The Black Jet

July 1, 1990

The Air Force and Lockheed got the F-117 A fighter built and flying in a mere thirty-one months, but kept it under wraps for eleven years. Now the world is getting its first close look at one of history’s most unusual combat aircraft.

Nearly a dozen years ago, in December 1978, the Air Force decided to develop a full-scale, radar-evading fighter. First flight came in June 1981. Only in November 1988, however, did the Pentagon even acknowledge that the F-117A existed, and then it said little more than that the aircraft had been built for maximum stealthiness.

This spring, the curtain of secrecy finally began to part. On April 21, two F -117 pilots flew their planes from Tonopah Test Range, Nev., to Nellis AFB, Nev. They circled, touched down, and taxied to a reviewing stand filled with onlookers. It was the first time anyone outside the program, including the families of the unit’s pilots and maintainers, had seen the mysterious F-117 up close.

In the mid-1970s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency provided funding for development of an airplane that would feature low radar, optical, and infrared signatures to counter the increasing sophistication of Soviet radar and surface-to-air missiles. The classified program, called Have Blue, produced and flew several subscale proof-of-concept air vehicles.

Soon after, the Air Force decided to proceed into full-scale development. Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects (ADP) section–popularly known as the “Skunk Works “–got the task of building a production “stealth” fighter. “It is an odd-looking flying machine,” says Ben Rich, Lockheed’s executive vice president and general manager of the Skunk Works, “but we got it operational in record time.”

Fast Track, Tight Secrecy

Using streamlined management methods and operating under tightest secrecy, cadres from Lockheed and Air Force Systems Command’s Aeronautical Systems Division cooperated closely to get the F-117 built and flying just two and a half years after work began. Bill Park, Lockheed’s chief test pilot, took the F-117 aloft for the first time on June 18, 1981, Mr. Rich’s fifty-sixth birthday.

The buildup of aircraft was swift. The 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (known then as the 4450th Tactical Group) achieved initial operational capability with the F-117A on October 26, 1983, a mere twenty-eight months after first flight.

“Using proven components from other aircraft allowed us to reduce risk,” notes Mr. Rich. “This gave us confidence to proceed concurrently with full-scale development and low-rate production.” Such components either were transferred directly to the F-117 or were used in modified form.

Some of the components modified for the F-117 include its quadruple- redundant flight-control system (based on the one in the General Dynamics F-16) and cockpit environmental control system (a portion of the ECS in a Lockheed C-130). The F-117’s two General Electric F404-GE-FID2 engines are nonafterburning derivatives of the powerplant in the Navy’s McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 fighter/attack aircraft.

Examples of direct transfers include the F-117’s inertial navigation system (the same highly accurate one used on a B-52), its ejection seat (the McDonnell Douglas ACES II seat found in F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s), and its brakes (the same type used on a Gulfstream III executive jet). Many of the plane’s avionics black boxes were also taken directly off the shelf.

“The Skunk Works gave us a perfectly usable product as quickly as possible,” says Lt. Gen. Peter T. Kempf, commander of 12th Air Force. He adds that Lockheed did not attempt to deliver a “perfect” airplane, an effort that surely would have brought long delays in deployment of a “good enough” aircraft.

For developing and fielding the F-117 in complete secrecy and at such a rapid pace, the National Aeronautic Association awarded the 1989 Collier Trophy, the most prestigious award in American aviation, to Mr. Rich and the entire Air Force/Skunk Works team this past spring.

Hide in Plain Sight

“The F-117A is a one-mission, unique aircraft,” says Col. Tony Tolin, the 37th TFW Commander. “It is flown autonomously at night, to go after high-priority targets with pinpoint accuracy. It is not a close air support platform.” The Colonel concedes, however, that “it sure doesn’t look like any other aircraft.”

What gives the F-117 its unusual look is its faceted design. The planar surfaces set at unusual angles scatter incoming radar beams instead of reflecting them to a source. This dramatically reduces the aircraft’s radar cross section, which is an object’s “footprint” on a radarscope. The Northrop B-2 Stealth bomber, on the other hand, uses compound curves to achieve the same effect.

Additionally, the F-117’s primary structures, thought to be made mostly of aluminum, are covered by radar-absorbent material (RAM). The material soaks up radar beams, yielding minimal reflection. Other major F-117 structures, such as fully movable (above the fuselage join) V-tail ruddervators, are made of radar-resistant composites.

Designers also “buried” the engines in the fuselage and put the highly radar-reflective turbine blades behind intake screens equipped with faceted crosspieces. The F-117 has auxiliary intake doors on the fuselage above and behind intake screens. They are opened on taxi, takeoff, and landing to allow more air to feed into the engines.

The plane’s infrared (heat) signature has been reduced. First, hot engine exhaust mixes with bleed air to cool it. Then the air is dispersed through baffles in the harmonica-like tailpipes. In addition, a “ledge” fixed on the bottom of the fuselage directs the exhaust upward, further reducing the IR signature. The nozzles can only be seen from above.

