How time (and the F 117A) flies! (updated)

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The F 117A Nighthawk fighter, the first stealth aircraft, is being quietly retired from service. This mighty achievement of American technology thrilled me the first time I learned of it. Not just its capabilities, but its frightening bird—of—prey appearance spoke volumes about our determination and our limitless capacity to harnass superior mental firepower to the task of making war. There were techical reasons to color it black, but aesthetics alone would have dictated the same result.

When one these birds was shot down over Serbia and the wreckage sent to the Russians, I groaned. I never that the war with Serbia was fought in the American national interest, and regretted that some of our top secrets might now be in the hands of the Russians. Paul Cabot of the Toronto Aerospace Musem is quoted as saying,

"There have been developments in radar so maybe the F—117A had started showing up. That's something we won't be told."

We don't know if effective radar countermeasures exist, and if they do, whether or not capturing the plane shot down in Sebia made a difference in their development. The F 22 Raptor is a more advanced and capable airplane, anyway. The Nighthawk was rushed into production and was, as the first stealthy plane, destined to be surpassed as its experience was studied and improvements planned.

I am in the habit of visiting aviation museums whenever I travel near one somewhere in the country. Not just the big ones like the Smithsonian and the Air Force Museum, but the smaller ones, like the one at Travis AFB near my home. I will surely be seeing the F 117A up close sometime, and will utter my words of thanks for an idea, a mission, and a machine that served us well.

Hat tip: Bryan Demko

Thomas Lifson   11 3 06

Update: D.M. Giangreco writes:

Thank you for your fine story on the F—117's retirement from the inventory.  The speculation by the Toronto Aerospace Museum official, however ("There have been developments in radar so maybe the F—117A had started showing up. That's something we won't be told."), and reference to the plane shot down in Serbia deserve a few small correctives.

While this is a complex subject, it is useful to note that early mathematical work for faceted stealth configurations was (1) developed by a Soviet physicist who won the State Prize of the Soviet Union for his work which was subsequently shelved (unclassified), and translated by the USAF Intelligence Agency at Bolling AFB in the early 70s; (2) the fly—by—wire technology is the same as the F—16's and has been incorporated into Euro and Sov (now Russian) aircraft; and (3)the radar—absorbent skin is also an old ——— but still highly useful ——— technology when part of an overall package.  Bottom line, the Russians got nothing that they didn't already have from the aircraft that was shot down.  The F—117 regularly took part in Red Flag exercises from the 80's until recently, and it's principal, but highly unlikely, vulnerabilities remained the same as in the 80s ——— the "golden bee—bee" (random antiaircraft fire), a heat—seeking missile that miraculously gets close enough to the highly diffused engine exhaust to lock on; and AWACS—type (look—down) radar platforms.

You see, unlike the concurrently developed conformal stealth configuration of the B—2 and the F—117's replacement, the F—22, which are both "cold top" — "cold bottom" to radar, the F—117 is "cold bottom" but "hot top."  Like any aircraft, they could be shot down, but unless someone had an effective AWACS—type platform (and the US and NATO have a monopoly in this area) this type of event was essentially random because the ability to effectively target them was exceedingly small.  The type of setting I described in the prologue and epilogue to Stealth Fighter Pilot (1993) during the attempted Iraqi shoot down of then—Captain Matt Byrd was similar to the methods used successfully against Captain Ken Dwelle in 1999, but was not something that an enemy could repeat in any kind of systematic basis, and today is not a factor at all with the F—22 Raptor. 

There was some concern during the Air Force public relations blitz after the Gulf War about sending the plane out for "close inspection" at air shows because, unlike with the B—2 and F—22, elements of the F—117 could be mimicked by almost any nation with a reasonably well developed aircraft industry and money to burn.  It was recognized, however, that the public relations value was priceless, and that our AWACS rendered copycats useless because of the visibility of faceted technology to look—down radar.  Nothing has changed in this regard.

