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  • Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk (Stealth Fighter) Low Observable / Stealth Strike Aircraft

    Developed under a veil of secrecy, the iconic Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk became the first stealth aircraft to reach operational status.

     Updated: 5/18/2016; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ¬©www.MilitaryFactory.com

    The F-117 Nighthawk achieved global fame in the 1991 air war against Iraq. The aircraft was the world's first operational stealth platform and maintained a stellar service record during her tenure. Due to her advanced nature, the aircraft was held under strict secrecy for nearly a decade before a formal confirmation of her existence was announced by US authorities. From then on, the type went on to see combat service throughout several major global wars and subsequently maintained a stellar service record no doubt due to her unique qualities and expert pilot training. Despite the common nickname of "stealth fighter", the F-117 is in fact a strike-minded aircraft with qualities more akin to a bomber than a true fighter aircraft - she maintained no onboard cannon and was generally fielded with air-to-ground munitions.

    From its inception, the Lockheed F-117 "Nighthawk" was designed as a fully-capable, ground-attack "stealth" platform capable of traversing enemy airspace undetected and unleashing a potent munitions load against predetermined targets via laser guidance. Despite her highly futuristic appearance for the time, the F-117 was actually a design dating back to the late 1970s under the XST (eXperimental Stealth Technology) "Have Blue" project moniker. Lockheed's "Skunk Works" was awarded funding by the United States Air Force for the endeavor to which a pair of prototypes were delivered. The USAF requirement sought a new breed of strike aircraft that could fly undetected through enemy air defenses and deliver precision weapons.

    Lockheed engineers chose a very dramatic planform utilizing sharp angles where possible - even featuring inward swept tail planes. The two General Electric CJ610 non-afterburning turbofan engines were buried deep within the fuselage to lower the aircraft's heat signature. The aircraft was operated by a single pilot who was assisted by computerized facilities as needed. As the general shape of these prototypes were quite unconventional, technology played an increased role in helping the airframe remain aloft without encountering grievous stability issues. The first flight of a Have Blue prototype occurred out of Lockheed's Groom Lake, Nevada facility in December of 1977. Despite the amount of engineering work and technology put into the original Have Blue prototypes, physics proved to have the final say and both were eventually lost to accident by 1980.

    Official design and development work on a production form based on the prototypes was started in November of 1978 under the marker of "Senior Trend". Five FSD (Full-Scale Development) flight test aircraft followed with the first going airborne in January of 1981. These versions differed from the Have Blue prototypes in that they were an overall larger shape and the tail planes were now angled outwards from centerline. With the program having passed her required milestones, the first production quality aircraft - now designated by the US Air Force as the F-117A "Nighthawk" - was delivered into inventory in August of 1982. The Nighthawk became the first fully operational "stealth" aircraft anywhere in the world in October of 1983.

    The most obvious of the radar-deflecting/absorbing qualities of the F-117 was its unique lifting body shape, utilizing a multi-faceted angular approach that served to distort or reflect incoming radar emissions. Even the canopy sported a sharply crowned apex and minimal windows. The fuselage spine ran down from the cockpit to form the base of the aircraft at the extreme aft of the design. Air intakes were covered over with special heated "screens" and the engine exhaust ports at the rear were barely noticeable slotted horizontal ports that disperse heated air quickly to avoid generating a noticeable plume. Additionally, the F-117 was covered over in a radar absorbing finish (RAM = Radar Absorbent Material) that provided the aircraft with its one-of-a-kind flat-black appearance. As the production General Electric F404 series turbofan engines did not utilize afterburning for improved speed, the Nighthawk can further minimize its heat signature to prying eyes. Ordnance carrying capabilities were inherently limited for all were held inside of a rectangular internal bomb bay. This often led to the aircraft fielded a pair of laser-guided 2,000lb bombs. It was only during the instance of opening the bomb bay doors that an F-117 pilot might give away his/her position to enemy radar. From an underside profile, the F-117 maintained a truly delta planform and became highly recognizable to even the most casual of observers. The undercarriage was highly conventional and made up of two single-wheeled legs and a single wheeled nose landing gear leg.

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    Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk Technical Specifications

    Service Year: 1982
    Type: Low Observable / Stealth Strike Aircraft
    National Origin: United States
    Manufacturer(s): Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Company - USA
    Production Total: 59

    Structural (Crew Space, Dimensions and Weights)

    Operating Crew: 1
    Length: 65.88 feet (20.08 meters)
    Width: 43.31 feet (13.20 meters)
    Height: 12.40 feet (3.78 meters)

    Weight (Empty): 29,498 lb (13,380 kg)
    Weight (MTOW): 52,503 lb (23,815 kg)

    Installed Power and Standard Day Performance

    Engine(s): 2 x General Electric F404-GE-F1D2 non-afterburning turbofan engines developing 10,800 lb of thrust.

    Maximum Speed: 646 mph (1,040 kph; 562 knots)
    Maximum Range: 690 miles (1,111 km)
    Service Ceiling: 65,617 feet (20,000 meters; 12.43 miles)

    Armament / Mission Payload

    STANDARD (Internal Bomb Bay:
    2 x 2,000lb bombs carried in an internal bomb bay.


    BLU-109B low-level laser guided bombs
    GBU-10 and GBU-27 laser guided bombs
    AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles
    AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation anti-radar missiles
    AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles

    Global Operators / Customers

    United States (retired)

    Model Variants (Including Prototypes)

    XST "Have Blue" - Program Prototype Designation of which two were produced to the "Experimental Stealth Technology" requirement.

    FSD - Developmental models of which five were produced.

    F-117A - Initial Production Model of which 59 were produced.