Air Force retires world’s first stealth fighter

The Air Force today will hold a retirement ceremony for the 27-year-old F-117A Nighthawk, the world’s first attack aircraft to employ stealth technology.

The Air Force decided to accelerate retirement of the venerable stealth fighter fleet to free up funding for modernization. Ten aircraft were retired in fiscal 2007 and 27 so far in 2008. Holloman Air Force Base’s remaining aircraft will go into storage next month, said Diana Filliman, director of the 650th Aeronautical Systems Squadron in a statement.

According to the Air Force 59 F-117 black jets were built at a cost of about $45 million each. While not invisible to radar, the Nighthawk’s distinctive, faceted shape and a special low observable coating combined to greatly reduce its radar cross section and any adversary’s ability to target it. Of the 59 F-117s, seven were lost, including one in combat, the Air Force said.

The stealth fighter was first publicly acknowledged only in November 1988, though it had been in production since 1978 via by Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, in its “Skunk Works” facility. The aircraft didn’t actually make a public appearance until 1990.

The jet made numerous battle deployments in Panama, Bosnia, Iraq and Kuwait and the Air Force says the jet would be brought out of retirement if needed.  

Components of the F-117’s design will live on however. A blended wing unmanned test aircraft designed and engineered by Boeing, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base,  is being tested by Boeing.

F-117 fighters are being replaced by the F-22 The F-22 Raptor, a $116 million aircraft that includes stealth capabilities but also a variety of weapons and avionics as well as the ability to operate at speeds close to  Mach 2.  The F-117 was subsonic.

The Air Force has been pushing hard to get more F-22s than the Defense Dept. had asked for.  The Air Force says it needs 277 aircraft rather than the current production plan of 183.  

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