(Image: U.S. Air Force, public domain)
This rare photograph shows four F-117 Nighthawks – known as Stealth Fighters – in storage at the Tonopah Test Range Airport in Nevada. It was here that the low observable jets were based during the early years of their operational life, after initial testing at the top secret Groom Lake (Area 51) facility. U.S. military aircraft traditionally retire to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, better known as the Boneyard, but the sensitive materials and still-classified nature of some F-117 components demand a more secure storage location.
The surviving fleet of 52 production F-117s are stored, with wings removed, in their original hangars at Tonopah. One of the mothballed Stealth Fighters is painted in “Gray Dragon” experimental camouflage, like the aircraft shown above (inset). Only the YF-117 Full Scale Development (FSD) aircraft – externally the same – can be found on public display. Of these, one was scrapped in 2008 to test effective methods of disposing of the fleet.
(Image: YouTube screen shot – watch full clip here)
The last operational F-117 left Palmdale – home of the Lockheed Skunk Works – for Tonopah on August 11, 2008, marking the disbandment of the 410th Flight Test Squadron. Like these top secret A-12 spy planes once stored at Palmdale, the fleet has languished under cover away from prying eyes ever since. But much to the delight – and confusion – of plane spotters, the F-117 Stealth Fighter was filmed flying near Groom Lake in 2010. Four airframes plus two maintenance spares are reportedly back in use for R&D purposes, but the fate of the rest sounds decidedly ominous.