Stealth On Ice! Climate Testing an F-117 at McKinley Climatic Laboratory

f 117 fsd ice climate lab  Stealth On Ice! Climate Testing an F-117 at McKinley Climatic Laboratory(Image: via US Federal Government, public domain)

Sightings over the past few years have confirmed that a small number of previously retired F-117 Nighthawks are flying again over the desert ranges of the western United States. Meanwhile, reports point to a bleak fate for the remainder of the mothballed Stealth Fighter fleet – burial near the restricted Tonopah Test Range Airport, perhaps even with their own headstones.

So you could be forgiven for thinking the above picture showed a Nighthawk carcass being placed into cryostasis pending a time when it might be resurrected. In reality, however, the airframe depicted is one of the original five full scale development (FSD) YF-117 aircraft. The picture shows the jet undergoing testing in the refrigeration system at McKinley Climatic Laboratory.

With the exception of some wreckage in Belgrade and a hybrid jet mounted on a pole outside the Skunk Works in Palmdale, the YF-117s are the only ‘Stealth Fighters’ you’re likely to get close to today. The others remain off-limits at Tonopah.

F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman Air Force Base Heritage Park

yf 117 holloman  F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman Air Force Base Heritage Park(Image: US Air Force, public domain)

Of the six F-117 Nighthawks on display (including a wreck in Belgrade), one stands in the Heritage Park at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the official home of the Stealth Fighter after it was declassified during the late 1980s. These photographs show the retired “Black Jet” – a YF-117 full scale development (FSD) aircraft, serial number 79-0782 – being towed across the base to its new home in the park.

yf 117 holloman 2  F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman Air Force Base Heritage Park(Image: US Air Force, public domain)

The move was carried out by the 49th Maintenance Squadron on April 5, 2008. Named Scorpion 3 (one of the original Senior Trend aircraft of the Baja Scorpions), the jet was originally used for acoustics and navigation system testing, and – with an American flag painted on its underside – was the aircraft that revealed the Stealth Fighter’s existence to high ranking officials at Groom Lake on December 14, 1983, while the programme was still top secret.

f 117 american flag  F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman Air Force Base Heritage Park(Image: US Navy, public domain)

Repainted to represent the first production F-117 to drop weapons in combat (85-0816 – which is now stored at Tonopah Test Range Airport), Scorpion 3 has taken pride of place alongside other great planes like the F-15 Eagle and F-4 Phantom.

yf 117 holloman 3  F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman Air Force Base Heritage Park(Image: US Air Force, public domain)

Five YF-117 FSD aircraft were originally built. Four are now on display, while one was scrapped in 2008 to test effective ways of destroying F-117 airframes, which contain both classified technology and toxic materials. With the exception of wreckage from a Nighthawk shot down during the Kosovo War and a hybrid airframe on a pedestal outside the Skunk Works, no production F-117s are on public display.

yf 117 holloman 4  F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman Air Force Base Heritage Park(Image: US Air Force, public domain)

While several Stealth Fighters have been sighted back in the air over Nevada, most of the retired fleet rests semi-dismanted in their original hangars at Tonopah. It has also been suggested that the iconic jets are in the process of being ploughed into deep pits on the massive Nevada Test Range where their 30-year-old stealth technology will remain forever off-limits.  That said, a full size replica has been spotted in China.

F-117 Stealth Fighters Stored at Tonopah – Flying Again?

f 117 storage tonopah  F-117 Stealth Fighters Stored at Tonopah – Flying Again?(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.

f 117 tonopah  F-117 Stealth Fighters Stored at Tonopah – Flying Again?(Images: Google Earth via DigitalGlobe; Inset: Airman 1st Class Vanessa LaBoy, public domain)

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.

f 117 nellis range 2010  F-117 Stealth Fighters Stored at Tonopah – Flying Again?(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.

Chinese F-117 Full Size Replica – a Cause for Concern?

f 117 full size replica china  Chinese F-117 Full Size Replica – a Cause for Concern?(Image: Google Earth via GeoEye)

Previously we reported that Pakistan may have given China access to the stealth helicopter that crashed during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.  In that article we mentioned that the F-117 Stealth Fighter shot down during the Kosovo War may have found its way to Russia.  Interestingly, this 2010 Google Earth image shows the faint outline of an F-117 in the Chinese city of Luoyang, reportedly sitting outside the Electro-Optical Technology Development Center – an R&D centre for Chinese air-to-air missiles.

f 117 mock up china  Chinese F-117 Full Size Replica – a Cause for Concern?(Image: Google Earth via GeoEye)

Not surprisingly, the F-117 in the satellite photo is reportedly a full size replica.  China is believed to have developed several Stealth Fighter and SR-71 mock-ups (see here) over the years, in a bid to better understand U.S. stealth technology.  These images purportedly show the Blackbird attempt along with an F-22 Raptor.  But the authenticity of the images is in question because the F-22 certainly is not a full size replica built by China – it’s a direct mirror image of this legitimate American photo of the first operational Raptor in the paint shop.

china j 20  Chinese F-117 Full Size Replica – a Cause for Concern?(Image: Air Defense, cc-sa-3.0)

The F-117 in the satellite photo was reportedly spotted by the China Defense Forum and appears to be partially complete, perhaps missing its forward fuselage.  But the grainy image – with a fuselage that fades into the concrete as it nears the front – almost looks as if the wannabe Stealth Fighter is painted on the ground.  Either way, is this replica a cause for concern?  Probably not, since the F-117’s faceted stealth is decades old by modern standards.  China’s fifth generation Chengdu J-20 stealth prototype (above) is far more concerning.