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-   -   F-117 secrecy. (https://www.pprune.org/military-aviation/453162-f-117-secrecy.html)

Al R 31st May 2011 10:06

F-117 secrecy.
Why was the F-117 made public knowledge when it was?

Was it pretty much an open secret anyway? Did the USSR know about it (I imagine that it did?), was the news about to come out or was it announced to turn the screw and add a little more 'break the bank' Glasnost pressure?

green granite 31st May 2011 10:57

It was outed by someone publishing an extremely grainy picture of it, and after a bit of pressure the DOD admitted it existed and issued a picture or two.

It was allegedly based in area 52 at the Tonopath test facility 37 47' 52"N 116 46' 41"W

barnstormer1968 31st May 2011 12:08

Al R.
I guess many people must have known of its existence.
There were fairly accurate plastic model kits available to buy from the mid to late '70's.
I also have an encyclopedia from 1982 that states that part of the break in the 'century series' numbering was to go on a stealth aircraft.

Just a spotter 31st May 2011 12:22

Possibly for propaganda reasons.

The same potential cause of it being designated as a thoroughbred fighter with an F- designation rather than a more accurate A- for ground attack.


Buster Hyman 31st May 2011 12:48

I always thought they were revealed when they were superceded....:ooh:

Al R 31st May 2011 14:11

Thanks, I wondered if it had been outed rather than discovered. It must have been known about if you could buy models, let alone have anyone wonder what was in those sheds, but I guess the other side had as much to gain by keeping it quiet, as did the US. I thought it may have been released at that time as a sort of coup de grace.. something to make the Soviets realise that they could never hope to catch the US up and that resistance (financial at least) was futile.

I noticed too, that some of the crashes (pro rata, more than you might expect?) were caused by spatial disorientation - the result of limited visibility from the seat?

muppetofthenorth 31st May 2011 14:15

I always thought they were revealed when they were superceded...:ooh:
In which case public acknowledgement of the B2 is rather interesting.

The Oberon 31st May 2011 14:18

Aurora anyone ?

Less Hair 31st May 2011 14:39

Part of the whole stealth concept was to let the other guy know enough about your aircraft. Only that knowledge created the shock to make them upgrade their global radar network from the Far East to central Europe, effectively ruining them and letting their system collapse. The finish line of the arms race if you want. Won by a few dozen F-16 in black plastic coating. Good RoI.

What the Fug 31st May 2011 14:57

Less Hair

Ditto Bob Ballard finding the Titanic, one of the reasons behind it was to let the Russians know how far down the US navy could go.

A Subtle hint that they had visited some of the Subs the Russians had lost

wub 31st May 2011 15:14

My understanding is that it was revealed because they wanted to fly them during the day. Up till it was made public it had only been operated at night and as a result there had been losses.

Double Zero 31st May 2011 15:33

I always thought they were revealed when they were superceded.

Never mind the B-2, how about the SR-71 ?! Aurora indeed...

Jimlad1 31st May 2011 16:07

On the subject of Titanic, I believe Bob Ballards team used the dive as a fairly open excuse to do some actual work on some other more recent wrecks in the region - cant remember if they were US or Soviet though. The entire expedition was a convenient front!

EGGP 31st May 2011 16:09

Although there were plastic model kits available they didn't look like the hopeless diamond shape of the F117; as a member of joe public I was amazed by the first photos when they came out in the 80's.

hoodie 31st May 2011 16:24

I believe that wub has the reason - the USAF wanted to fly it during the day, hence release of a photo.

The photo was a carefully ambiguous image released by the Pentagon in November 1988. after the Presidential elections, and which suggested that the jet was short and fat. That's the image green granite is referring to, I'm sure - this one:


Prior to that there had been NO public domain images of the aircraft, and any artists' impressions and plastic kits had the shape entirely wrong. None had facets, for a start - the best known "Stealth Fighter" shape of the time was a plastic kit from Testors, which was curvacious, with inward canted twin fins and canards.

If any previous pictures had existed then in the public domain, they'd be available now on the Internet (e.g. on this site), but they don't - QED. :8

Sure, there had been rumours for years (carefully leaked to bug the Sovs?) that such a thing existed, but what it actually looked like was anybody's guess.

It wasn't until several months after the Pentagon image was released that Aviation Week published the first clear pictures of the jet in the circuit at Tonopah Test Range (TTR) during the day, and not until Spring 1990 before the USAF released official pictures and publicly displayed a couple at Nellis.