Two other methods of detecting aircraft–visual and acoustic–have been addressed. RAM on the exterior offers a dull black finish that reflects little light, and the engines produce almost no smoke. Buried engines and absence of afterburners make the F-117 extremely quiet. At the Nellis flyby, the two aircraft sounded much like business jets as they circled. Only when the first pulled up after its near touch-and- go landing was any significant noise heard.

Little detail emerged about how the airplane performs its mission. The aircraft does have what appears to be a steerable forward-looking infrared set under the windscreen (allowing the pilot to see at night or in bad weather). The F-117 apparently does not have a radar.

The cockpit features a head-up display; Capt. Joe Salata, a 37th TFW pilot, notes, “We are very proficient on instrument flying.” Officials would not comment on the use of or need for night vision goggles. The digital avionics suite is complemented by a specially developed automated mission planning system.

The glazing in the rear-hinged, upward-opening canopy has a reddish- bronze tint, indicating electromagnetic interference protection. “You can’t see much of the fuselage from the cockpit,” says Capt. Philip McDaniel, a 37th TFW pilot. “It’s like riding on the tip of a spear.” The canopy’s apex appears to be either a periscope for improved rearward visibility or a light to illuminate the air-refueling receptacle.

A shallow depression on the fuselage underside on the right side of the nose-gear well appears to be a laser designator for directing the plane’s ordnance, which is carried in an internal bay. The F-117 has been described as being capable of carrying a wide variety of tactical weapons, including some specifically designed (or, more likely, modified) for the airplane.

Officials did not disclose what types of munitions are used. The two F-117s used in Operation Just Cause (the F-117A’s first use in combat) each dropped a single BLU-109/B 2,000-pound bomb. Officials say the F-117 has a self-defense capability, but close examination did not reveal an external gun port. Self-defense may hinge on the plane’s stealthiness and evasive tactics, though it probably has an internal jammer and chaff and flare dispensers.

The size of the F-117 slightly exceeds that of an F-15, both in wingspan (the F-117’s forty-three feet, four inches, vs. the F-15’s forty-two feet, 9.75 inches) and in length (sixty- five feet, eleven inches, vs. sixty-three feet, nine inches). With a height of twelve feet, five inches, the F-117 stands shorter than the F-15’s eighteen feet, 5.5 inches. The F-117, at 52,000 pounds gross, weighs in 18,000 pounds under the F-15C.

The F-117’s wings feature split, wide-chord flaps, swept back at an angle of about sixty-seven degrees. The aircraft, which flies on JP-4 aviation fuel, has a tailhook for barrier engagements and, in a throwback to earlier days, a drag parachute. The parachute, located in a recessed fuselage compartment just forward of the fins, is released when the nose wheel hits the ground on landing. The main canopy is pulled clear of the tail by a small drogue.

Just Call It “Black Jet”

All of the 37th TFW pilots present at the ceremonies at Nellis this past spring praised the aircraft’s handling and maneuverability. They strongly refuted claims that the airplane is not very nimble, a belief that has led some outsiders to coin the name “Wobbly Goblin” for the F-117A. Captain Salata maintains that its handling is similar to that of other Air Force aircraft. “We take offense at the term ‘Wobbly Goblin.’ We just call it ‘the Black Jet.’ ” The F-117 has no official nickname, though “Nighthawk” is in popular use among crews and maintainers.

Getting the F-117 on the ramp is one thing, but learning to operate and fix it is another. The F-117 program, in fact, had more concurrency (simultaneous procurement and development of a system) than the B-2 development effort has now. “The learning curve was just not there in the beginning,” notes Colonel Tolin. “But we are now close to maturity with the aircraft.”

In the eighty-one months since the F-117A achieved IOC, mission reliability (the probability of successful completion of a mission and dropping weapons with specified accuracy) has improved forty-eight percent. Maintenance hours per flight hour has improved sixty-nine percent. The wing’s fully mission-capable rate now compares favorably with that of a typical F-15 or F-16 wing.

One maintenance item peculiar to the 37th TFW is the radar-absorbent material. All F-117 access panels are covered by RAM, which must be removed to reach the F-117’s insides (and must later be replaced). Ninety-five percent of needed tools come right out of the standard toolbox, but some special items, possibly for working with RAM, are needed.

“We learned as we went along,” says TSgt. Randy Charland, an F-117 crew chief. “The more we learned, the better we got, and the easier it became. All the systems are fairly accessible and are very reliable.”

“There is no depot maintenance program so far,” says Capt. William Ogden, the officer in charge of the 37th TFW’s 415th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “What we have been doing is upgrading the aircraft. The airplanes are taken to Palmdale [Calif., to Lockheed’s facility at Air Force Plant 42] to do the upgrades, and we will continue to do that.” The Sacramento Air Logistics Center at McClellan AFB, Calif., oversees upgrades.

