F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Jets Just Flew A Mission Off The Southern California Coast

12 years after their official retirement, a small number of F-117s are venturing farther from their home base to execute aggressor and test duties.

National Archives

The F-117 Nighthawk was officially retired 12 years ago. A quiet period immediately followed, but within a few years, it became apparent that a handful of the stealth jets were still being flown. Since then, the increasingly active pocket force F-117 and has apparently taken on the low-observable (stealthy) aggressor role, at least to a limited degree, for training purposes, while also executing its secretive test and development support duties. These tasks have seen the still flyable F-117s stray increasingly from their home at the shadowy Tonopah Test Range Airport in desolate Southern Nevada. In recent years, they have been flying over the Mojave Desert, which has resulted in unique fanfare among the aviation enthusiast community. Now it is clear that they are flying missions out to sea, over America's vast range complexes off the Southern California coast. 

Matthew P., a plane tracker and radio communications aficionado, picked up on the unique mission before getting the surprise that F-117s were indeed involved. Matthew tells The War Zone:  

“At about 10:30am on May 18th, 2020, my scanners were running and I just happened to be looking at ADS-B when I noticed an Edwards-based NKC-135 heading south over the Angeles National Forest. It was not showing any callsign. Moments later, I heard some chatter on an air refueling frequency between three aircraft. The tanker being GHOST27 and the receivers were KNIGHT01 and KNIGHT02. 

The communications were just some basic chatter about intentions while they were in formation heading right over populated areas north of Los Angeles County. Initially, I had a feeling I was listening to the “retired” F-117s based off of previous sightings from other folks because they too used the callsign KNIGHT or LEHI. I had mixed thoughts because why would they fly F-117s right over one of the most populated cities and risk being seen? That is until I stepped outside and realized it was completely overcast. Sure enough, Satellite imagery showed much of Southern California was socked in at the time. 

As they reached their work area over the ocean, it seemed they checked in with an E-2 Hawkeye callsign EAGLE31 while their tanker GHOST27 started a racetrack pattern for refueling. At this point, I still wasn’t sure for sure what I was hearing until GHOST and KNIGHT left the offshore W-291 range heading northbound back to the R-2508 complex, and then it became dead obvious who KNIGHT was. Their tanker GHOST27 handed them weather for Tonopah Test Range and it sounded like the winds were debatable out there and they might have to attempt to land and divert to Edwards AFB if they couldn't make it down. 

Overall this was pretty interesting to say the very least and it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

Screenshot from ADS-B Exchange via Matthew P. 

The route of the Edwards AFB-based test NKC-135R tanker and the pair of F-117s. 

You can listen to the whole radio exchange here.

It isn't clear exactly what the F-117s were doing out there, but the E-2D Hawkeye is the most advanced airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform in the world. It has amazing capabilities, which include the ability to detect and track aircraft with small radar cross-sections and to fuse radar data from various ships and aircraft and rebroadcast that information. As such, testing and validating the E-2D's systems against the F-117s would be highly beneficial, as would training against it. 

Navy Super Hornets directed by the Hawkeye, as well as naval ships toting extremely powerful radar systems, could also put their sensors, data-links, and training to work cooperatively against such an elusive target. Interestingly, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is out there right now executing a COMPUTEX (Composite Training Unit Exercise). It's the most challenging integrated training evolution a carrier strike group undertakes before a deployment. All this together adds more to the evidence that these aircraft are flying at least partially in the adversary support role now.

USN

E-2D touching down on the carrier. 

On the test and tactics development end, most notably, Navy Super Hornets will soon receive infra-red search and track (IRST) sensors that are uniquely suited for spotting stealthy aircraft. That system is currently in testing. We have long speculated that the F-117s are being used to test very similar IRST systems currently being developed by the Air Force. So, it makes sense that they would do the same for the Navy. 

The Navy has cutting-edge sensors on San Clemente Island that are used for range control and development. Testing them against the F-117 could also be valuable. Individual Navys ships work in the area around the island, as well. They could also benefit from the F-117's unique radar signature. 

With all this in mind, there are plenty of reasons for the F-117s to go play with the Navy off the SoCal coast with a test tanker nearby.  

FAA

A look at the airspace off Southern California, including the W-291E range that surrounds the Navy's testing facilities on San Clemente Island. 

Even as the vast majority of the roughly 50 "Black Jets" that still exist sit partially disassembled in the same hangars that they occupied during their top secret operational years the better part of four decades ago, it's amazing to think that a few of their stablemates are out there playing the bad guy against America's front-line weapon systems so long after their introduction to service and their subsequent retirement. Eventually, the F-35 will enter into the adversary support role, but still it won't have the reduced infrared signature that its predecessor had, nor the same unique stealth characteristics. 

As it sits now, the F-117s are still mandated by law to be destroyed over the current decade, with less than a quarter of the remaining jets slated to go to museums. So, while the end seems to be finally on the horizon for the elusive Nighthawk, clearly, they are literally not going out without a fight. 

UPDATE:

Another mission was flown two days later, and this time we have photos. Check out our follow-up here.

AP

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com