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NIGHTHAWK SUNSET - The Beginning of the end:


click for the original size picture

Officially, the Air Force characterizes the F-117 as "the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology", with the F-117 Nighthawk making its first flight on June 18, 1981. After the stealth program was declassified in November 1988, the first warplanes were deployed in combat over Panama in December 1989. In the Persian Gulf War in 1991, 36 F-117As bolstered the allied effort against Iraq being the first aircraft to take out targets in within the city limits of Baghdad. After the Persian Gulf War, the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at Tonopah was deactivated when the entire fleet of Nighthawks relocated to the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, New Mexico with the official arrival ceremony held on May 9, 1992. Fifty-nine production models were made with the last rolling off the line at Lockheed's Palmdale, California, plant on July 12, 1990. Seven were destroyed in crashes, including one that was lost in combat over Yugoslavia on March 27, 1999, in the Kosovo war effort. In late December 2005, the Air Force submitted its Program Budget Decision 720, also known as the Air Force Transformation Flight Plan (AFTFP) outlining the service's plan to retire older aircraft aggressively thereby saving more than $ 2.6 billion between 2007 and 2011 and direct that money into programs that should make the Air Force a "more lethal, more agile, streamlined force with an increased emphasis on the warfighter". Under PBD 720, the Air Force proposed to retire the entire F-117 Nighthawk fleet of 52 aircraft by 2008, reduce the fleet of B-52 bombers from 94 to 56, retire all of the 34 U-2 reconnaissance planes and send 78 KC-135E aerial refueling tankers into the boneyard,while increasing its fleet of F-22 Raptors from 179 to 183 aircraft.

By phasing out the F-117s, the Air Force could apply the funds that they otherwise would spend on the Nighthawks, to more modern penetrating strike capabilities like the Northrop Grumman's B- 2A Spirit stealth bomber as well as the F-22 Raptor stealth multirole fighter aircraft and AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Missile (JASSM). The entire operational fleet of fifty Nighthawks continues to be based at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, while two are assigned to Air Force test squadrons. The reason for pushing up the retirement date from 2011 to 2008 is because the F-117A has become too expensive and difficult to maintain. However, since the Air Force submitted this plan, it has indicated that it may retain the Nighthawks for a somewhat longer period at the request of the combatant commanders who had concerns over an interim capability gap during the proposed schedule of the F-117 phase out. In April 2006, Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley stated that the service is working on a revamped timeline to keep the Nighthawks in service until systems like the Raptor and JASSM can accomplish with certainty what the F-117 has already done in combat: penetrate heavily defended airspace, survive in it, and knock out high-value targets. click for the original size picture General Moseley commented: "I don't want to let go of the 117 until we have the capability demonstrated and operational with the 22", noting the service's comfort level with operating the Nighthawk today. "This is a prudent approach", the general continued. "It is that rule of wing walking. Don't let go of one strut until you have got the other strut well in hand". A month later, Congress voted to halt the proposed retirement of dozens of aircraft, which would have saved $2.6 billion by 2011 whereby the accelerated retirement of the F-117 stealth fighter, would have saved $1 billion by that date. Congress rejected this retirement plan as this could leave the service with major holes in its fleet. It now allows the Air Force to retire only 10 Nighthawks before 2008, while all retired aircraft are to be preserved for possible future operations. So, after 25 years of sterling service in which the F-117A Nighthawk saw action over Panama, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq as part of operations such as Just Cause, Desert Storm, Allied Force, and Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, the first lot of aircraft that "reshaped the way the United States Air Force looked at strategic warfare" has been announced for retirement and by the end of December 2006, five F-117s will be coded for retirement. Then the 49 Fighter Wing will retire, by quarter, one, then two and then two more to meet the required 10 by the end of 2007. As a consequence, the obvious first two units, the F-117 Schoolhouse and the only unit responsible for F-117 Operational Test and Evaluation have already been closed. Both based at Holloman AFB, the 7th Fighter Squadron had its closing ceremony on 15 December 2006 to be inactivated on the 31st of December 2006. Detachment 1, 53 Test and Evaluation Group was inactivated three months earlier, on 01 October 2006. The remaining 49th FW F-117s will be coded for retirement by the close of 2008 with their retirement set around the same time the F-22 Raptors will become fully operational at Holloman to continue the fight the Nighthawk started, which, according to retired General Lloyd "Fig" Newton, one of the first F-117 pilots, is a hard job to fill. "Whenever its nation called, the F-117 answered, providing capabilities that had never been known before," and he continued: "If we needed the door kicked in, the Stealth was the one to do it. Never before had such an aircraft existed."

