Final Flight For Stealth Fighters

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The U.S. Air Force is retiring its fleet of F-117 Nighthawks, which were the world's first attack aircraft to employ stealth technology. The single-seater aircraft made its first flight in 1981 at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. The Nighthawk program remained classified until 1988, when a photo of the jet was first unveiled to the public. The Air Force said the decision to ground the fighters was based on economics. "With aging aircraft fleets and infrastructure, senior Air Force leadership has made hard choices to pay for modernization of our overall aircraft inventory," said Air Force spokeswoman Diana Filliman. "One of these decisions was to accelerate the retirement of the F-117, and use the savings generated to accelerate the recapitalization and modernization efforts underway across the fleet." Fifty-nine of the F-117s were built, the last one in 1990, and seven of them crashed. During more than 1,000 sorties flown by Nighthawks during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, not one was shot down, the Air Force said.

"It was like flying into the biggest fireworks demonstration you have ever seen," recalls Brig. Gen. Greg Feest, reflecting on the first night the F-117s were deployed over Iraq. "Realize, we were in the heart of it. Because of the delivery system we had at the time, we had to be down low. We couldn't fly over the AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) ... We didn't know if [the stealth technology] was going to work. The engineers all assured us that it would. At the end I was amazed to see I had a checkmark next to every call sign and every pilot's name, knowing we were all coming home." After a retirement ceremony this week, the airplanes will be stored in Nevada. The Nighthawk's mission will be taken over by the F-22 Raptor.