Guest Post From the Archives: Revisiting the F-117A Revelation

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William Scott writes:

A fuzzy, low-quality photo of an airborne USAF/Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk on the May 1, 1989, cover of Aviation Week & Space Technology marked a milestone event for the magazine. It was the culmination of eyewitness reports AW&ST editors had received for several months, indisputable proof that the "stealth fighter" was being flown on daytime training missions several hundred miles from its Tonopah, Nev., home base.

However, getting that photo of an F-117A had been tough. Since my AW&ST home office was in the California high desert, near Edwards AFB and the nation's civilian flight test center in Mojave, my phone rang every time someone spotted a Nighthawk—day or night. One dedicated "watcher," who worked for an aerospace contractor and lived in Mojave, never hesitated to call in the wee hours, excitedly reporting the latest F-117A flyover.

Finally, that same enthusiast called to report he'd taken a series of photos of the classified attack aircraft flying over Mojave in the late afternoon. I arranged to get his film processed immediately, but was disappointed to discover the photo's images were very small. The photographer hadn't used a zoom lens, precluding any details. Nevertheless, I stuffed the prints and negatives into a FedEx package and overnighted them to our New York office.

The next day, the ever-resourceful AW&ST art department expanded those tiny images and presented them to the managing editor and editor-in-chief. During a conference call, they decided to run one of the fuzzy, blown-up images on the magazine's cover. I recall Don Fink, the editor-in-chief, saying, "It may look like a bug on a sandy beach, but it's still the first photo of an F-117A in flight. We're going with it."

He and the managing editor told me to pull together everything I had collected about various sightings and write a "lead book" cover story. They also assigned the late-Mike Dornheim, our outstanding Engineering Editor, to study the fuzzy-planform photos, glean whatever technical information he could, and write an analysis. True to form, Mike spent hours measuring and calculating, then wrote what turned out to be a surprisingly accurate companion story (page 5 of linked pdf).

As luck would have it, several weeks after our May 1, 1989, issue hit the streets,  a flight of F-117s flew directly over my house a few hours after sunset. I ran outside, when I heard the Nighthawk's distinctive, muffled engine noise, and watched a number of the "black jets" fly over at fairly low altitude. Soon, several neighbors—including a senior flight test engineer working on the Rockwell B-1B program—and I were huddled in my driveway, watching what recently had been highly classified aircraft cruise over the city of Lancaster, Calif., spaced about six min. apart.

In the middle of that string of F-117s, we spotted a markedly different aircraft. It sported a planform with a less-pronounced wing sweep than the Nighthawk, a quieter engine acoustic signature and a significantly different exterior lighting pattern. Despite yeoman efforts, my AW&ST colleagues and I were never able to identify this aircraft or its mission. The mysterious bird may still be flying out there ... or retired and hangared at the secretive Groom Lake, Nev., air base.

Read Unveiling the Stealth Fighter, May 1, 1989

William B. Scott is former AW&ST Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief (retired in 2007) and the author, The Permit, a novel based on actual events.

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