F-117: The Stealth Bomber

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F-117: The Stealth Bomber
F-117: The Stealth Bomber

The secrecy with which the United States waters everything that has to do with its army makes us aware of some of its strategies several decades later. In the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States itself had nuclear weapons with highly advanced missile programs. So much so that they were, on several occasions, on the verge of pressing the red button that would trigger a nuclear war with unknown but disastrous consequences.

Fortunately that did not happen and the quarrels between both powers remained, with a few exceptions, in a very tense calm. That period was also the one that left us for what many consider to be the golden age of aviation, with designs that are still in use today in war and civil aircraft. The Lockheed F-117 was one of those flying machines that was born from a secret program developed in a military base in the middle of the desert.

The Nighthawk, as it was called, lived up to its name and only flew at night so that its existence would not be revealed. Its design was based on the need to create a stealth aircraft that would be invisible to Soviet primary radars and be able to fly inside enemy lines, if required.

The stealth bomber

The F-117 was one of the U.S. Air Force’s best kept secrets. It was developed in the 1970s based on the Lockheed Have Blue program that sought to create a bomber aircraft totally invisible to primary radar. The geometry with which the program’s aircraft was built was specially designed to reflect electromagnetic waves from radars by deflecting them in other directions. This was done under the umbrella of the well-known DARPA, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

F-117
F-117

The program ran its course and was approved by the U.S. administration in 1978. The first F-117 prototype first flew in 1981 almost three years after it was decided to go ahead with the project. And the license to operate it was granted in October 1983, one year after the first aircraft left the assembly line.

The plane remained in absolute secrecy, stored in hangars during the day and flying over the test airport at night. The design, with a diamond-shaped plant, is quite unstable in flight and needs constant corrections to maintain a more or less stable trajectory. Circumstances that are aggravated when the plane is about to drop a bomb making it even more aerodynamically nervous. The tail of the plane, in the shape of a ‘V’, had to be redesigned afterwards and they managed to make it more manageable in this last situation, but it never managed to be a simple aircraft to fly. The poor visibility inside the cockpit didn’t help either.

External detail of the F-117's cockpit
External detail of the F-117’s cockpit

The first official news of the F-117 came in late 1988 when an assistant to the Secretary of Defense showed a picture of the aircraft at a press conference. Until then, the project had been subject to misinformation by the U.S. government by leaking information about an alleged F-19 fighter manufactured by the same company. The plane was withdrawn in 2008 after less than 30 years of service with major missions in the Gulf War, Iraq and other counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East.

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Russia in the crosshairs?

Unlike the large spy planes, the F-117 has a very limited range. The little more than 900 nautical miles (less than 2,000 kilometres) made non-stop travel across the Atlantic to a safe country like the United Kingdom impossible. Moreover, it would jeopardize the entire program at a stroke and could unlock one of America’s best-kept secrets during the Cold War.

F-117A
F-117A

Until today, the possibility of the Nighthawk moving from any US military base to an allied country in Europe had been ruled out because of the above. But an investigation conducted by The Drive has revealed just the opposite.

The degree of secrecy surrounding the plane made it the last resort for a nuclear attack, but it was a possibility that was contemplated in the U.S. plans. The fact is that, even if autonomy was an impediment, the F-117 could refuel in flight and reach a safe zone. That is, raising all the suspicions of the Soviets and other countries that would see a strange aircraft in their airspace.

F-117 in refueling
F-117 in refueling

Had that been the case, the Soviet Union would have found itself in very serious trouble. Unlike other stealth aircraft, this Lockheed plane did prove its worth on several occasions by eluding the echo radar. To do this, the paint on the plane had been designed to absorb electromagnetic waves and convert them into heat. The air intakes were also coated with a special mesh to reduce the footprint in the infrared spectrum and also had several limitations around the engines preventing the plane from crossing the sound barrier, to avoid the noise caused by breaking it.

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