It's interesting to note that, according to Steve Davies' excellent book "Red Eagles" about the only recently admitted-to MiGs operating at TTR during the day at the same time as the unacknowledged F-117s were flying at night, the MiG pilots were officially unaware of what exactly it was operating from the other hangars on the base.

The first F-117 flew in 1981 (after the smaller proof of concept 'Have Blue' which first flew in 1977), and the non-trials aircraft moved to TTR by 1983, so flying an semi-operational unit of 10s of aircraft for 5+ years without anybody publicly knowing what the thing actually looked like was quite an achievement.

It's still a mysterious aircraft. Officially all retired in 2008 (and most stored in their original TTR hangars), video of an airworthy F-117 over Nevada was taken in October last year...

PS Surely everybody knows that Aurora was replaced by Blackstar? :E

BEagle 31st May 2011 16:40

Testors' model was of the fictional 'F-19':

Before the F-117 was unveiled, I made a number of 'zaps' based on a picture of the 'Lockheed F-19', allegedly of the '???th TFW, Tonopah AFB' which I used to leave lying around in the USA - or stuck firmly under the perspex in various Base Ops planning rooms...:E

I also left one inside the cockpit of a U-2 at Patrick AFB - they must have wondered about that!

Bubblewindow 31st May 2011 16:43

How long did they operate out of the UK with Lightnings acting as decoys or was this a Ballhop??


Geehovah 31st May 2011 17:08

There comes a time when only flying at night to maintain secrecy doesn't give you the best capability. Keeping a weapons system secret costs a disproportionate amount of $$. The facilities that the F117 Force used are now discussed openly on the internet. F117 was an amazing platform and the UK was privileged to have been involved. ..............But even F117 pilots needed a life. We could never have achieved the same programme in UK; the guys who ran it have my entire admiration.

green granite 31st May 2011 17:17

I think this is the article and image I was thinking about, memories get a bit hazy sometimes at my age. :suspect:

stealth fighter | 1988 | 3280 | Flight Archive (It's a pdf download).

TacomaSailor 31st May 2011 17:37

B-2 flying low and slow in 1996
In summer 1996 several B-2s were seen flying low and slow around Puget Sound (Boeing/McChord AFB). I have rather detailed pictures I took of them from my boat. They were eerie looking but not unknown.

The local aerospace reporters did extensive stories about them that summer.

I thought they were public knowledge at that time - three years before their first combat use.

just another jocky 31st May 2011 18:11

I was in O. Club bar at Nellis the day the F117 was 'outed'. The pilots turned up with their red bandanas around their heads and their wives on their arms. This was the first time they'd been able to tell their wives what they had been flying and why they'd had to disappear every Monday morning to return Friday evening after a week of night flying.

The Brit exchange pilot at the time was ex-GR1 and known to most of us.

hoodie 31st May 2011 18:44

The B-2 rollout was in November 1988 (only a couple of weeks after the F-117 unveiling) and was a public occasion at Palmdale.

There was apparently much speculation about its planform on the day, as the press & public were seated such that they could only see it from the front, until:

(a) Aviation Week revealed that they'd taken photos from a rented Cessna flying overhead.

(b) People twigged that the "Air Force star" on the concrete in front of the jet was in fact...


(Yes, I know you can see its shadow - but it's a good story!)

Al R 31st May 2011 18:45


Cheers, from that link (and as referred to)..

The USAF has decided to lift slightly the security shroud on this "Have Blue" project aircraft for two reasons. The first is that it wants to operate the type from a wider range of bases and also during the day; previous flights have been made almost exclusively at night. The second reason is that the F-117A technology will soon be overshadowed by that of the Northrop B-2 stealth bomber, which will be rolled out publicly on November 22.

TEEEJ 31st May 2011 22:18


The B-2 is a strategic platform. Under the terms of the various treaties covering strategic arms both the US and Russia openly reveal the platforms.
Heavy strategic bombers and their operating bases are subject to verification and inspections. The terms of the various treaties are public knowledge.

The following is the B-2 verification image taken by the Russians as part of the treaty. Note the photo calibration marker?


Link to other treaty verification images.


If the US or Russia developed a new heavy strategic nuclear capable bomber it would be subject to verification procedures. The type would become public knowledge as a result. Non strategic types such as the F-117 are not covered and as a result do not have to be disclosed.


