F-117A Nighthawk Spotted in Death Valley, March 2020

Last February, Combat Aircraft Journal brought you the incredible story of the still-active F-117A Nighthawks that were photographed and filmed flying at low level in the Mojave Desert. Aircraft continued to be seen throughout 2019, but of recent their appearances had dropped off. However, now the F-117 is back!

Japanese photographer Toshihiko Shimizu photographed this US Air Force F-117A flying on March 19, 2020, operating in almost exactly the same area as last February, near Death Valley. While the aircraft was not flying as low as the February 2019 sighting, it represents the closest public encounter in over a year. He said: “At 9:36am I found a black shadow in the sky. After I looked through my camera, I found it was an F-117. It came from south, then turned right and headed north. Five minutes later, it came back from south again, and flew the same course. At 10:27 it came back again from the south. It seemed to fly the same course. After that, it didn’t come back again.”

F-117A Nighthawk in 2020
An F-117A Nighthawk caught in flight on March 19 over the Mojave Desert. Toshihiko Shimizu


Nighthawk Lives On

In February 2019, Combat Aircraft Journal reported that the F-117A had been caught on camera flying at low-level in the Mojave Desert. The subsequent report from that is featured below.

The US Air Force officially retired the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk amid huge fanfare in 2008. Since then a few fleeting glimpses have shown that the stealth fighter has remained active, but with very little detail… until now!

The military operating areas of southern California and Nevada are packed with daily activity thanks to the array of bases in the region and units that come here for its ideal training. Ever since the US Air Force formally retired the F-117 Nighthawk in 2008 a few long-distance glimpses of the stealth fighters operating in this region alluded to continued operations for the type. A video from July 2010 revealed a close quarters encounter with an F-117 near the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) and subsequent distant imagery from outside the Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield confirmed the type’s continued operations from here. All the while, the USAF remained silent on the stealth fighter’s new era of clandestine activities.

Unmarked F-117A
Close encounter — an unmarked F-117A flies in R-2508 on February 26, 2019. Richard VenderMeulen

On February 26, 2019, a single, unmarked, ‘One Seventeen’ was viewed operating in the R-2508 range complex near Death Valley in southern California alongside a pair of F-16s, engaged in some sort of test work. Combat Aircraft obtained the clearest photos yet of a flying Nighthawk since the type was officially retired. Remarkably, the Nighthawk was flying at low level in broad daylight for an extended period in the one area. The same aircraft returned to the same area the following day, along with a second example, although not operating together.

The occasional reports and supporting imagery suggest that between four and six F-117s remain active at their original home of Tonopah, Nevada. While the USAF does not officially acknowledge their continued activities, it clearly isn’t overly concerned about them being seen.

F-117A in Flight
84-0824 nearest the camera and specially marked 88-0843, seen before the official retirement in April 2008. The jet nearest the camera would appear to be the example seen flying on February 26. Rich Cooper


Nighthawk Sundown

When the USAF formally retired the F-117A in 2008, 52 aircraft were placed into storage at Tonopah. The final goodbye was made at Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk Works’ at the Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, California, on April 22, 2008 when four aircraft made a ‘pit-stop’ en route from their last operational home at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to Tonopah for storage. Then-commander of the 49th Fighter Wing (FW), Col Jeffrey Harrigian, an F-15 and F-22 pilot by trade, commented: ‘No weapons system can hold a stick to what you guys have developed here’. The four jets (serials 82-0800, 84-0809, 84-0824 and 88-0843) formed up and headed for Tonopah, with Col Jack Forsythe, Lt Col Mark Dinkard, Lt Col Todd Flesch and Lt Col Ken Tatum at the controls.

Forsythe initially flew the F-117 in 1995 and he led the final official four-ship. In 2018, he told a USAF reporter: ‘I think we all recognized that this was something historic. We retired an airplane that people still reference today. We really understood that so it was a sentimental flight to say the least. It was a great weapon system, very stable and easy to fly. It’s still a memorable experience.’

