Staff Writer (Updated: 5/18/2016):
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.