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Nighthawk - The Ghost of the Skies Emerges

In the shadowy realm of aviation history, one aircraft stands out as a ghostly enigma - the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, often dubbed the "Stealth Fighter." It made its debut in operational service in the dark alleys of 1989, its existence known to only a few, with its role limited to the invasion of Panama. But it wasn't until the fiery tempest of the first Gulf War in 1990-91 that this enigmatic bird of prey emerged from the obscurity, captivating the world.

Adorned with striking faceted angles across its entire body, the F-117 was a master of illusion, sporting a minuscule radar cross-section that rendered it nearly invisible to enemy detection. Cloaked in layers of radar-absorbing material (RAM), the specifics of which remain shrouded in secrecy to this day, this aircraft remained a mystery, with analysts speculating about its construction, whispering of ferromagnetic particles encased in neoprene sheets that devoured radar waves.

Source: Images Courtesy of Aviation Photographer @stinkjet on Instagram

Until recently, the public's gaze seldom graced an F-117 up close, its secrets locked away, inaccessible. But times have changed. A select few F-117s have been released from their clandestine lairs, made possible by a legislative shift in 2017, liberating them from the requirement to remain "ready for recall to future service."

Among these elusive treasures, the Hill Aerospace Museum, nestled in Ogden, Utah, welcomed an F-117 in August 2020. Serial number 82-0799, born on the assembly line in Burbank, California, in 1982, had a combat debut in the tumultuous theater of Operation Desert Storm. It ventured on 54 combat sorties across Operations Desert Storm, Allied Force, and Iraqi Freedom.

Throughout its operational life, 82-0799 was an esteemed member of the 4450th Tactical Group, stationed at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada - a covert cradle for the first F-117 squadrons and the crucible of the aircraft's development and pilot training. It's worth noting that every F-117 sortie from Nevada danced in the moonlight, a clandestine ballet to evade the watchful gaze of Soviet spy satellites. This particular F-117 also graced the skies of Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, serving under the 49th Fighter Wing during F-117 operations.

Source: Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. (Ken LaRock)

The Hill museum earned the privilege to host this Nighthawk due to its intimate understanding of the aircraft. Starting in December 1998, Hill Air Force Base's Air Logistics Center took charge of mending battle scars and crash wounds on F-117s through the 649th Combat Logistics Support Squadron. This mission extended worldwide, with Hill personnel deploying as needed to tend to F-117s, a duty they dutifully performed until the F-117 retired from active service in 2008.

The arduous restoration of 82-0799 was a labor of love, orchestrated by a devoted and unpaid team, including the restoration lead, Brandon Hedges, and key members Tim Randolph, George Burkey, Brandon Neagle, and Dave Mitchell. The Nighthawk presented its own unique set of challenges, as it bore parts from a diverse array of aircraft, including the A-10's main landing gear, the F-15's heads-up display, ejection seats from the F-15/16, engines from the F/A-18 (minus the afterburner), and avionics and fly-by-wire systems from the F-16.

Upon arrival at the museum, the aircraft stood stripped and bare, with wings and tail severed, void of fluids and engines. However, fortune favored the restoration team. 82-0799 arrived with a complete cockpit and, significantly, a fully intact tail assembly. It was an unexpected boon as the team had anticipated having to fabricate the tail from scratch. Nevertheless, bringing 82-0799 back to life proved to be a formidable challenge. Deprived of its classified outer coating, RAM, and leading edges, the aircraft was an unrecognizable shell of the F-117s the world had come to know. The restoration team had to recreate the F-117's iconic appearance using only off-the-shelf materials.

Remarkably, this restoration was achieved on an extraordinarily modest budget, thanks to the tireless work of the dedicated team and the generosity of material donors. The entire restoration cost a mere $4,000, a fraction of the typical investment required for such projects. Notably, paint alone for fighter aircraft restorations can often surpass $10,000. An automotive paint supplier contributed appropriate overlay materials, and the restoration team simulated RAM using Platinum Patch compound, purchased in bulk from home improvement stores.

Source: National Museum of the United States air force

One of the most daunting tasks was reconstructing the various leading edges of the airframe from scratch. The restoration team experimented with multiple materials and construction techniques to capture the exact look of the original. At the time of this writing, the restoration is approximately 85% complete, and the aircraft is already on display, continuing to draw the fascination of onlookers.

In close quarters, even in its unfinished state, 82-0799 remains a mesmerizing sight. Standing alongside an SR-71C Blackbird, its spiritual predecessor, the F-117 appears larger than life, defying the expectations set by photographs. In reality, it shares similar dimensions with an F-15. The inside of the port bomb bay door holds an unexpected surprise: a hand-painted image of the Silver Surfer, a comic book character, astride an F-117. It's a playful homage to the aircraft's nickname, the "Midnight Rider." Visitors to the museum now have the rare privilege of experiencing this aircraft firsthand, a symbol of secrecy and transformation in the annals of military aviation.


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