Return of the Nighthawk: Now It’s Official

 - September 18, 2021, 5:57 AM
One of the F-117s is seen on arrival at Fresno. Both aircraft wore the ‘TR’ tailcode associated with Tonopah Test Range airfield. An F-117 had earlier been seen with the "Dark Knights" unit name, and the aircraft uses the "Knight" callsign. (Photo: Capt. Jason Sanchez/Air National Guard)

On September 13 two Lockheed F-117 Nighthawks touched down at Fresno Yosemite International Airport to conduct a few days of training exercises with the F-15C/D Eagles of the 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard (ANG). They left Fresno four days later. Although the fact that the officially retired F-117s are still in use is undisputed, the deployment to a joint-use civilian/military airfield in the full public glare marks the first major official recognition of their continued use, underlined by the official release of photographs.

The F-117 achieved fame as the world’s first “stealth fighter”, having entered service in 1983 under a cloak of secrecy. In 1991 it played a starring role in Operation Desert Storm, and saw action in subsequent U.S. campaigns. In April 2008 it was formally retired, and the fleet was placed into Type 1000 storage—maintained ready for use if required—at the closely guarded Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield in Nevada, from where the type had undertaken its initial, then-secret operations in the 1980s.

During the 2010s a number of reports of F-117 sightings were received from the deserts of Nevada and California, and photos began to appear on social media. In February 2019 an F-117 was clearly photographed at low level while flying in the northern part of Death Valley while being escorted by two F-16s. In one image the pilot can be seen waving to the two lucky photographers. While this ended any speculation that the F-117s were still in use, until the Fresno appearance the continued operations of the F-117 have not been officially acknowledged.

According to the ANG press release that accompanied the Fresno photos, the U.S. Air Force had 48 F-117s still on charge in January 2021, and they were being made available for museum display at the rate of around four per year. The release also stated that: “Although officially retired, many F-117s remain airworthy and are used to support limited research and training missions based on overall cost-effectiveness and their ability to offer unique capabilities.”

The purpose of the Fresno deployment was to provide dissimilar air combat training to the base’s Eagle fighters. “We have the distinct honor of being the first Air Force unit to host them for a full week of training,” said the 144th FW’s commander, Col. Troy Havener. “The training against integrated forces that include the F-117 will challenge and sharpen pilots, as well as build confidence in tactics and systems needed to defend our nation.”

“This training offers incredible value for everyone involved and presents new challenges to test difficult tactics in a realistic environment. Not everyone gets to do this, so it’s been exciting creating the ground work with our partners to make this a reality,” added Lt. Col. David Allamandola, the wing’s advanced programs officer. “The enthusiasm is contagious. We are incredibly thankful to our guests for their tireless efforts over an extended period of time to make this a reality. It’s been fantastic to see this plan come together.”