Air Force Pillar – F-117 Stealth Fighter

F-117The F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter is not a true fighter; it has no capability to fight air to air combat and has no defenses such as chaff, flare, dispensers, or radar jammers.  The fighter relies on its stealth capability and the darkness of night to avoid enemy fighters.

The F-117’s mission is to penetrate dense threat environments and to attack high value targets with accuracy.  Making its debut in 1991 over Iraq, the F-117’s stealth abilities allowed it to spearhead the air assault against Iraq by hitting targets in Baghdad taking out the nation’s air defense command and control systems.  Additionally, the fighters destroyed aircraft shelters, bridges, railroads, and major highways; hitting 37 targets total.  Living up to its stealth name, the fighters were never detected nor fired upon during their missions in Iraq.

The F-117 was being developed long before it debuted over the Iraqi skies in 1991.  In 1973 engineers at Lockheed Martin answered the defense department officials’ call to design a bomber that would be undetectable by enemy radar.  Using obscure German and Russian theories, the engineers developed a computer program which postulated that radar beams could be reflected by a series of carefully angled triangular panels.  The program designed a diamond-shaped aircraft which would be 1,000 times less visible than any other aircraft.

The engineering team built a 38-foot-span wooden model and began tests, exposing the model to radar from every angle to see how visible it was.  The tests confirmed what the computer program theorized – the model registered no larger than an ordinary marble on radar, making it nearly impossible to detect.  Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract to build the stealth bomber in 1976 and began work immediately on Have Blue, the stealth demonstrator which would become the F-117 Stealth Fighter.  Constructed almost entirely of aluminum, the external surfaces were sheathed with radar-absorbent material and bound together with putty.  The F-117 had to be completely flush, the slightest crack or unfastened screw could make it visible to enemy radar.  The unconventional shape required a quadruple-redundant fly-by-wire system to correct its natural instability.

Making its inaugural flight on 8 June 1981, the F-117A showed off its stealth capabilities.  The project was top secret, training was only conducted at night, preparing pilots for the missions which would be carried out in the future.  Retired in 2008, the F-117 has been the model that later stealth fighters were designed after.