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Staff Sergeant Robin Walker (left) reports no foreign objects in the inlets to Staff Sergeant Greg Slavik piror to takeoff from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. (Tech. Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald/USAF)

Unconventional Weapon

What we learned about stealth technology from the combat career of the F-117.

Often, though, what would have been a routine repair on another aircraft required scraping off the material from an entire panel, replacing the material, and, finally, re-sealing it.

Early in the 1980s, the Air Force planned to build an improved B model, but the money for the project was diverted into fixing the A. Replacing the computers started in 1984, and the first updated airplanes were in service by 1988. By that time, an automated mission planning system was operational. A new tail lifted the speed restrictions.

The radar-absorbent material was improved across the 59-airplane production run—a mixed blessing for the overworked maintainers, because although the new aircraft were better, the Air Force ended up with four different stealth configurations, each needing different repair procedures.

Piccirillo now says, “1988 was when we started to get some real capability” in the F-117. So the jet that became the hero of the first Gulf War was not quite the same as the aircraft that had entered service.

The success of the campaign became an opportunity for Lockheed to plead for a second life for the fighter, but in the early 1990s, many weapons systems and philosophies competed for backing.

Within months of the 1992 election that put Bill Clinton into the White House, every new and prospective tactical aircraft program had been canceled in favor of a project called Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST)—the precursor of the Joint Strike Fighter program, and the resultant F-35 Lightning II. It was the end of the road for an advanced F-117.

The jets that were already in service continued to get upgrades. For example, the radar-absorbent material was stripped off, and new access panels were cut in the skin. The old linoleum-like stuff was replaced with sprayed-on material that incorporated “zip strips,” which the maintainer could remove to expose the edges of an access hatch. That and other changes brought the jet’s mission-ready rate to an excellent 89 percent.

But the Air Force had allowed its unique fighter to become separated from the rest of its combat units. For almost a decade, the F-117 force had operated in secrecy at Tonopah Test Range. Not until 1992—after its success in Operation Desert Storm—did the Air Force move the fighters to Holloman. The idea to integrate the stealth fighters with the “iron jets” in the rest of the force occurred too late and too slowly. A senior F-117 pilot, Colonel Thomas “Bulldog” Shoaf, commander of the F-117 Weapons School, said the Air Force was slow to tout the full capabilities of a stealth aircraft, even among its pilots.

“There were times when we weren’t cleared into how well we were stealthy against the threat,” he told participants of a military conference in London. The result was “a perception in the combat air forces that the F-117 was none of their business, a stand-alone
system.”

It was during those isolated years that the Nighthawk force suffered its first and only combat loss.

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