by Richard Sheffield
Under a Special Access, or "Black," program named Senior Trend, 67 aircraft were built and delivered to Nellis where a new Air Force unit, the 4450th TG, was based.
Many in the press and industry assumed the Stealth Fighter had been designated the F-19 since the Air Force had not announced an aircraft between the F-18 Hornet and the F-20 Tigershark. Officials denied this, saying the F-19 designation had not been used to avoid confusion with the MiG-19. But when a later aircraft was designated the F-21 despite the large number of MiG-21s around, this argument was discarded. For some unknown reason, Lockheed and the Air Force reverted back to the old 100 series of fighter numbers. The actual designation turned out to be the F-117A. As of this writing it hasn't been given an official nickname such as the F-15 Eagle or F-14 Tomcat, but the name Nighthawk is being used by some industry writers.
Figure 2-1. F-117A Stealth Fighter
The first F-117A flew at Groom Lake in June of 1981.
After trials and testing it became an operational aircraft in the Air Force inventory in October 1983.
The 4450th TG gathered many of the best pilots from units all over the world. Mostly they sought pilots with Wild Weasel or F-lll Strike experience. This gives us a not-so-subtle hint as to the expected mission of the F-117A. No volunteers were requested; rather, the Air Force chose to "invite" certain handpicked candidates. They were told little about the project other than they were being offered an opportunity to participate in one of our nation's most important defense programs. Those who accepted became part of the 4450th and were tasked with learning how to fly a most unusual aircraft.
Most fighter aircraft are very good radar reflectors; since the F-117A was designed to avoid radar detection, it follows that it would bear little resemblance to other fighter aircraft. It's similar in size to other fighters, but the similarity ends there. It's short as fighters go, at only 35 to 40 feet with a wide wingspan of 45 feet or so. It can be described as boxy and shaped rather like an arrowhead, with the nose and wings forming a solid line from the point of the nose to the tip of the wings. The body of the aircraft is very much wider than usual, but being short and wide with a flat bottom, it can contribute to the overall lift of the aircraft. The single pilot sits under a canopy that is blended in a pyramid shape into the nose and body of the aircraft.
Rather than having the smooth shape associated with the models of the F-19, the F-117A is quite angular. The outer surface appears to be covered with RAM tiles in a system known as cut-diamond. Each section forms a "facet" that's designed to break up incoming radar signals into small sections and reflect what cannot be absorbed in a different direction. This way any reflection that might occur won't provide a strong signal to any one particular receiver.
The old Boeing XB-47 was often described as a sacred airplane because the reaction of someone seeing it for the first time was "Holy Smoke!" Similar reactions must frequently occur with the F-117A.
Specific information about the operational range of the F-117A is quite classified. The wide body houses two modified General Electric F404 engines, without reheat or afterburners. This and its size suggest a gross weight of about 45,000 pounds, with a payload capability of 4000 to 5000 pounds. The wide body should have a good deal of room for fuel cells, and fuel consumption rates should be low since the aircraft doesn't have to hug the ground and constantly maneuver. Add to this that it has been reported Oliver North developed a plan to use the F-117A in the retaliatory raid on Libya in 1986, and you can guesstimate a range of about 800 nautical miles.
In the North scenario, the F-117A would have been carried in a C-5 transport plane to a base in either Spain or Sicily. It would then fly the round trip to Tripoli over water. The plan was shot down by the joint chiefs of staff as being too risky. But the fact that the Air Force would be the only participant in the raid probably had something to do with the decision. As it turned out, the Air Force and Navy "shared" the strike. Actual military action is called for very rarely, so when it does come, everyone wants in on the act.
There's a debate over the aircraft's ability to be refueled in the air. Some say this is so important as to be a main design specification. Others contend the F-117A will rely on its remarkable combat range to perform almost any mission without needing to refuel. Since large circling tankers are easily spotted on radar, they might point to the possible intended path of the Stealth Fighter, making interception easier. Most tankers would be tied up with fighter and bomber missions in wartime, so the F-117A would likely need to rely on internal fuel for most missions.
With such an unconventional shape, the F-117A almost certainly use a fly-by-wire system. Such a system would let an onboard computer make hundreds of minute flight corrections a second to keep the aircraft stable. Even so, some report it's not an easy plane to pilot. Time magazine reported the pilots had nicknamed the plane the Wobbly Goblin due to its somewhat frightening handling characteristics. Others say that, while this may have been true at one time, the plane flies better than it looks and probably better than you might think.
Even so, the weight of the vehicle compared to the amount of lift produced doesn't reveal a very maneuverable aircraft. It should be just fine for strike and reconnaissance missions, but it wouldn't do well in a high-energy dogfight with a conventional fighter. True to its name, this Goblin would likely enter enemy territory unseen, attack, and leave the same way. Enemy aircraft encountered along the way would be avoided if possible.