Why Is The F-117 ‘nighthawk’ Stealth Fighter Flying Again?

The F-117 Nighthawk was officially retired in 2008, but the aircraft is still seen flying with the USAF in 2022.

F-117 Landing At Fresnovia USAF
The F-117 Nighthawk is one of the most advanced military aircraft ever developed. Designed in secret by Lockheed’s Skunk Works division, the Nighthawk became a stealth attack aircraft and was very much shrouded in secrecy before its public unveiling in 1988.

The Nighthawk would go on to serve with the United States Air Force from 1983 until 2008, and was highly commended for its success during the Persian Gulf War of 1991 as well as the conflict in Yugoslavia. The F-22 Raptor took over the mantle that the Nighthawk passed on.

However, while it is officially retired, the F-117 is still flying. Sightings of the aircraft have taken place most years since 2008, although the US Air Force has bizarrely not really acknowledged their usage during that time. Its continued use though is one that has excited many people, with at least 50 airframes as part of the retired fleet and many of these aircraft are flown periodically.

Four were even secretly deployed to the Middle East in 2016. These may well have conducted combat operations as well. Some 14 years after its official retirement, the F-117 is still going strong.

Confirmed Sightings Of The F-117 Get Ever More Frequent
F-117 Landing At Fresno ANGB, California In September 2021 via Aviation International News
Confirmed sightings of the Nighthawk would get ever more frequent in the 2010s, with several sighted across the NTTR in 2010. Air Force Material Command would confirm in 2014 that the aircraft were being maintained in their hangars at Tonopah, to confirm the effectiveness of the flyable storage program.

Throughout the decade, sightings of the F-117 became more frequent despite the USAF announcing in 2017 that the type would be permanently retired. That very much does not seem to be the case though as the F-117 has appeared somewhat regularly over the last few years.

The F-117 was then seen on its first “open mission” on September 13th 2021 when two of them arrived at Fresno Air National Guard Base. This would also become the first time that the USAF acknowledged that the F-117 was still in use, despite the many sightings of the jet over the last 11 years or so.

Earlier in 2022, an F-117, allegedly #828 (84-0828), was actually seen with tail markings celebrating 40 years of service of the type. Given the original service life of the F-117 was 25 years, these are most definitely new markings and acknowledgment of the continued use of the F-117.

Why Are The USAF Still Using The F-117?
F-117- Taking Part In Sentry-Savannah Head On Viewvia The Aviationist
The most well-known reason for the continued use of the F-117s is in the role of aggressor aircraft. By that, we mean the Nighthawks are now used as “the enemy” in training exercises with current front-line USAF aircraft.

This has ranged from F-16s, to F-15s which they are regularly seen with, and even more recently with the F-35 Lightning II. Videos from 2021 and 2022 on YouTube show the F-117s up close and personal, with a lot of sightings of the aircraft taking place around Death Valley and the Nevada Test & Training Range.

The aircraft have also taken part in Red Flag exercises, again in roles like the aggressor, and it’s becoming much less of an open secret and more of an acknowledgment that the USAF is still flying the Stealth Fighter.

Some other reasons as to why the F-117 is still in service are to prove the efficacy of its storage procedures, to determine just how airworthy they are and also to test out various stealth-detection abilities. One F-117 was recently seen in a “mirror like coating”, which may have been an experimental treatment to reduces its infrared signature.


A Treat For Any Aviation Enthusiast
F-117 Flying With Two F-15s In 2021via USAF
Aside from the practical reasons for the USAF still flying the jet, the fact they are still flying is a treat for anyone who loves military aviation and aircraft in general. The F-117 is one of the most distinctive aircraft designs ever made, and seeing them still flying despite their retirement, and with all the secrecy around them still, makes them feel like mythical beasts.

It is though good that the USAF is now acknowledging that the F-117 is still flying, as it didn’t make sense to deny it with all the sightings of the jet.

Forty Years Old But Still Very Much Going Strong
F-35B-and-F-117 Over Mirimar In 2022via The Aviationist
It is remarkable to think that the Nighthawk is now some 40 years old and still going strong, with the TR tail code of their old base at Tonapah still on the tail of some of the aircraft. The Nighthawk has always been an aircraft that could turn heads wherever it went, even more so in this semi-retired from with its unknown purpose.

It’s not clear when the F-117 will finally stop flying for good, but we feel like the legendary Nighthawk has a few more years of service in it before we finally stop seeing it in the skies for good.

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