The F-117 Nighthawk was developed in response to the urgent national need for a jet fighter that could operate completely undetected by the enemy. In true Skunk Works fashion, it was developed rapidly and in complete secrecy.
Though far from the traditional, sleek aircraft designs preferred by Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson, the F-117’s unique design enabled it to reflect radar waves. With its angular panels bolstered by an external coating of radar-absorbent material, the aircraft was nearly invisible to radar.
In the summer of 1975, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a “pole-off” competition. Skunk Work’s design demonstrated unmatched low observability and won Lockheed Martin Skunk Works the contract for Have Blue, the stealth demonstrator that led to the F-117 Nighthawk.
DARPA awarded Skunk Works with the contract for the Nighthawk less than a year after Have Blue’s successful first flight in 1977, and a legendary partnership between the Skunk Works team and the U.S. Air Force quickly made F-117 production a reality. The first flight took place in 1981 just 31 months after the contract award, and deliveries began the following year.
The aircraft achieved initial operational capability in 1983 but was kept under the strictest of secrecy for many years. It wasn’t until 1988 that the program was publicly acknowledged, and not until 1990 that it made its first formal public appearance. By this time, the aircraft had been operational for seven years.
The aircraft's first public viewing at Nellis Air Force Base was attended by thousands longing to see more than the fuzzy, low-quality image of the F-117 featured on the May 1989 cover of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Though retired by the U.S. Air Force in 2008, the F-117 is an aircraft that continues to fascinate and inspire. It paved the way for the future of stealth technology, and it makes us wonder just how much further we can continue pushing the limits of what’s possible.
- The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awards Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® the contract for Have Blue, the stealth demonstrator that would lead to the F-117A Nighthawk. (April 1976)
- Have Blue takes its first flight over the Nevada skies. (December 1977)
- DARPA awards Lockheed Martin Skunk Works the contract for the F-117 Nighthawk. (November 1978)
- The F-117 takes its first flight piloted by Hal Farley, the project pilot. (June 1981)
- The first F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group (renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989), achieves initial operational capability. (October 1983)
- The F-117 is used in combat for the first time in Operation Just Cause when F-117s from the 37th TFW attack military targets in Panama. (December 1989)
- The program is awarded the Collier Trophy for "The Greatest Achievement in Aeronautics and Astronautics in America." (1989)
- The F-117 Nighthawk makes its first formal public appearance at Nellis AFB in Nevada which is attended by thousands. (April 1990)
- The USAF officially retires the F-117 Nighthawk with a special flyover ceremony at Holloman AFB. (April 2008)