STEALTH SCHOOL

Responsible to train these Stealth Fighter pilots, is the 7th Fighter Squadron. Activated 16 January 1941, at Selfridge Field, Michigan, as the 7th Fighter Pursuit Squadron, the squadron has served its country heroically, and engaged in combat in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and other important missions. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, training was greatly accelerated to prepare the squadron for combat duty. By 16 February 1942, the 7th found themselves at Bankstown, Australia, as one of the first American aviation units in the Southwest Pacific, flying the Curtis P-40. click for the original size picture The first air engagement came on March 14 over Horn Island off Cape York, Australia, with the 7th downing 5 Japanese Zeroes, taking no losses themselves. Until the following September the 7th would remain in Australia, engaged primarily in air defense. It then moved North to Port Moresby, New Guinea, where its P-40s flew attack and air defense missions against Japanese fortifications. During this period, the squadron originally known as the "Screamin' Demons", adopted their mascot and emblem, the Bunyap, an Australian aboriginal death demon. During WW II, the 7th had 10 of its members earn Ace status, as each of them destroyed 5 or more enemy aircraft in aerial combat. The squadron continued to function effectively during WW II scoring 36 "Kills" in December 1944. By the end of the war, the Screamin' Demons had achieved 178 "Kills" and would later transition to the P-47 and P-38. During its Pacific campaign, the 7th contributed 190 aerial victories to the Allied total. At the end of the war, the 7th was based in Japan as part of the occupational force flying P-51s and F-80s and when hostilities broke out in Korea, the unit was again readied for combat and deployed to Taegu, Korea. There it was the first combat fighter unit to operate actively from bases in South Korea as part of the 49th Fighter-Bomber Group. After the Korean War, the 7th moved back to Japan. The squadron was stationed at Hazuka, Misawa and Chitose were the unit flew F-84s and F-86s. In 1957, the Squadron moved to the European Theater, first at Etain-Rouvres, France, to become the 7th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) on 8 July 1958. In 1959 the unit moved to Spangdahlem, Germany where it operated the F-100. In 1962, a conversion was made to the F-105 Thunderchief. In February 1967, the 7th TFS opened the 49th Weapons Training Detachment at Wheelus Field, Libya, to begin transition to the F-4D Phantom II aircraft. Finally, in 1968, the 7th TFS moved back to CONUS, to Holloman AFB, NM as part of the 49th Wing. However, the Squadron did retain its NATO commitment to return once a year to its dual base home at Spangdahlem. In April 1972, the 7th TFS was ordered to deploy with the 49th Wing to Takhli AB, Thailand, to help defeat the Communist Spring Offensive in Vietnam. The 7th returned to Holloman AFB in August 1972 where the Bunyaps began their transition to the F-15 Eagle in mid-1977 and completed this by early 1978. On November 1, 1991, the squadron became the 7th Fighter Squadron and on 11 September 1992, the 7th Fighter Squadron was reactivated and assigned the AT-38B aircraft. A year later, on 2 December 1993, the 417th Fighter Squadron was deactivated with the 7th Fighter Squadron taking over its mission of training stealth pilots as the F-117A Formal Training Unit (FTU). This mission and many of the people were until then part of the 417th Fighter Squadron based at Tonopah, Nevada. More than a decade before however, back in the very early "black-era" days at Tonopah, those aviators that were handpicked to fly the F-117 with the 4450th Tactical Group were first sent to Tucson International Airport where the 162nd Tactical Fighter Group (Air National Guard) trained A-7 pilots. click for the original size picture By then the 4450th TG was the only active-duty USAF unit still using the A-7 and because of the tight restrictions on F-117A flights, this surrogate aircraft was needed for training and practice purposes and to provide a cover story for the unit's existence. In January 1989, just three months after the USAF admitted the F-117A existed, the old A-7's at Tonopah were replaced with newer T-38A and AT-38B Talon trainers. On 17 June 1999, the 7th FS "Screamin' Demons" assumed all F-117 training duties to become the 7th Combat Training Squadron (CTS). In addition to the previous duties of simulator training and initial F-117A pilot certification, the 7th took over the academic training for the F-117A, previously handled by the 49th Training Squadron (TRS). The inactivation of the 49th TRS and subsequent merging of people and assets from both squadrons represented the conclusion of the Quadrennial Defense Review action announced two years ago. The 7th in principal maintained its mission but transferred its 7 F-117s to the 9th FS, leaving the unit without any aircraft. However, on 22 July 2005, the squadron once more became the 7th Fighter Squadron after Lieutenant Colonel Knehans successfully issued a Change Request to regain fighter squadron status and its aircraft. Squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Knehans explains: "Being a fighter squadron is a part of our heritage. Also, the unit acts, looks and trains like a fighter squadron and last but not least it was important for the esprit-de-corps." With the support of the wing leadership, the request was sent up to Air Combat Command headquarters that coordinated it throughout the HQ staff. Once the ACC Commander had approved it, it went on to Headquarters Air Force, where it was finally signed. All in all it took 7 months to get the status changed.