Col Jack Forsythe with F-117A
Col Jack Forsythe led the final four-ship of F-117s to Tonopah in 2008. He is seen here at the Nevada airfield after the last official flight. USAF
F-117A Flying Over Death Valley
The F-117A gets down low over a public highway near Death Valley on February 26. Richard VenderMeulen


Nighthawk Today

The F-117s are officially being kept in Type 1000 storage at Tonopah as per a 2007 government ruling, indicating that they are maintained in a status from which they could be recalled to active service, should the need arise. Type 1000 aircraft are termed ‘inviolate’, meaning they have a high potential to return to flying status and no parts may be removed from them. The USAF stated that the aircraft should be able to be reactivated within 30 to 120 days depending upon how long the particular aircraft has been in storage. This is likely due to the fact that the F-117 retains some unique features that are still replicated in any other USAF types. This includes the ability for a low observable (LO) aircraft to drop a laser-guided ‘bunker buster’ for penetrating hard targets — in the case of the F-117 the EGBU-27, which was added in OFP 86.

A report in 2015 indicated that things were changing, stating that some F-117s would be moved into long-term storage at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. The subsequent Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act set out plans to ‘repeal of requirement’ regarding the ruling to ‘preserve certain retired F-117 aircraft’. Indeed, reports suggested that up to four jets would be moved out of Tonopah each year. Various reports, including one sighting of a jet loaded on a truck in November 2017, suggest that some may have been disposed of or moved, but sightings of active jets have continued, including in July 2016 a pair of jets spotted flying together in the pattern at Tonopah and now the close proximity sighting in California.

F-117A with Scrubbed Tail
The February 26 F-117’s tail surfaces have been scrubbed of markings, but the jet appears to be the old 49th Operations Group commander’s aircraft, serial 84-0824, which was one of the final four that flew to Tonopah on April 22, 2008. Richard VenderMeulen
F-117A with snowy mountains
A wonderfully evocative shot of an F-117 flying at low level in February 2019, some 11 years after the type was officially retired from service. Richard VenderMeulen

The latest sighting of two different aircraft on four separate occasions in a two-day window is by far the most overt activity by the F-117s since 2008. It’s unclear exactly why a small cadre of these aircraft are being retained in flying status, but it’s likely to be linked to some sort of operational testing on the NTTR, or maybe their storage status dictates that some flying activity is needed to maintain that level of readiness. If the intention is that the F-117s can be recalled for operational missions if the need arises, then some sort of flying activity is understandable in order to keep pilots current.

Markings applied to one of the aircraft in the form of a fin band suggests the small unit operating them today from Tonopah may be called the ‘Dark Knights’. It’s incredible to think that this small cadre is likely to be operating from the very same buildings that the first Nighthawk units occupied back in the early top-secret days here.

F-117A in the desert
The unmistakable shape of the F-117, still flying in 2019. This example (84-0824) used the radio callsign ‘Lehi’ when it was observed on February 26 and 27. Note that it isn’t fitted with the radar reflecting Luneberg lenses. Richard VenderMeulen

The February missions appear to have been conducted in support of F-16s from the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC), based in Tucson. Combat Aircraft evaluates that the F-117 probably offers the USAF operational test community a useful LO platform for trials of new systems without having to impinge upon the stretched F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II communities. The AATC F-16s might well have been testing the new Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), which is currently being introduced for the Homeland Defense mission.

It’s possible that these highly visible outings may signal that the end is finally near for the F-117, over a decade after it was officially retired. All of this is of course speculation, however, there is now proof beyond any doubt that this remarkable aircraft still lives on.

F-117A with feint ED tailcode
This F-117A was seen on the afternoon of February 27 and is a different example. It carries a ‘Dark Knights’ fin band but all other markings are scrubbed off, although a faint ED tail code might be visible, which would suggest it is one of the three YF-117As that Lockheed Martin flew from Palmdale under the 410th Flight Test Squadron. Richard VenderMeulen
F-117A & pilot
Incredibly, this F-117 pilot appears to be gesturing towards the photographers as he flies past. Richard VenderMeulen

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