When we talk about stealth fighters today, the Lockheed F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II usually spring to mind. There was one plane, though, that started it all, paving the way for all future stealth aircraft — and did so over a quarter-century ago. That plane was the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk.
The Nighthawk was actually a hard sell to legendary aeronautical and systems engineer Kelly Johnson, the man behind aviation hallmarks, like the P-38 Lightning (the plane Tom Lanphier flew to kill Isoroku Yamamoto), the SR-71 Blackbird, and the U-2 Dragon Lady. Lockheed's website reports that Johnson famously told Ben Rich the plane would "never get off the ground." But the F-117 wasn't designed to look pretty or to have high performance. It was meant to be invisible.
The F-117 Nighthawk, the world's first attack aircraft to employ stealth technology, retired after 27 years of U.S. Air Force service. The aircraft made its first flight at the Tonopah Test Range, Nev., in June 1981, just 31 months after full-scale development was authorized. The Nighthawk program remained classified until November 1988, when a photo of the jet was first unveiled to the public. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The F-117 first flew in 1981 and became operational in 1983. The plane was flown only at night to keep prying eyes away — and many of the R&D efforts were done in the Nevada desert. In 1989, the plane took some heat after its involvement in Operation Just Cause, where it dropped what were to be, essentially, 2000-pound stun grenades. It didn't work.
But it was Desert Storm that made the F-117 a legend. On the opening night, F-117s, each with a radar cross-section the size of a marble, slipped into Baghdad and hit vital command and control targets. Saddam's thugs had no idea that these planes were coming — they had left the city's lights on.
An F-117 Stealth Fighter takes off for a mission from the flightline. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth)
F-117A.com notes that even though only 36 F-117s were in the theater of operations, they hit 31 percent of the targets. There was no other plane the coalition dared to send over downtown Baghdad.
The F-117 serves for 17 years after Desert Storm, seeing action in Operation Allied Force and the Global War on Terror. It was retired in 2008, arguably too soon for this legend to fade away.