for the F-117, all of the original pilots went through similar white-knuckle first flights. It was a key reason why the Air Force had front-loaded the program with experienced pilots. Combat-tested pilots and those with many hours in a variety of aircraft could offset with cockpit savvy the lack of an orderly training regimen. At least initially, there was also a feeling that a more mature mix of officers and enlisted men could better cope with the extraordinary security demands of the program.

Those demands became increasingly difficult to meet as the program grew. The first operational aircraft was delivered by Lockheed in June 1982, only forty-three months after design go-ahead. From that point, the Skunk Works began delivering roughly eight aircraft per year, with production winding down in 1989–90. The 4450th achieved initial operational capability with ten aircraft in October 1983, only fifty-nine months after the inception of the program.

As more F-117s were delivered, younger, less experienced pilots joined the program. Major Whitley immediately became responsible for developing an academic and flight training program for the newcomers. Lt. Col. Sandy Sharp, among the first to fly the plane, became commander of the first operational squadron. Pilots continued to join the unit as seconds. Maj. Charlie Harr followed Major Whitley from the Fighter Weapons School and became the second operational pilot.

All of the pilots soon recognized one of the drawbacks to such a highly concurrent program with an extremely low production rate. Under a continuous improvement program initiated at Lockheed to incorporate the suggestions of both pilots and maintenance personnel at Tonopah, fixes that normally would have been implemented in the development phase or in preplanned block upgrades began appearing in successive production models. That meant that while all the aircraft would have looked alike to the casual observer (had there been any), there were actually subtle differences among them.

The aircraft were unique enough, in fact, that the pilots felt they had to know exactly which F-117 they were climbing into each night before taking the aircraft up.

That individuality seriously aggravated already daunting training and maintenance problems. One of the advantages of the remote basing, the pilots soon discovered, was that it allowed all of them to concentrate totally on the program, and twelve-hour work days became commonplace.

Meanwhile, deliveries of F-117s from Lockheed kept pace (the fifty-ninth model was delivered in July 1990), and Tonopah continued to grow. What was once a desolate desert outpost soon became a bustling base, with new construction split between the two areas known as the Industrial Area and the Man Camp. Modern, two-story brick dorms were built, where enlisted men slept two to a room and officers in private quarters.

Eventually a recreation center was built, with a bowling alley, gymnasium, racquetball courts, and weight room, as well as a book and video library. Tonopah became much like any other isolated Air Force base, but it lacked dependents, and nights in the Man Camp were punctuated by the distant sound of jet aircraft taking off and landing.

“ Night Hawk Spirit”

At Nellis, meanwhile, passenger jets sitting in the shadow of the foothills bordering the flight line became a common sight each Monday morning and Friday afternoon. If the base personnel knew—and many of them did—that the contractor aircraft were there to ferry most of the 2,500 inhabitants of Tonopah to work, they didn’t talk about it much. It was part of what became known as the “Night Hawk spirit,” the devotion to a secret worth keeping. It pervaded Tonopah and its sister base at Nellis, where thousands of family members knew not to ask where their loved ones went for four days each week.

Members of only a few professions fully understand the discipline that such activity required, or the toll that it took, especially on the Night Hawk pilots. On leaving the program, these pilots were forced to sign what were essentially pledges to forget what for many had been one of the most memorable times in their lives.

The first serious crack in the wall of secrecy came in July 1986, when an F-117 crashed on a night training mission near Bakersfield, Calif. The crash site was immediately proclaimed a national security area, and the Air Force refused to comment on what type of aircraft the pilot had been flying or where the flight had originated. In an article not long afterward, the Washington Post quoted unnamed defense sources as saying that roughly fifty stealth aircraft were operational and combat-ready, though the true figure was about half that large. Within days, the Sacramento Bee published an article describing the facilities at Tonopah.

In October 1987, a second operational stealth aircraft crashed. Soon afterward, an A-7 crashed, and media curiosity rose quickly when it was discovered that the pilot of the A-7 was assigned to the 4450th TG—identified as the home unit of the pilot killed in the 1986 Bakersfield crash. Noting that the unit apparently flew the only A-7s left in the active forces, a number of experts publicly speculated that the A-7s were being flown to sharpen daytime attack skills, since the stealth aircraft were known to fly only at night.

By November 1988, with so much about the program being discussed and speculated upon, the Department of Defense decided it could no longer justify spending so much money to keep the program totally under wraps. The day after the Pentagon’s official confirmation, the front page of the Tonopah Times-Bonanza proclaimed, “Surprise, Surprise—It Exists.”

The official confirmation had little impact on Tonopah operations. Pilots began occasionally flying the F-117A during the day, but base personnel were still ferried to and from work each Monday and Friday, everyone was still forbidden to talk about what they did for a living, and the program remained shrouded in secrecy.

The crews of KC-135Q tankers, which refueled the F-117As on the first stage of their journeys to the Persian Gulf in 1990, were not even given the airplane’s refueling data.

Experts will long debate whether all of the early, extraordinary secrecy was justified, but the Night Hawks certainly saw great value in keeping the outside world guessing about the characteristics of stealth for as long as possible. The F-117A is not fast, particularly agile, or loaded with defensive weapons. It’s just hard for the enemy to see and to track.

Colonel Whitley took command of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing on the eve of Operation Desert Storm. As the pilots of this unit made preparations to attack heavily defended Baghdad, Whitley and his men, defended by stealth and little else, prayed that there were no radar operators out there somewhere who could actually see them. Colonel Whitley remembers hearing more than once that night, “God, I sure hope this stealth stuff works.”

It did. In forty-three days of war, F-117A aircrews flew 1,300 missions, dropping more than 2,000 tons of ordnance on high-value targets without losing an aircraft or even sustaining damage. When he returned to Nellis, Colonel Whitley was photographed in his cockpit waving a tiny American flag, taken along to mark what he knew was another historic occasion—the first sustained test of a stealth aircraft in combat.

Unlike in 1982, however, he was able to present it to his wife on his return, along with an adequate explanation.