Pitts2112 31st May 2011 23:22

the B-2 was certainly open public knowledge by 1996. I visited Whiteman AFB to see a couple of friends who were missile jockeys in about '92 and the B-2s were just being delivered and working up to combat readiness. I can't remember the exact date but surely by the time they were being delivered, they were public knowledge.

Trying to keep something like that secret in Missouri is a whole lot different from keeping it secret in Nevada.

On the subject of the F-117, I thought it was forced into the public eye because one crashed and the public got hold of that fact and pressed the USAF on details. I could be wrong, though. IIRC it was some time between the USAF admitting they existed and coming clean with designation number and photos, hence the whole F-19 conjecture. IIRC, the F-19 stuff was out for quite a while (a year or two?) before the real photos were out.

but the memory isn't what it once wasn't.

GreenKnight121 1st Jun 2011 06:30

If you look at the Flight Global article linked by green granite, you will see that there was over a year between the 3rd F-117 crash and the public unveiling (10 November 1988).

Three of the F-117s have crashed. The USAF did not reveal the date of the first accident, in which a Lockheed test pilot ejected safely. The second F-117 crashed on the night of July 11, 1986, at Bakersfield, California, and the third on October 14, 1987, on the Nellis Ranges.
The 2nd & 3rd crashes were fatals.

Jackonicko 1st Jun 2011 07:54

Wub has it right:

"My understanding is that it was revealed because they wanted to fly them during the day. Up till it was made public it had only been operated at night and as a result there had been losses."

There was also the fact that the USAF wanted to upgrade the 4450th TG to full TFW status, there was a need to retire the ancient A-7s that had been the 4450th's 'cover story', while the original Conops (of using the jet as a 'plausibly deniable' way of hitting the USA's enemies) had proved legally questionable and of dubious usefulness. Every time they'd got close to using the jet in anger (Beirut in '83, Tripoli in '86) Weinberger (or his legal advisors?) had been spooked into scrubbing the mission.

The B-2 was a whole different ball game - while the 117 had been developed in the 'black' world, the B-2 was a publicly acknowledged programme, openly funded, and revealed long before the successful Northrop design was selected over the Lockheed/Rockwell competitor.

What the -117As are doing today, still flying, really is an interesting question, though.

Al R 1st Jun 2011 08:50

Might they have been prematurely withdrawn? Interesting. Would they still have a valid worth/use? Wasn't the A10 reprieved for a bit.. the SR71 too?

MrWomble 1st Jun 2011 10:10

Some things to consider in response to some of the posts here:

While the existence of the type was known about by opposition forces and spotters, what wasn't known by them was the quantity of airframes, weapons capabilities, ability to deploy to regional conflicts or the range of the airframe. Also, with this type it was a long time before enemy radar operators truly knew what effect stealth had on their air defences. So knowing about the airframe was one thing, knowing whether or not to be scared of it was something only the Americans knew for a good 10 years.

In the last 5 years the F-117 rapidly lost out to the F-22 in both political and financial priorities and technical capability. The F-22 had a level of stealth greater than then F-117, apparently, and can carry a much wider range and quantity of weapons into denied territory, along with significant ESM/data capabilities that the F-117 would never have. Trials were made of F-117s painted grey in an attempt to give them a daylight role but even by this time it was obvious the F-22 was going to win. Also, not having even a supporting role in the post-2005 era of pain and re-grouping experienced by the US in the two Middle East conflicts meant they were always going to be struggling for investment. Even the E-6B TACAMO aircraft found a role in Iraq….

Something else to consider is that the F-117 was built in an era when 'what happened at Groom Lake stayed at Groom Lake', hence apparently many very dangerous chemicals were used in its RAM materials which may not have been quite so legal when the aircraft had to be treated like just any other in the fleet by the 21st century USAF, see the Area 51 worker lawsuits for further details. I suspect this is the reason that most of the airframes were stored at TTR before being destroyed, not kept at the Boneyard or museums like most other retired fleets.

There were 2 (certainly less than 5 officially) F-117s kept in flyable storage post-retirement and at least one of these has been seen flying recently over Nevada. Flying it over a military test range where you can avoid schools, hospitals and anyone with breathing difficulties should one crash is very different to re-activating them as a globally deployable weapons system.

