The 'stealth fighter' that wasn't: Why the F-117 Nighthawk is still misunderstood

  • The US Air Force's F-117 Nighthawk, often referred to as a "stealth fighter," was the world's first operational stealth aircraft.
  • Because of the secrecy around its development and capabilities, and some intentional breaches of naming conventions, the F-117 still draws interest and causes confusion.
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The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, often referred to as the "stealth fighter," was the world's first operational stealth aircraft, born out of a program so secretive that the plane itself was flying combat missions for seven entire years before it was formally unveiled to the public.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the plane's development and capabilities, along with some intentional breaches of traditional naming conventions, this stealthy aircraft, and its various names, still spark interest (and confusion) to this very day.

The truth is, this aircraft commonly referred to as the "Stealth Fighter" wasn't really a fighter at all, but you can't blame the public for getting this one wrong. Even the Air Force seemed to give this unusual aircraft the wrong designation — and according to some, that may have even been intentional.

People were getting the F-117's name wrong before the public had even seen it

The F-117 Nighthawk reached initial operating capability in 1983, meaning the platform was already flying some missions in the early 1980s.

By 1988, the US Air Force still hadn't admitted that they had a stealth plane that could defeat enemy radar, opting instead to keep the advanced capabilities of the F-117 a secret. But secrets were hard to keep, even in the era before smartphones, and whispers about the unusually shaped aircraft slowly but surely began to make their way to the public.

In 1988, the same year the Pentagon would first admit to having the F-117, images and conjecture about the aircraft had already led to a company releasing a video game about the classified aircraft, using "F-19" as the plane's name because, well, that's what people figured the government probably called this new "stealth fighter" they'd developed.

Despite not quite having the design of the aircraft quite right, you can clearly see the lines of the fake F-19 mirroring the lines of the real (and still classified at the time) F-117 in the images below.

The game proved popular among aviation fans, thanks to its realistic approach to flight dynamics, but likely bolstered a misnomer the F-117 has carried with it since the 80's: despite being called a "Stealth Fighter" colloquially, the F-117 Nighthawk isn't actually a fighter at all.

The 'Stealth Fighter' was actually an attack aircraft

The F-prefix in F-117 may suggest that the platform was intended to operate like a fighter jet (like the. F-15, F-16, F-22, F-35, etc), but in truth, the platform was actually an attack aircraft–meaning it's official designation should have been A-117 instead.

In 1962, the US Defense Department established the Tri-Service Aircraft Designation System, which forced all military branches to utilize the same naming conventions and nomenclature for new aircraft. While the system has seen updates over the years, the bare bones of the system are simple, particularly when it comes to the single-letter prefixes at the start of an aircraft designation. Some common aircraft prefixes include:

  • A – For attack aircraft like the A-10 Thunderbolt II
  • B – For bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress, or B-2 Spirit.
  • C – For cargo aircraft like the C-130 Hercules or C-17 Globemaster
  • F – For fighter aircraft like the F-15 Eagle or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

In order to be classified as a "fighter" aircraft and carry that F prefix, a plane usually needs to be designed specifically to be capable of engaging other aircraft in the battle space.

The F-117, however, was built specifically for engaging ground targets under a shroud of secrecy, rather than engaging enemy aircraft. In fact, the F-117 carried no guns and offered a payload capacity of only two small-diameter bombs, making it all but defenseless against enemy fighters in most circumstances.

So why was the decision made to call the stealth aircraft an F-117 rather than an A-117? According to Gen. Robert J. Dixon, who served at Tactical Air Command at the time, the reasoning was simple: The Air Force wanted to court the best and most capable pilots for the new stealth program, and they knew a "stealth fighter" would be more enticing to hot shot pilots than a new "attack" aircraft would be. Even when it comes to classified programs, perception matters.

Even for an attack aircraft, the F-117 may have had some fighter capabilities

In a recent interview on the Fighter Pilot Podcast, retired Michigan Air National Guard Maj. Robert "Robson" Donaldson recalled that the F-117 was technically capable of carrying and firing air-to-air missiles, despite no F-117 ever doing so (at least as far as the Pentagon has admitted).

Donaldson's claims may be the first time anyone has acknowledged that the stealth "fighter" may have actually been able to fight in the air.

"Yes, his primary role was attack but having said that, it could actually carry every munition in the inventory at the time of its insertion, with the exception of the Sparrow missile, which was radar-guided, so we could carry air-to-air missiles," Donaldson said of the F-117.

The retired aviator went to outline how there may have even been plans to use the F-117 to engage Russian Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft in the event of a large scale war.

"Our secondary role was to shoot down the Soviet AWACS. So yeah, we were invisible to their radar and we didn't want them controlling their airspace so, either on the way in or on the way out you could add a Soviet AWACS paint it to the side of your aircraft."

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