A product of the Skunk Works and a development of the Have Blue prototype, it became the first operational aircraft initially designed around stealth technology. The F-117A was widely publicized during the Gulf War of 1991.
The Air Force retired the F-117 on 22 April 2008, primarily due to the acquisition and eventual deployment of the more effective F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
About the size of an F-15C Eagle, the single-seat F-117A is powered by two non-afterburning General Electric F404 turbofan engines, and has quadruple-redundant fly-by-wire flight controls. It is air refuelable. To lower development costs, the avionics, fly-by-wire systems, and other parts are derived from the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18 Hornet and F-15E Strike Eagle.
Among the penalties for stealth are lower engine power thrust, due to losses in the inlet and outlet, a very low wing aspect ratio, and a high sweep angle (50°) needed to deflect incoming radar waves to the sides. With these design considerations and no afterburner, the F-117 is limited to subsonic speeds.
The F-117A is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a digital avionics suite. It carries no radar, which lowers emissions and cross-section. It navigates primarily by GPS and high-accuracy inertial navigation. Missions are coordinated by an automated planning system that can automatically perform all aspects of a strike mission, including weapons release. Targets are acquired by a thermal imaging infrared system, slaved to a laser that finds the range and designates targets for laser-guided bombs.
The F-117A's split internal bay can carry 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) of ordnance. Typical weapons are a pair of GBU-10, GBU-12, or GBU-27 laser-guided bombs, two BLU-109 penetration bombs, or two Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), a GPS/INS guided stand-off bomb.
Despite its productive combat service, the F-117 was designed with late 1970s technologies. Its stealth technology, while more advanced than that of any other aircraft except the B-2 Spirit, F-22 and F-35, is maintenance intensive. Furthermore, the facet-based stealth design has been surpassed by newer technology. Program Budget Decision 720 (PBD 720), dated 28 December 2005, proposed retiring the entire fleet by October 2008 to permit buying more F-22As. PBD 720 called for 10 aircraft to be retired in FY 2007 and the remaining 42 aircraft in FY 2008 and stated there were more capable Air Force assets that could provide low observable, precision penetrating weapons capability including the B-2, F-22 and JASSM.43 The Air Force originally planned to retire the F-117 in 2011. The Air Force later decided to retire the F-117 sooner to shift funds to modernizing the rest of the fleet.27 This would save an estimated $1.07 billion.44
A pair of specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly off from their last refueling by the Ohio Air National Guard's 121st Air Refueling Wing
In late 2006, the Air Force closed the F-117 pilot school,4 and announced the retirement of the F-117. The first six aircraft to be retired made the last flight on 12 March 2007 after a ceremony at Holloman AFB to commemorate the aircraft's career. Brigadier General David Goldfein, commander of the 49th Fighter Wing, said at the ceremony, "With the launch of these great aircraft today, the circle comes to a close — their service to our nation's defense fulfilled, their mission accomplished and a job well done. We send them today to their final resting place — a home they are intimately familiar with — their first, and only, home outside of Holloman."
Unlike most other Air Force aircraft which are retired to Davis-Monthan AFB, the F-117s were retired to the Tonopah Test Range Airport. At Tonopah, their wings were removed and the aircraft were be stored in their original hangars. On 11 March 2008, it was reported that the last F-117s in service would touch down on 22 April 2008 in Tonopah Test Range Airfield in Nevada, the site of the F-117's first flight. The F-117 was retired during ceremonies at Palmdale and Tonopah on 22 April 2008. Four aircraft were kept flying beyond April by the 410th Flight Test Squadron at Palmdale for flight test. By the beginning of August, two were remaining, and the last F-117 left Palmdale to fly to Tonopah on 11 August 2008. With the last aircraft leaving for retirement, the 410th was inactivated in a ceremony on 1 August 2008.