F-117A retirement bittersweet occasion

The first six F-117A Nighthawks are prepared for their final flight before taking off to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class John Strong)

The first six F-117A Nighthawks are prepared for their final flight before taking off to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class John Strong)

The first six F-117A Nighthawks await their final flight to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class John Strong)

The first six F-117A Nighthawks await their final flight to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class John Strong)

Families were able to look in the cockpit of the F-117A Nighthawk before six were retired to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12 (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman !st Class Tiffany Mayo)

Families were able to look in the cockpit of the F-117A Nighthawk before six were retired to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12 (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Mayo)

Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, 49th Fighter Wing commander, speaks at the retirement ceremony of the first six F-117A Nighthawks flying to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12 (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman !st Class Tiffany Mayo)

Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, 49th Fighter Wing commander, speaks at the retirement ceremony of the first six F-117A Nighthawks flying to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12 (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Mayo)

The Gray Dragon F-117A Nighthawk is one of the first to fly into retirement to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class John Strong)

The Gray Dragon F-117A Nighthawk is one of the first to fly into retirement to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class John Strong)

The first six F-117A Nighthawks are prepared for their final flight before taking off to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jamal Sutter)

The first six F-117A Nighthawks are prepared for their final flight before taking off to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jamal Sutter)

The first three of six F-117A Nighthawks taxi the runway before taking off to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jamal Sutter)

The first three of six F-117A Nighthawks taxi the runway before taking off to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jamal Sutter)

Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, 49th Fighter WIng commander, signs the bay door of one of the retiring F-117A Nighthawks. Six Nighthawks retired to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jamal Sutter)

Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, 49th Fighter WIng commander, signs the bay door of one of the retiring F-117A Nighthawks. Six Nighthawks retired to Tonopah Test Range, Nev., March 12. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jamal Sutter)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- It was a bittersweet occasion for many members of Team Holloman as the first six F-117A Nighthawks made their final flight into retirement March 12. More than 500 spectators from Holloman and the Alamogordo community showed up to sign the jets and say their goodbyes. 

"With the launch of these great aircraft today, the circle comes to a close - their service to our nation's defense fulfilled, their mission accomplished and a job well done," said Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, 49th Fighter Wing commander. "We send them today to their final resting place -- a home they are intimately familiar with -- their first, and only, home outside of Holloman, Tonopah Test Range, Nevada." 

General Goldfein, the last bandit, will fly the first F-117A out of Holloman. 

"This jet is part of an American success story," he said. "We should never let something like that fade away unnoticed. We need to send it off with class and style." 

Once the jets arrive at Tonopah, the wings will be removed and the jets will be stored in their original hangars. For those who maintained and flew them for so many years, that is the saddest part. 

"It's the end of one era and the start of a new," said Master Sgt. Michael Gann, 49th Fighter Wing Safety office. Sergeant Gann is a former crew chief for the F-117 and said though he hates to see it go, he understands the need to move on and keep up with new technology. 

Former Operations Group commander and Col. (retired) Klaus Klause said he doesn't want them to go but he knows its inevitable. "I had a tear in my eye when I heard about the jets retiring," he said. "This is a bittersweet day and even though my jet is deployed, I signed all six of these." 

The colonel said he'll be thinking about the first time he flew an F-117 as the jets fly out today. 

"These jets fly like any other aircraft, but they have so much more 'magic,'" he said referring to the jets stealth technology. 

Though today's ceremony marks the end of an era, the legacy the six jets leave behind will continue to live on. 

All six of the retiring jets have taken part in the three major conflicts that occurred during the program's lifespan - Operations Desert Storm, Allied Force and Iraqi Freedom, and represent more than 14,000 F-117 sorties since the first was delivered to the Air Force in November 1982. 

"The Nighthawk story is truly one of vision, guts, passion, heroism, defiance and incredible risk taking. A story both uniquely American and, I believe, uniquely Air Force," said General Goldfein. "How appropriate that we, the Nighthawk Team responsible for writing the final chapter in this story, gather here together to send the first six Nighthawks off in style."