Nighthawk pilots reflect on F-117's legacy

  • Published
  • By Derek Kaufman
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Like most Americans, Col. Tom Bell experienced the spectacular display of American airpower during the opening of Operation Desert Storm while watching CNN on television.

Bell was then attending the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. An Air Force pilot, he was immersed in learning about Army doctrine and missions from Army officers, and sharing his Airman's perspective on aerospace power with them.

Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the U.S. led coalition's response in January 1991 had transformed academic discussions on strategy and tactics into lively critiques as the war unfolded live on television.

He extolled to fellow classmates how a single-seat fighter airplane could be employed for strategic effects, or a bomber employed tactically. Precision F-117A attacks on a key communications node to take down Iraqi command and control was a good example of the former.

Today, as commander of Air Force ROTC Northeast Region at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the former F-111, F-117 and B-1 pilot can offer to future officers another example -- using B-52s or B-1s in a close air support role to strike insurgents fighting in close proximity to friendly ground forces.

Into the heart of the storm

Brig. Gen. Greg Feest, then a major, saw Desert Storm from a slightly different perspective.

Flying the lead F-117 stealth fighter, his mission was to drop a two-thousand pound laser-guided bomb onto an Iraqi interceptor operations center. The weapon impacted on time, on target, marking the opening of the air campaign.

Feest then headed to strike his second target, a sector operations center. With the target in his jet's crosshairs, he watched as it recorded direct hit.

The F-117A, at the time already 10 years old, and its "game changing" combination of stealth and precision was being tested in what was then the world's most densely concentrated network of air defenses.

"It was like flying into the biggest fireworks demonstration you have ever seen," Feest said reflecting on that first night 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 had to fly into the heart of it."

Before taking off that night, nearly all of the F-117 pilots were leery of how well its stealth characteristics would protect them from radars that would direct thousands of Iraqi guns and surface-to-air missiles. Since the Nighthawk's targets, including many in downtown Baghdad, were highly defended, wing leaders had privately prepared themselves for F-117 losses as high as 50 percent on the first night.

"We didn't know if it was going to work," Feest said of the black jet's stealth. "The engineers all assured us that it would."

Coming off their targets to return to their operating base on the Arabian Peninsula, Feest listened in as the F-117 attack fleet began checking in to refuel with an airborne tanker. Carrying a list with call signs for each pilot, Feest started checking off names.

"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 landing every jet was inspected by maintainers for evidence of battle damage. No F-117 had been hit. The amazing milestone was repeated again the next night.

"After about the fourth night we realized this stealth technology really worked and we were begging to get back up into the air and fly as many missions as we could," Feest said.

After 1270 plus Desert Storm sorties not one F-117 ever received battle damage, he said.

Secret beginnings

From its inception in the late 1970s until it was publicly acknowledged in 1988, the very existence of the F-117 was known only to those directly involved with the program.

Early Nighthawk pilots were assigned to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. and would leave their families on Monday flying aboard contract airlift to Tonopah Airfield, Nev. There they flew the only at night in a secret world, returning to Las Vegas typically midday on Friday to spend the weekend with their families.

"We didn't want to acknowledge the existence of the stealth fighter to any of our adversaries, so we kept it in the black world," Feest said.

By the time Bell joined the program to fly the F-117 in 1991, the cloak of secrecy was off. Families knew exactly where the military member was going and that it was to fly and maintain the F-117.

"My family didn't have to go through that great unknown of 'where are you,' 'what are you doing,' and 'why can't you tell me what you're doing,'" Bell said. "I have tremendous respect for the families that went through that."

There were some advantages to the Tonopah arrangement. Airmen were home every weekend, they couldn't run into the office or bring work home. So weekend time was truly family time.

Flying all week at night and spending weekends presented unique challenges for military members as well. They were essentially changing 10 time zones, twice a week.

Eventually cost, the need to begin flying during daylight, and to train and fully integrate the F-117 with the rest of the Air Force's combat pilots, demanded the program be publicly acknowledged. A few years later, F-117s left Tonopah to join the 49 Fighter Wing at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.

New capabilities, difficult decisions

Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patt oversaw a number of changes to enhance F-117 capabilities throughout its life. Software modifications in laser-guided weapons and avionics enabled employment from higher altitudes and the aircraft was certified to carry satellite-guided and hard-target penetrating bombs. Since its unveiling, the Nighthawk has flown in every U.S. armed conflict.

Lessons learned working with the F-117's low-observable materials have been incorporated in development of the stealthy B-2 Spirit, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning.

Eventually, cost of operating and maintaining the jet came under scrutiny. The Air Force imperative to modernize was a key factor in accelerating the retirement of the F-117 fleet, so savings generated could be applied to buy new aircraft. The last jet is scheduled to depart Holloman April 21 and go into recallable storage at Tonopah.

Philosophically, Bell said he'll remember the F-117 as the airplane that "tipped the scales" from the era that measured the number of aircraft needed to destroy a particular target to the number of targets that could be taken out by one aircraft.

"Every fighter pilot looks forward to flying a single-seat fighter, and the F-117 was my opportunity to do that," Bell said. "It was at the leading edge of technology when I flew it and it met a great mission need."

"The work that Lockheed and the Skunk Works did in putting this airplane together will be heralded for many years to come," he added. 

Both pilots said the unsung heroes of the F-117 program were Air Force maintainers, who spent countless hours ensuring stealth systems and coatings were kept pristine.

Feest, now deputy director for force applications on the Pentagon's Joint Staff, echoed the F-117 program was remarkable in essentially going from plans to first flight in only 31 months and that it was successfully kept in the black world for so long.

"I think the taxpayer got their money's worth out of the stealth fighter," Feest said. "I'm sad to see it retire, however it's based on older, 1970's technology, and we possess much better capabilities today."

A new crop of pilots, new directions for the Air Force

When Maj. Charles Cosnowski entered the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1991, the F-117 had already proven its mettle in Desert Storm. It was the fighter he wanted to fly.

He would get the chance, flying the F-117 for nearly seven years at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M.

Looking back on its impending retirement, Cosnowski said he will fondly remember the F-117 as a persuasive instrument of foreign policy.

"Adversary countries knew we meant business when the F-117 was being sent and would typically quit rattling their sabers while we were in town," he said.

Today, the remaining F-117 pilots and maintainers are being reassigned to other weapon systems.

As for Cosnowski, the Fighter Weapons School graduate and instructor is currently attending the Air Force Institute of Technology and will graduate in June with a Master of Science degree in Cyberwarfare.