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Air Force’s Stealth Fighter Fleet Heads Toward Retirement

By Staff Sgt. Matthew Bates, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M., Oct. 31, 2006 – After 25 years of storied service, the F-117 Nighthawk, the Air Force's first stealth fighter, is about to retire.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Capt. Christina Szasz prepares an F-117 Nighthawk for takeoff at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Oct. 27. The jet was part of a 25-ship formation celebrating the Nighthawk's 25th anniversary and 250,000th flying hour. The Air Force’s F-117 fleet is being retired. Photo by Senior Airman Brian Ferguson, USAF
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The technology that once made it unique has now caught up to it, and newer fighter aircraft are joining the fleet. Still, the Nighthawk was the first of its kind, a fact anyone who has spent time around the aircraft is quick to point out.

Many of these people gathered here Oct. 29 to commemorate 25 years of Nighthawk history at the Silver Stealth ceremony. Members of the F-117 community, past and present, were on hand to pay homage to the aircraft's illustrious history, a history that contains as many secrets as it does legends.

Part of the Air Force’s arsenal since 1981, the Nighthawk was the stuff of science fiction. It could fly across enemy skies and through the world's most advanced radar systems without being detected. This capability allowed the aircraft to perform reconnaissance missions and bomb critical targets, all without the enemy knowing who or what had hit them.

"This is a strategic weapon that really reshaped how the Air Force looked at strategic warfare," said Lt. Col. Chris Knehans, commander of the 7th Fighter Squadron here. "It doesn't matter what defenses you put up, how deep you try to hide or how much you surround yourself with collateral damage, this airplane will come and get you."

This fact has made the Nighthawk a vital part of the Air Force's various campaigns since the aircraft's introduction. It has seen service in Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia as part of such operations as Desert Storm, Allied Force, Just Cause, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

For those who either fly or provide support to the Nighthawk, the aircraft has been a faithful one. Knowing it is now in its last days is bittersweet for many of them.

"From a pragmatic point of view, we all understand why it's leaving," Knehans said. "I mean it's a 30-year-old concept now. But when you look at its history, its design and its combat record, … yeah, the Air Force is going to lose basically a very unique weapon system."

For Master Sgt. Byron Osborn, who has worked on the F-117 for almost 19 years, the emotions are clearer.

"For old-timers like me, it's a sad day," he said. "A lot of the younger guys like the new, flashier aircraft, but I'll stick with this old dog any day."

The Air Force is saying goodbye to the F-117, but not to the effect it has had on modern warfare. Its successor, the F-22 Raptor, will continue the fight the Nighthawk started, which, according to retired Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton, one of the first F-117 pilots, is a hard job to fill.

"Whenever its nation called, the F-117 answered, providing capabilities that had never been known before," he said. "If we needed the door kicked in, the stealth was the one to do it. Never before had such an aircraft existed."

Modern technology may have caught up with the F-117 and new aircraft may be set to take its place on the tarmac, but for those who have been part of its storied history, none will ever be able to replace it.

(Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Bates is assigned to Air Force Print News.)

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