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.