F-117 FORMAL TRAINING UNIT

The primary mission of the 7th Fighter Squadron is to train incoming pilots in the F-117, teaching them the basics of mission planning, target acquisition, target tracking and weapons delivery. Lieutenant Colonel Knehans explains: "We teach transition and re-qualification courses instead of a basic course, as all our trainees are experienced fighter pilots and our graduates are weapons- qualified aircraft commanders. At the same time, the squadron also has to maintain it's combat readiness with every single instructor pilot actually being mobile and combat ready to be plugged into the 8th or 9th Fighter Squadron to go to war at any time." To illustrate the importance of this secondary mission, during the opening decapitation strike of Operation Iraqi Freedom, an instructor pilot of the 7th actually piloted one of the F-117's. A third mission of the squadron is to train the cadre of instructor pilots who in turn will be training the incoming pilots. click for the original size picture The fourth mission of the 7th is to manage the T-38 program at Holloman, but contrary to popular belief, the 7th Fighter Squadron is not a T-38 squadron. A total of 14 of these unique glossy-black-painted Talons are actually assigned to the 49th Fighter Wing and pooled between 7, 8 and 9 Fighter Squadron, 53 Wing with the Detachment 1 - 53 Test and Evaluation Group and 57 Wing with the Weapon School, all based at Holloman AFB. The 7th however manages the use of these assets whereby this relatively large number of Talons is required to as every single initial qualification ride of the student pilots needs to be accompanied by a T-38 chase, except when they take their F-117 to the tanker which is at the end of the course. All the check rides from the 8th and the 9th Fighter Squadron also require a T-38A to do the chase. In addition, the Talon is used for chase duties during re-qualifications (e.g. landing currency) and during a part of the reduced-altitude-training syllabus. The Test and Evaluation Group and Weapon School in turn require a substantial amount of Talon support for weapon separation and other tests or practices. Although the aircraft have not been selected to receive the avionics upgrade (AUP), the fleet of T-38As clearly remains in high demand by the different units and last fiscal year some 3,700 hours in total were scheduled. Those F-117 pilots flying chase missions in the T-38A are required to fly the Talon twice a month to keep their proficiency. The main asset of the 7th Fighter Squadron is a fleet of 6 F-117A Nighthawks, each wearing the blue squadron fin flash. They are however maintained by the 9 Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU) and consequently both 7 and 9 squadron share their aircraft thus pooling their aircraft depending availability. Although blue tails are preferably assigned to 7 Squadron missions, no specific trainer aircraft exist, allowing student pilots to fly standard aircraft. A total of 12 authorized slots for Formal Training Unit - Instructor Pilots (FTU IP) form the cadre of instructors, but on base many other IPs are available while assigned to other units with different tasks but are still qualified and available when required. All instructors are volunteers serving with the 8th and the 9th whereby the preference is to select those who are already instructor pilots in one of these two operational squadrons. They are then hired by the 7th and go through the instructor-upgrade-course learning FTU specifics and how to fly chase. Basically these new instructors are taught the tutorial specifics of every single ride the normal upgrade pilots have to fly during their course and actually fly them all with a qualified instructor in the back seat. All instructors have exceptional flying and teaching skills and on average have 2,000 flying hours under their belt, including some 700 to 800 hours instructor time. click for the original size picture Working with two completely different airframes, with absolutely different flying characteristics flying in one formation, the degree of proficiency required to fly a T-38 is very high. When flying chase, the instructor pilot is not only flying his own T-38 (callsign Demon), but to a certain