The F-117 is still flying. But why?

Stealthy stars and stripes

The F-117 Nighthawk was retired in 2008. So why does it appear to still be flying? (Air Force)

File this one under oddities and curiosities….

The F-117 “Nighthawk” was officially retired in 2008, and in theory the fleet of stealthy fighters has mothballed up. But rumors have persisted in recent years about one or more Nighthawks still flying out in the desert. Those rumors were proven this month when posted photos appeared to show an F-117 taking off for a flight at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada.

So. What’s going on here? We reached out to the Air Force for comment and were told they were working on it — 10 days ago. And since that doesn’t give us much info, we will turn to that favored crutch of journalism: wild speculation!

Keep in mind that the Air Force’s logic for divesting entire systems like the A-10 and KC-10 rest on the idea that keeping small, specialty fleets around is expensive. By that reasoning, keeping a small fleet of older, specialty aircraft around should be, well… expensive. So what would make keeping them around worth it?

“I would just guess it’s for radar signature testing,” Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said when asked what the F-117 could be doing. “It could conceivably be testing aerodynamics, also. It was one of the earlier generations of planes that shouldn’t have been flying but did, thanks to the magic of fly by wire and computers. It could also be fatigue testing for materials that were used on the plane, to see how well those are holding up over time.”

Another option is they are test beds of a different kind — retrofitted into unmanned systems, perhaps to check on the capability of optionally-manned systems for stealth aircraft. And of course it’s possible they are being kept warm in case of military need, but it’s hard to see what gap they would be fitting specifically in the military network.

All of which is to say, as Aboulafia put it, the planes could be used to test “any number of things.”

It’s no surprise there is some mystery surrounding the Nighthawk. After all, it was kept in secret for years, only unveiled in 1988 after several years of operation. But unless the service becomes more forthcoming, either in statement or in its budget, it looks like the next chapter in the plane’s history will continue to be shrouded.

Since we’ve come this far down the F-117 rabbit hole, we may as well share some photos of the plane as well. Because, let’s be honest — it’s a pretty funky looking plane.

A B-2 Spirit bomber is followed by two F-117 Nighthawks. (Air Force)

A B-2 Spirit bomber is followed by two F-117 Nighthawks. (Air Force)

F-117 to retire

An F-117 in flight. (Air Force)

A flight of F-117 jets zoom overhead during a ceremony. (Air Force)

A flight of F-117 jets zoom overhead during a ceremony. (Air Force)

An F-22 Raptor, an F-117 Nighthawk, an F-4 Phantom and an F-15 Eagle fly over Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Oct. 27 during the Holloman Air and Space Expo. (Air Force)

An F-22 Raptor, an F-117 Nighthawk, an F-4 Phantom and an F-15 Eagle fly over Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Oct. 27 during the Holloman Air and Space Expo. (Air Force)

Several F-117 Nighthawks belonging to the 8th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, hold for takeoff on March 13, 1998. (Air Force)

Several F-117 Nighthawks belonging to the 8th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, hold for takeoff on March 13, 1998. (Air Force)

 F-117 Nighthawks belonging to the 8th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, are being prepared for a mission  on March 15, 1998. (Air Force)

F-117 Nighthawks belonging to the 8th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, are being prepared for a mission on March 15, 1998. (Air Force)

Aaron Mehta

Aaron Mehta

Air Warfare Correspondent at Defense News
Aaron covers the Air Force for Defense News. In his spare time, he tweets about the Air Force for Defense News. Follow him @AaronMehta
Aaron Mehta
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