Stunning Video And Photos Of Skunk Works Preparing An F-117 For The Reagan Library
The stealth Nighthawk named Unexpected Guest flew more combat sorties than any other and will now sit alongside an F-14 Tomcat at the Reagan Library.
Lockheed Martin has released a video offering a behind-the-scenes look at the work it has been doing to demilitarize and restore a retired U.S. Air Force F-117 Nighthawk, tail number 803 and nicknamed "Unexpected Guest," which will eventually be headed for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California. The War Zone was first to report that the Reagan Presidential Library would be getting one of these aircraft in September 2019.
The Reagan Presidential Foundation, which manages the Reagan Presidential Library, had also issued a press release earlier this week detailing what it is calling Operation Nighthawk Landing. The Foundation has been working with both the Air Force and Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works advanced projects division, which was responsible for the development of the F-117, to get the jet ready to go on display outside the Library next to its existing F-14 Tomcat fighter jet, one of a number of aircraft in its overall collection.
Lockheed Martin's video confirms shows the F-117 heading to the Skunk Works facilities at Plant 42 in southern California on a flatbed truck. This truck, as well as the orange pickup truck escorting it, is identical to the one that bystanders in that area saw carrying a Nighthawk in mid-August and this all but confirms that the plane they saw was Unexpected Guest.
When we see the Nighthawk unwrapped in the video, it is "in the white," indicating that its specialized and highly toxic radar-absorbing skin was removed before leaving storage at the secretive Tonopah Test Range Airport. This is where the remaining fleet of 51 F-117s have been in semi-active storage since their official retirement since 2008. As the War Zone first reported in August, this is also where the Air Force has built a new "media blasting" facility to strip this coating from those jets in preparation to destroy them. The service has set aside a dozen jets to go on display in the future in museums, such as the Reagan Presidential Library and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
We then get to see an interesting time-lapse of personnel reattaching the wings and installing dummy fittings in place of the radar-absorbing composite fairings that originally lined the jet's edges. This type of work would also be necessary to remove these sensitive features from other areas of the aircraft, including the exhaust area and tails.
The entire demilitarization process is complex and time-consuming and also involves stripping out any other sensitive materials and equipment, as well as recovering any parts that might still be useful. You can read more about this in this past War Zone piece.
The video then shows the team at Skunk Works priming and painting the jet. Since the aircraft will be on display outside, the mutliple layers of paint are also necessary to seal it against the elements.
The scheme it is now waring is what it wore when it was assigned to the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Ghostriders, later known just as the 416th Fighter Squadron, an operational F-117 unit that existed between 1989 and 1993. It also carries the appropriate "TR" tail code for Tonopah Test Range Airport, which is where the unit was based. The 416th was one of the units that brought the F-117 "into the light" after the U.S. government declassified its existence in 1988.
"I was privileged to fly the airplane when the program was classified," retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Scott Stimpert, who was among the pilots who flew this particular aircraft operationally, said in the Reagan Presidential Foundation's statement. "It was an exciting time, and a vitally important capability, but not something you could share with friends or family. I’m glad the airplane can come out of the dark to take its rightful place in the light, somewhere it can be seen and appreciated by the people it helped to protect."
During its service life, Unexpected Guest was the most active of the F-117s, flying a total of 78 combat missions, more than all other Nighthawks, including taking part in the type's combat debut over Panama in 1989, according to the Reagan Presidential Foundation. You can read more about the Nighthawk's developmental and operational history, as well as about how much of a proponent of the aircraft President Reagan was, in this past War Zone piece.
Unexpected Guest will be on display, barring a change of plans by the Reagan Presidential Foundation, starting Dec. 7. Check out this awesome gallery of images Lockheed shot during its preparation for the F-117's new home:
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