D. M. Giangreco has written numerous books and articles, and is an occasional contributor to American Thinker.

The F 117A Nighthawk fighter, the first stealth aircraft, is being quietly retired from service. This mighty achievement of American technology thrilled me the first time I learned of it. Not just its capabilities, but its frightening bird—of—prey appearance spoke volumes about our determination and our limitless capacity to harnass superior mental firepower to the task of making war. There were techical reasons to color it black, but aesthetics alone would have dictated the same result.

When one these birds was shot down over Serbia and the wreckage sent to the Russians, I groaned. I never that the war with Serbia was fought in the American national interest, and regretted that some of our top secrets might now be in the hands of the Russians. Paul Cabot of the Toronto Aerospace Musem is quoted as saying,

"There have been developments in radar so maybe the F—117A had started showing up. That's something we won't be told."

We don't know if effective radar countermeasures exist, and if they do, whether or not capturing the plane shot down in Sebia made a difference in their development. The F 22 Raptor is a more advanced and capable airplane, anyway. The Nighthawk was rushed into production and was, as the first stealthy plane, destined to be surpassed as its experience was studied and improvements planned.

I am in the habit of visiting aviation museums whenever I travel near one somewhere in the country. Not just the big ones like the Smithsonian and the Air Force Museum, but the smaller ones, like the one at Travis AFB near my home. I will surely be seeing the F 117A up close sometime, and will utter my words of thanks for an idea, a mission, and a machine that served us well.

Hat tip: Bryan Demko

Thomas Lifson   11 3 06

Update: D.M. Giangreco writes:

Thank you for your fine story on the F—117's retirement from the inventory.  The speculation by the Toronto Aerospace Museum official, however ("There have been developments in radar so maybe the F—117A had started showing up. That's something we won't be told."), and reference to the plane shot down in Serbia deserve a few small correctives.

While this is a complex subject, it is useful to note that early mathematical work for faceted stealth configurations was (1) developed by a Soviet physicist who won the State Prize of the Soviet Union for his work which was subsequently shelved (unclassified), and translated by the USAF Intelligence Agency at Bolling AFB in the early 70s; (2) the fly—by—wire technology is the same as the F—16's and has been incorporated into Euro and Sov (now Russian) aircraft; and (3)the radar—absorbent skin is also an old ——— but still highly useful ——— technology when part of an overall package.  Bottom line, the Russians got nothing that they didn't already have from the aircraft that was shot down.  The F—117 regularly took part in Red Flag exercises from the 80's until recently, and it's principal, but highly unlikely, vulnerabilities remained the same as in the 80s ——— the "golden bee—bee" (random antiaircraft fire), a heat—seeking missile that miraculously gets close enough to the highly diffused engine exhaust to lock on; and AWACS—type (look—down) radar platforms.

You see, unlike the concurrently developed conformal stealth configuration of the B—2 and the F—117's replacement, the F—22, which are both "cold top" — "cold bottom" to radar, the F—117 is "cold bottom" but "hot top."  Like any aircraft, they could be shot down, but unless someone had an effective AWACS—type platform (and the US and NATO have a monopoly in this area) this type of event was essentially random because the ability to effectively target them was exceedingly small.  The type of setting I described in the prologue and epilogue to Stealth Fighter Pilot (1993) during the attempted Iraqi shoot down of then—Captain Matt Byrd was similar to the methods used successfully against Captain Ken Dwelle in 1999, but was not something that an enemy could repeat in any kind of systematic basis, and today is not a factor at all with the F—22 Raptor. 

There was some concern during the Air Force public relations blitz after the Gulf War about sending the plane out for "close inspection" at air shows because, unlike with the B—2 and F—22, elements of the F—117 could be mimicked by almost any nation with a reasonably well developed aircraft industry and money to burn.  It was recognized, however, that the public relations value was priceless, and that our AWACS rendered copycats useless because of the visibility of faceted technology to look—down radar.  Nothing has changed in this regard.

D. M. Giangreco has written numerous books and articles, and is an occasional contributor to American Thinker.