In recent years, there has continued to be steady stream of sightings of the once highly secretive F-117 Stealth Fighter usually spotted by sharp-eyed aviation enthusiasts tearing around the Nevada desert near to Tonopah – despite the fact these aircraft have been retired for over a decade.
Mystery still surrounds exactly who is flying these aircraft and for what purpose, but a number of radio intercepts and sightings in recent days in broad daylight far away from their usual haunts suggest the powers that be are quite comfortable with the general public, and potentially adversaries, being aware some of these aircraft are still operational in some capacity.
The most recent appearances of the F-117s have taken place over the Californian coast this week both confirmed on Monday via radio callsigns although no visual sightings due to cloud cover, and then again yesterday (Wednesday) with two F-117s seen and photographed in formation with a KC-135 Stratotanker.
These once highly classified closely guarded secrets operating in the shadows now appear to be emerging from the darkness while flying in clear skies and broad day light over downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The recent sightings are well documented by The War Zone at https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/33593/f-117s-flew-directly-over-los-angeles-on-another-mission-off-the-southern-california-coast with a common theory in the aviation community being a limited number of F-117s are being used as aggressor aircraft for training and testing current combat aircraft, radar and electronic sensors.
For the military radio interceptor, the F-117 and other associated stealth aircraft have been the holy grail of intercepts, especially in the early years when their existence was not widely known and they were operating from remote locations on clandestine training sorties.
The F-117 first became operational in October 1983 with the aircraft and the squadrons operating in complete secrecy for five years but the development and testing of the aircraft dates back into the 1970s. Secrecy and clandestine sorties during the hours of darkness from their home base at Tonopah in Nevada were the order of the day until the official public reveal in 1988.
Their base at Tonopah kept the aircraft away from prying eyes and given its remote location and the extensive Nevada Test Range nearby, the aircraft could comfortably fly in secrecy while undergoing the necessary training and evaluations.
Although the aircraft was utilised during the invasion of Panama, the F-117s big public demonstration came during the first Gulf War, when the aircraft deployed in secret to the Middle East to overcome the heavily defended airspace of Baghdad to target key military targets during the initial air campaign.
In 1992 the F-117 redeployed to their new base at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico where the distinctive black triangle became a common sighting for the locals. Although the technology behind the aircraft remained classified and a closely guarded secret, the existence of the aircraft was now widely known and in the forthcoming years the F-117 would make regular public appearances at airshows across the US and also at larger international shows.
One common factor at UK based airshows was however the aircraft was always completely cordoned off and guarded by a combination of armed USAF security personnel and armed UK police officers.
The aircraft was officially retired from service back in 2008 although instead of retiring to the aircraft graveyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the F-117s returned to their original base at Tonopah back into their climate controlled hangars and placed in what is officially designated as Type 1000 storage – a state of retirement but the airframes did receive some level of care and maintenance and could be reactivated if required.
This was confirmed in 2014 when the USAF advised the F-117s were in ‘flyable storage’ but in 2017 the US would start completely phasing the aircraft out of the inventory with four aircraft per year being completely removed.
In recent years however the sightings of the aircraft have continued again providing credence to the theory the aircraft are being used as aggressor aircraft for testing and training. Sightings over the desert last year also revealed a new tail flash of the ‘Black Knights’ – a unit name which has never been associated with the F-117s which lead some to believe a new unit has been formed.
The good news for the aviation enthusiast is these sightings have all been in broad daylight when aviation photographers were quite clearly in the area and any radio communications have been on non-secure frequencies. The unit operating these aircraft know people are watching and listening which doesn’t seem to concern them. In fact in one of sighting in the Paniment Valley in 2019 the photographers even got a wave from the pilot while on a low level sortie.
Some key sightings have included:
July 2015 – An F-117 was spotted airborne above Death Valley trailing behind a KC-135 Stratotanker.
July 2016 – two F-117s spotted taking off from Tonopah in southwest Nevada with one aircraft lingering over the base while the other appeared to head out to the south.
November 2017 – An F-117 was spotted being transported by road near to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The following day an F-117 was spotted airborne in northern Nevada being chased by a twin seat F-16.
February 2019 – F-117 spotted flying in R-2508 Special Use Airspace Complex in vicinity of Edwards Air Force Base accompanied by two F-16s. The tail code on the aircraft was removed although partial identification confirmed the aircraft was formerly of the 49th Operations Group. The February 2019 sightings also identified the ‘Dark Knights’ tail band.
March 2020 – An F-117 was spotted flying through Rainbow Canyon in Death Valley National Park, commonly referred to Star Wars Canyon and the Jedi Transition due to the areas association with the Star Wars franchise.
And now these most recent sightings this week over California.
For the radio enthusiasts, the two commonly used callsigns for the F-117s still flying are KNIGHT and LEHI with a number of radio intercepts available online.
For UK monitors it is highly unlikely we will ever see the F-117 flying again this side of the Atlantic, but for monitors based in the USA it seems there continues to be some excellent opportunities to see and hear this aircraft before it completely disappears into the history books.
Be sure and visit https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone for detailed analysis on a number of F-117 sightings.