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F-117 Nighthawk Lockheed Martin
F-117 Nighthawk
Precision Attack Bomber

The F-117 was the first attempt to build a production aircraft with a radar signature so small as to make it virtually undetectable. This revolution in stealth technology was due primarily to the development of computer programs able to compute the intensity of radar waves reflected back to their source. This software dictated the Nighthawk's unique shape composed of flat angular panels. Once a shape had been found with a sufficiently small radar cross-section, it was up to aerodynamicists to find a way to make it fly. This feat was accomplished thanks to advances in fly-by-wire computerized control systems that make constant adjustments to the F-117's control surfaces and maintain stability.

The stealth characteristics of the F-117 were further increased using various coatings of radar-absorbant materials (RAM) and radar-absorbant screens covering the engine inlets. Edges of doors and access panels such as the landing gear and bomb bays were also serrated to scatter radar waves. The aircraft's infrared signature was also reduced by mixing hot exhaust gases from the turbofan engines with cool air and ducting the mixture through a flat "platypus" exhaust.

Though called the "stealth fighter," the F-117 was actually an attack plane carrying precision guided bombs deep within heavily defended enemy territory. Standard armament consisted of two 2,000 lb (905 kg) laser-guided bombs, but reports suggested Maverick and HARM missiles were also carried regularly.

The F-117 was developed in utter secrecy during the late 1970s and early 1980s and was not made public until 1988. Shortly thereafter, the Nighthawk made its combat debut over Panama during the ousting of dictator Manuel Noriega. The F-117 saved its greatest performance for Operation Desert Storm when 42 aircraft flew only 2% of the combat sorties against Iraq yet accounted for 40% of the strategic targets attacked. The only combat loss of a Stealth Fighter occurred early in the Kosovo conlict when poor mission planning allowed a Serbian missile battery to predict when an F-117 would fly through its defense zone.

Despite its revolutionary capabilites, the F-117 was always limited to night attack missions and gradually became obsolescent with the development of more capable stealth aircraft. The introduction of the truly multi-mission F-22 and F-35 led the US Air Force to phase out the F-117 by 2008. The surviving attack bombers have been retired to the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada where the Stealth Fighter was originally tested. Here, the planes are to be stored in a mothballed state for the next decade in case they should be needed again.

Last modified 17 March 2012

First Flight (Have Blue demonstrator) December 1977
(F-117A) 18 June 1981
Service Entry 1983
Retirement 22 April 2008


one: pilot


$45 million

Wing Root unknown
Wing Tip unknown

Length 65.92 ft (20.08 m)
Wingspan 43.25 ft (13.20 m)
Height 12.42 ft (3.78 m)
Wing Area 784 ft (73.0 m)
Canard Area

not applicable

Empty 29,500 lb (13,381 kg)
Normal Takeoff unknown
Max Takeoff 52,500 lb (23,814 kg)
Fuel Capacity internal: unknown
external: unknown
Max Payload

5,000 lb (2,268 kg)

Powerplant two General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofans
Thrust 21,600 lb (96.0 kN)

Max Level Speed at altitude: 646 mph (1,040 km/h)
at sea level: unknown
Initial Climb Rate unknown
Service Ceiling unknown
Range 1,140 nm (2,110 km) with max payload
g-Limits +6

Gun none
Stations two internal weapons bays with one hardpoint each
Air-to-Air Missile AIM-9 Sidewinder
Air-to-Surface Missile AGM-65 Maverick, AGM-88 HARM
Bomb up to two GBU-10/12/27 LGB, up to two BLU-109, up to two GBU-31 JDAM
Other gun pods