Every Plane Is Different

Each aircraft emerged from Lockheed’s Burbank, Calif., assembly plant slightly different from every other. One F-117 would get, for example, a new type of digital moving map, color multifunction displays, or autopilot, and the system would later be retrofitted on others. One modification in progress will replace the aircraft’s ruddervators with fins made of a new, stronger, thermoplastic graphite composite.

The last of fifty-nine F-117 As will be delivered soon. The Air Force recently revealed the final cost of the program (called Senior Trend in classified budget documents) to be $6.56 billion in current dollars–nearly $2 billion in development costs, $4.27 billion in total procurement costs, and $295.4 million in military construction costs. By Air Force calculations, the F-117’s unit cost came to $42.6 million.

To date, every F-117 has been delivered in unusual fashion–at night, in the cargo hold of a C-5-to its base at Tonopah, Nev., 160 miles north of Las Vegas. The airfield is about ten years old and has a 12,000-foot runway, fifty-four hangars, and about a dozen other buildings. Once part of a California oil-drilling site, the buildings were bought from Chevron for $1.5 million and packed off to Tonopah. A separate housing area for the wing’s 2,500 military personnel and 1,000 civilians was later constructed.

Once a week for eight years, F-117 pilots and maintainers living on or near Nellis would pack up, say goodbye to families, board a contract 727 run by Key Air, and go to work. Four days later, they would return. Wing members could not tell anyone, except those directly involved in the program, where they had been or what they had done.

Flyers and fixers adapted to a night-shift routine. “On Monday night, when we are unsure about their crew rest, pilots only fly one sortie, and they are finished early,” says Colonel Tolin. “On Tuesday, when we have a guarantee of their crew rest, we can go longer into the night.” Dorms are locked and have blacked-out windows to ensure that the crews get enough sleep.

Early on, work often did not begin until an hour after sunset, the better to ensure secrecy. “After the plane was revealed, we could start at sunset and fly longer,” adds Colonel Tolin. “We could also fly and train in the day. It is a lot easier, especially on your first ride in a single-seat airplane, if you can see outside.”

First flight is aided by a highly realistic simulator built by Link. “We don’t have any two-seat F-117s,” says Colonel Tolin, “so if you can fly the simulator, you can fly the aircraft.” The simulator is also helpful in developing cross-check habit patterns for the F-117’s unusual cockpit layout.

The F-117’s cockpit-panel design is cited as a contributor to two operational accidents, in July 1986 and October 1987. Spatial disorientation was the primary cause of both. A third F-117 was lost in an accident prior to delivery. Three mishaps in nine years of flying gives the F-117 one of USAF’s best safety records.

Nothing but Volunteers

All 37th TFW personnel are volunteers who undergo thorough screening before starting their three-year tours. Pilots must have at least 1,000 hours of flight time, an indicator of maturity in the cockpit. Pilots fly with one of two operational squadrons, the 415th and 416th TFS. The F-117 “schoolhouse,” the 417th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, familiarizes pilots with the plane.

Each month, pilots in the two operational squadrons get fifteen to twenty hours of flying (mostly at night) and perform two or three night air refuelings. Dual-qualified pilots get an additional five or six hours in Northrop AT-38Bs assigned to the wing. These totals are slightly less than TAC’s average.

New maintainers enter a school at Tonopah, complete with part-task trainers, and come out fully qualified. They then go through an on-the-job training program at one of the aircraft maintenance units.

To further incorporate the F-117 into the operational warplans, the wing has participated in one Blue Flag (tactical air warfare battle management) and two Red Flag (basic tactical fighter employment) exercises in recent months.

The F-117 has also been involved in one real-world action, with less than stellar results. Prior to the Army attack on the Panamanian Defense Force barracks at Rio Hato during Operation Just Cause, two F-117 pilots were to drop their bombs within fifty feet of the building to “stun, disorient, and confuse” PDF troops. The attack plan changed at the last minute, and, as a result of confused communications, the first F-117 pilot dropped his bomb where the second pilot was to drop his. The second pilot, thinking the attack had reverted to the original plan, dropped his bomb 325 yards wide.

The Air Force, violating a cardinal tenet of air warfare, apparently did not perform a battle damage assessment, and word of “direct hits” was passed to Washington. When Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney was shown pictures of the locations of the craters, he ordered an investigation, the results of which had not been concluded by late spring.

The F-117 surely will become more visible. In the third quarter of FY 1992, the 37th TFW is scheduled to move to Holloman AFB, N. M., which is a much more accessible and public base. The 37th TFW will replace the 479th Tactical Training Wing at Holloman, which will be deactivated. The move will eliminate the need for Key Air, which is currently flying 22,000 passenger trips on 300 flights to Tonopah per month.