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New flights of the F-117 but the secret persists!

In 2008, the USAF officially announced the retirement of its F-117 stealth bombers from active service. A few years later, F-117s were spotted flying in the United States and on May 2, an F-117 was spotted at Savannah Air Force Base. A strict secrecy still surrounds these planes but the USAF has confirmed that some have been taken out of retirement.

Retirement…

In 1983, the US Air Force secretly introduced the F-117 Nighthawk to its fleet of combat aircraft. The secrecy that surrounds this device extends to its very existence because it represents a game changer for the USAF: it is the world’s first mass-produced stealth combat aircraft… in the midst of the Cold War. Just under 60 aircraft were operational and took part in the various American combat operations, starting with Panama in 1989 and ending with Iraq in 2003. The F-117 fleet was retired in 2008; the planes are considered too old, they had been designed without the help of a computer thus making their designs much less efficient than the B-2. They were also becoming too expensive to maintain.

In theory, this retreat was to take place in the aircraft graveyard of the Davis-Monthan base (Arizona, United States). However, their technology is still very sensitive and the planes have simply been stored in their own hangars at their home base, Tonopah Test Range Airport (Nevada, USA). The hangars would be air-conditioned and kept at a constant temperature, further demonstrating the USAF’s great interest in keeping these aircraft in good condition.

The airport in question is part of the Nellis Air Base Complex; this is an area of ​​more than 40,000 km² (i.e. 1/13th of France or the whole of Switzerland) reserved for the American Armed Forces and federal institutions. This very large space also makes it possible to test (or in this case, to store) away from prying eyes technologies, vehicles, secret planes, etc. which will equip the various components of the Department of Defense. Apart from the already very restricted access, areas inside this complex are completely prohibited from access and even overflight, such as Area 51, to name only the best known.

… or almost !

In the mid-2010s, several images of F-117s in flight began to emerge. As of 2019, the USAF confirms that none of the 51 F-117s in storage have been destroyed. However, there is no official information on the number of F-117s in flight condition. There are, according to several estimates, four F-117s currently used by the USAF for training and research purposes.

Stealth Aggressor

The Nighthawk is the only American stealth aircraft model that is not used on the front line. It can therefore be used as a stealth aggressor to train American and allied fighter pilots. The USAF staff can thus use another stealth aircraft instead of the F-22. It can also take the place of F-35s in this role and therefore reduce their flight hours in order to limit the maintenance required at a time when several dozen F-35s are grounded while waiting to see their engines overhauled. Nevertheless, the number of active F-117s would remain low and their maneuverability is very poor compared to the F-35 and even more so compared to the F-22.

It is with this in mind that an F-117 was seen at Savannah Air Force Base (Georgia, United States): it is one of the four major air combat training centers and the 2nd to May 15, the base hosts the exercise Savannah Sentry. It consists of training pilots to fly during complex operations, to carry out offensive or defensive aerial missions such as dropping ammunition or defending against cruise missiles. For this training, the base welcomes:

  • F-16, F-35A and F-22 fighter jets
  • KC-135 and KC-46 tanker aircraft
  • T-38 training aircraft
  • an F-117 which generally performs two sorties per day

Stealth Research

On January 23, 2022, an F-117 was seen in the “Saline” zone of the R-2508 airspace of the Nellis Complex. The particularity of this flight is that the stealth aircraft had its leading edges, the majority of its fuselage and its tails covered in “mirror” paint.

At the beginning of this article, it was stated that the information was sketchy regarding the F-117s in flight. There is even less information about this painting. A priori, it would serve to reduce the infrared signature of aircraft. This paint seems to relate to stealth aircraft since an F-22 and an F-35 have already been seen with a similar paint, as shown in the photo below.

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