Have Blue or XST Code name for the Experimental Stealth Technology (XST) program led by the USAF and intended to develop the capability to greatly reduce aircraft radar signature; 2 built (both crashed)
YF-117A Full scale development aircraft built as prototypes of the production model; 5 built
F-117A Production stealth attack bomber; 59 built
F-117A+ Proposal to significantly upgrade the F-117A with improved stealth features, replace the F404 engine with the F414 equipped with an afterburner, integrate new sensors, and improve navigation equipment; not developed
RF-117A Proposal to modify standard F-117A models to a reconnaissance version by mounting a removable sensor pallet in the bomb bay or permanently fitting a sensor suite in the fuselage; up to 24 planned for conversion of existing or new build aircraft but not developed
F-117B Originally a proposed model with a radar, GPS navigation system, and compatibility with the HARM anti-radiation missile; not built
F-117B Designation for a later proposed model with a redesigned wing of reduced sweep and increased span to improve range, also featured changes to the vertical tails and addition of horizontal tail surfaces plus enlarged weapon bays; not built
F-117B Designation for yet another model merging the improvements of the F-117A+ with the second F-117B that would increase the payload to four 2,000-lb class bombs and improve range; not built
F-117C Model proposed to the UK Royal Air Force based on the F-117A but with a new cockpit canopy to improve visbility, redesigned engine inlets, more powerful engines, and new avionics; not built
F-117N First proposal to develop a model for the US Navy based on the F-117A but adding corrosion protection measures and an automated carrier landing system; rejected by the Navy as being too limited with only night attack capability
F-117X Sea Hawk Proposed US Navy prototype to be converted from a F-117A airframe to demonstrate carrier suitability and low speed handling characteristics of the F-117N concept; abandoned in favor of a revised F-117N proposal
F-117N Improved model for the US Navy based on the second F-117B proposal but adding wing folding mechanisms as well as landing and arresting gear suitable for carrier use; not built
A/F-117X Revised proposal based on the F-117N and F-117B offered to the US Navy as an alternative to the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program that would include a radar, FLIR and IRST systems, afterburning engines, enlarged weapon bays compatible with bombs and Sidewinder or AMRAAM missiles plus provisions for external weapons on two wing pylons; not built

KNOWN COMBAT RECORD: Panama - Operation Just Cause (USAF, 1989)
Iraq - Operation Desert Storm (USAF, 1991)
Kosovo - Operation Allied Force (USAF, 1999)
Iraq - Operation Iraqi Freedom (USAF, 2003)

KNOWN OPERATORS: United States (US Air Force)


F-117 Nighthawk

  • Donald, David, ed. The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1997, p. 578-579, Lockheed F-117.
  • Donald, David and Lake, Jon, ed. The Encyclopedia of World Military Aircraft. NY: Barnes & Noble, 2000, p. 246-248, Lockheed F-117 Night Hawk.
  • F-117A: The Black Jet
  • Gunston, Bill, ed. The Encyclopedia of Modern Warplanes. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1995, p. 159, Lockheed F-117 Night Hawk.
  • Laur, Timothy M. and Llanso, Steven L. Encyclopedia of Modern U.S. Military Weapons. NY: Berkley Books, 1995, p. 79-82, Stealth Fighter (F-117).
  • Miller, David, ed. The Illustrated Directory of Modern American Weapons. London: Salamander Books, 2002, p. 94-99, Lockheed Martin F-117A Nighthawk.
  • Munro, Bob and Chant, Christopher. Jane's Combat Aircraft. Glasgow: Harper Collins Publishers, 1995, p. 142-143, Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk.
  • Spohrer, Jennifer and Frase, Tuesday. Jane's Combat Simulations: ATF Gold Users Manual. San Mateo, CA: Electronic Arts, 1997, p. 9.22-9.24.
  • Taylor, Michael. Brassey's World Aircraft & Systems Directory 1996/1997. London: Brassey's, 1996, p. 136-138, Lockheed Martin (LMSW) F-117 Nighthawk and A/F-117X.
  • Taylor, Michael J. H. Brassey's World Aircraft & Systems Directory 1999/2000. London: Brassey's, 1999, p. 122, Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk.
  • US Air Force F-117 Fact Sheet
  • Wilson, Jim. Combat: The Great American Warplane. NY: Hearst Books, 2001, p. 72-73, F-117 Nighthawk.

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