The small pocket force of still active F-117s that are flying in the aggressor and test and evaluation roles continues to expand its operations beyond the confines of its ‘childhood’ and ‘retirement’ home of Tonopah Test Range Airport, located in a remote swathe of Southern Nevada. Now, after deploying briefly to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego last week, a bizarrely high-profile operation for the traditionally extremely shy Nighthawks, the type has returned to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, a place that its operations have been tied directly to, in one way or another, throughout its active service. This is the first known visit of a Nighthawk to the base since its retirement 12 years ago.
The photos of the F-117s flying out of Nellis come to us from aviation photographer Santos Caceres, who goes by santos_caceres.lv on Instagram. He snapped the shots off base at around 3:40 pm on October 30th, 2020. F-117s were also seen in the pattern overhead the huge airbase in the morning. The aircraft flew under their staple, but still mysterious ‘KNIGHT’ callsign.
What exactly the presence of F-117s at Nellis means in the near term isn’t clear. It is very possible that the type will start staging from there for major exercises in the future. This would provide much smoother integration with the rest of the ‘red air’ forces that emanate from the base during major training and test events. As we have discussed in-depth, there is a great need for low-observable adversary threat replication for fleet pilots, as well as a need to face off against dissimilar types. There is no tactical aircraft we know of that is more dissimilar to frontline types than the F-117. Its stealthy characteristics, paired with creative tactics, could really give ‘the good guys’ a run for their money. The same is true for weapons and tactics development operations with the operational test community at Nellis. The F-117’s very well studied signature, including its reduced infrared signature, is clearly a major reason for its use in developmental roles, as I posited six years ago along with the aircraft’s potential utility as an aggressor.
So, are we getting to the point where the Air Force will just be open and even celebratory about the F-117s unique little role in its sprawling air combat ecosystem?
Clearly, the security around the program has changed, but it isn’t clear if the Air Force is planning on actively promoting it.
We reached out to Air Combat Command last week about the F-117’s visit to Miramar. Although they were kind enough to respond to our query with something, it was very limited in nature:
The Air Force retired the F-117 from active service, but pilots from the Air Force Test Center still fly them for limited research activities.
Still, this visit could have been a prelude to a bigger media operation around the F-117’s recent higher profile. We would all love to know more about its current roles and even the chance to see it again in action, at least before they disappear forever sometime later this decade. Eventually, the F-35 will take up the stealthy aggressor role, which could eventually put an end to Nighthawk operations, at least in the red air capacity. At the same time, the aircraft is unique enough, and its ‘first generation’ stealthy characteristics are also quite special in their own right, that keeping the Nighthawk around longer in smaller numbers is a real possibility. Although about a dozen F-117s are earmarked for museums, and some have already been delivered to them, there are still around four dozen F-117s either flying or in storage at Tonopah, so that in itself is a huge spare parts bin to pull from to keep half a dozen or so jets airworthy for an extended period of time. As it sits now, all of the non-museum F-117s are mandated to be destroyed at a rate of four per year, but that has not happened just yet as far as we know. As such, the F-117 should be at least available for support operations throughout the decade.
The War Zone has reached out to Nellis Air Force base for comment on their special throwback visitor. We will let you know what we find out.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com