Nighthawk returns to Heritage Park

  • Published
  • By Arlan Ponder
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
History was made once again on June 28, as crews with the 49th Maintenance Squadron returned the famed F-117 Nighthawk to the Holloman Heritage Park. The completely restored aircraft takes its place in the park following a 4-month restoration project.

"After sitting in the New Mexican sun exposed to wind, snow, rain and birds the F-117 had begun to look extremely shabby," said Jim Burrett, 49th Wing historian. "With the restoration the aircraft was returned to the condition it was in during its stay at Holloman. The aircraft was also painted to represent aircraft 793 which made the first night's attack in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM."

Burrett said the original aircraft with tail number 793 is in storage at Tonopah Test Range, but the aircraft in Heritage Park has a great legacy also.

"This aircraft is actually Scorpion 3, serial number 79-0782. It was one of the original Senior Trend aircraft and was used for acoustics and navigation system testing. It was also the aircraft that was used to reveal the Stealth's existence to officials in December 1983. At that time the F-117 program was still top secret," he said. "So this aircraft is extremely important not only to the base, but to the F-117 program in general."

Burrett said of the four Nighthawks on display in the United States one is at Holloman with the remaining being at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada; Blackbird Airpark Museum at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California; and the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Portions of the only F-117 to ever be shot down, 82-0806, dubbed "Something Wicked," sits in the Museum of Aviation at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport in Serbia.

Originally placed in the park following its retirement in 2008, the F-117 was an immediate favorite of visitors to the park. Students, photographers and veterans who worked on the "fighter" were often seen taking pictures beside it or simply admiring its unique design.

In the introduction to a book written for the Silver Stealth Anniversary Ceremony in October 2006, then-Brig. Gen. David Goldfein, 49th Fighter Wing commander, said, "Remarkably, for those associated with the program, the F-117A Nighthawk ... still sends an adrenaline rush and an extra surge of patriotism through the body every time it is seen."

One significant event involving an adrenaline rush, Heritage Park and the F-117 was the never before seen, never to be repeated, 25 ship Nighthawk aerial demonstration during the Silver Stealth Anniversary Ceremony. Called a "ballet in the sky" by former 49th Fighter Wing Commander, Gen. Lloyd Newton, the five rows of five aircraft flew directly over the park to an echo of "whews," heavy sighs, a few tears and a lot of cheers.

The last F-117s left Holloman in April 2008 with a stop at their birthplace in Palmdale, California, before ending up in their final resting place where their historic journey began in 1981 - Tonopah Test Range, Nevada. The aircraft were placed in Type 1000 storage in the event they were ever called back into duty. In late 2008, one Nighthawk paid the ultimate sacrifice as it was mechanically shredded to see if it could be recycled or scraped due to the hazardous materials used in its construction.

The Air Force had originally planned to retire the F-117 in 2011. However, due to proposed cuts, the early retirement was estimated to free up over $1 billion to buy more F-22s. The decision by the Air Force to accelerate the retirement of the F-117 led to the arrival of the F-22A Raptor, another stealth "fighter," at Holloman in June 2008.

In all, 64 aircraft were built with 59 being full production versions and five serving as demonstrators or prototypes. The F-117 was designed as a single-seat aircraft to fly into heavily defended areas, remain undetected and drop bombs with deadly results and precise accuracy.

A total of 558 pilots flew the fighter when it was operational. They called themselves "bandits," and after their first flight they received a bandit number. The first "bandit," 150, was Maj. Al Whitley Jr, and the last bandit, 708, was Gen. Goldfein.

Former wing historian, Rick Shea, said, "The F-117A served its creator Ben Rich, itself, the USAF, and the 'Bandits' it carried into combat beyond their wildest expectations. The F-117A's list of accomplishments rate with those of the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Bell X-1. What began as a thought evolved into the world's premier fighter aircraft."

Hailed as the world's first aircraft to use stealth technology, the F-117A Nighthawk's 27 year history is filled with events that actually do place it up with some of the famed jets of the past. From a centuries old mathematical formula by Scottish physicists James Clerk Maxwell to its first combat bombing run in Panama to night attacks in both Iraq Wars to its retirement in 2008, the "Black Jet" continues to awe, inspire and confound anyone who sees it.