Warmtoast 1st Jun 2011 10:20

There is a very good overview of the F-117A Nighthawk program on the Federation of American Scientists site including photos of the mangled wreckage of the one that crashed in Yugoslavia being picked over by the locals here:
Federation of American Scientists :: F-117A Nighthawk

TEEEJ 1st Jun 2011 11:04

A heads-up for UK viewers for Sunday 5th June at 9:00PM on the National Geographic Channel. The programme has already aired in the US.

Former Area 51 staff are interviewed.

Area 51: I Was There TV Show - National Geographic Channel - UK

Nat Geo TV Guide & Listings - National Geographic Channel - UK


Pitts2112 1st Jun 2011 12:30

The F-117 and B-2 are excellent visual examples of the advance of computing power over 20 years. According to the book "Skunk Works", both aircraft were designed to the same set of stealth equations giving shapes and angles necessary to be low-observable.

The reason the F-117 is all angular and flat-faceted, while the B-2 is all curvy and organic is that, when the F-117 was designed, the state of computers could only solve the equations in 2 dimensions, hence the F-117's shape is a collection of flat panels jointed up cleverly.

By the time the B-2 was being designed, computing power had advanced enough that the equations could be solved in 3 dimensions, resulting in the smooth curves of the B-2.

I thought that was a pretty cool example of technological advancement playing out in very real terms.

green granite 1st Jun 2011 13:44

This is an interesting read, how much is true and how much is fantasy is another matter, but most of it seems ok, and is certainly up to date as it's only just published.

AREA 51, An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base

HalloweenJack 1st Jun 2011 14:19

whats of interest (well to me anyway) is the lockheed entry for the ATB ` Senior Peg`

hoodie 1st Jun 2011 14:22

Hmm. :hmm:

Reviews of that book note that she claims as fact that the 1947 "Roswell Incident" was a Soviet decoy arranged by Stalin, and that it was a craft that contained "aliens" bio-engineered by Josef Mengele?...

The objective - Of course! Obvious! - was to panic Americans in the same way as Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast had done. Naturally, a dusty town in the wilds of New Mexico was just the place in which to achieve maximum effect.

As well as that fantasy, knowledgeable reviewers have pointed out numerous basic historical and factual errors in the book.

Caveat Emptor!

Still, no Area 51 related Internet thread would be complete without a loony flying saucer reference.

TLB 1st Jun 2011 14:26

> Never mind the B-2, how about the SR-71 ?! Aurora indeed...

My understanding is that president Johnson mistakenly announced it as the SR-71 (versus RS-71) and thus the designation stuck (the emperor has no clothes)

TEEEJ 1st Jun 2011 21:58

The National Geographic programme on Area 51 has now been uploaded on You Tube.


green granite 2nd Jun 2011 07:44

As well as that fantasy, knowledgeable reviewers have pointed out numerous basic historical and factual errors in the book.
It's a shame that these 'knowledgeable reviewers' don't write a definitive work on area 51, but I suspect even if they did someone would come along and say no that's not how it was.

Still, no Area 51 related Internet thread would be complete without a loony flying saucer reference
Interestingly she claims the Russian connection to Roswell comes from official documents obtained by the FoI act so it should be easily verifiable, or not. Also she actually links the whole thing to Area 51 by hearsay from that well known character Bob Lazar who one should definitely take with many pinches of salt, which, from her tone of writing, I suspect does she.

One of course should always read any so called factual book with a pince of salt, as it will always reflect the personal beliefs of the writer. Plus of course they want to make money out of it.

60024 2nd Jun 2011 09:58


<<I was in O. Club bar at Nellis the day the F117 was 'outed'. >>

IIRC the photo was on the front page of USA Today on the Thursday and the following night all the pilots and wives were in the bar with balloons and "My husband flies stealth fighter' Tee Shirts.. I was on Flag (probably with you I suspect!) at the time.

MrWomble 2nd Jun 2011 11:06

Nothing compared to the day TTR's other residents, the Red Eagles, were made public at Nellis!

For several years the F-117s and the Red Eagles shared TTR, and while the F-117 flew at night and its crews slept during the day the Red Eagles would be out flying. At night, the opposite happened and for a while each both baited each other saying they wouldn't believe what the other flew. I think they swapped secrets one night and the F-117 guys came out winners! (No doubt because a lot of the F-117 pilots had flown against the MiGs)

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