extent also the student pilot's F-117 and this requires a tremendous amount of situational awareness of the instructor. With the autopilot activated, the Nighthawk is easy to fly under normal flying conditions but can easily be put into an unrecoverable situation when turning in for landing or during the approach itself due to its lack of aerodynamics and poor power-to-weight ratio. This requires the instructor to fly the Talon in a completely different way using F-117 numbers and procedures while he also needs to watch what the student is doing, how he is doing it while making sure all are complying with the local area procedures. For those 8 or 9 Fighter Squadron pilots who are not chase-qualified when they are hired by the 7th, they receive a somewhat more extensive training upgrade consisting of T-38 academics, simulator training and instructor specific briefings before they start with transition flying where they take off and spend the obvious amount of time to formation work before concluding doing VFR patterns and chase landings. The course new F-117 pilots go through is officially known as the F-117A Transition/Re-qualification Training Course and all upgrading pilots, except foreign exchange officers and inter-service exchange or transfer officers, must be graduates of Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) course. Four different tracks exist, depending on the pilot's background and proficiency. Those pilots put into Track I are transition/upgrading pilots that have been a previous four-ship flight lead with a minimum of 500 hours flight time in any F, A, RF or SR prefix aircraft. As the F-117 emerged from the classified world, pilots were able to apply directly to the program. The experience requirements were high, initially requiring pilots to have 1,000 hours flying time in tactical fighters but as the F-117 program matured, those requirements dropped to 750 hours and then to 500 hours, where they remain today. In the old days, pilots were handpicked and initially only senior officers would be admitted to the course but already for some years now, captains and majors have become common sight. The program also opened up a bit with regards to previous pilot experience and although most Stealth pilots come from single-seat fighter or attack jets, pilots who came from "heavy" aircraft, such as B-1 and B-52 bombers and even pure fighter pilots like F-15C Eagle drivers have successfully graduated from the course. The criterion is that all those who have the potential to be a mission commander are acceptable. Those upgrading pilots that have no previous air-to-air refueling experience yet are otherwise qualified under Track I, are put into Track IA. Track II students are those upgrading pilots who already graduated as F-117 pilots, but have been out of the Nighthawk cockpit for more than 18 months, and their course basically is a shorter re-qualification course. A fourth track is available for senior officers (colonel-select and above) while graduates of Test Pilot School (TPS) do not have a separate track. The goal of the course is to produce F-117A pilots with basic proficiency in aircraft systems and weapons delivery (day mission, single-ship only). click for the original size picture The course is a prerequisite to Mission Qualification Training (MQT), in which new pilots learn to employ the offensive systems of the F-117A to become fully combat-qualified in the aircraft. Contrary to the F-117A Transition/Re-qualification Training Course, all of the MQT training missions are flown at night, without a chase instructor and handled by the operational squadrons (8 and 9 FS) themselves. The number of training days is based on a nominal class size of five to six students, whereby the unit normally schedules 5 classes a year producing a total of 25 to 30 students per year. Track I and IA have a total duration of 52 training days of which 33 are Ground Training Days (GTD) and 19 Flight Training Days (FTD). Track II pilots require a total of 43 training days of which 27 are ground training days and 16 are flying training days. A typical Track I student will spend some 84.5 hours in academics, 36.2 device hours and 18.7 hours flying some 14 sorties. The re-qualifying Track II pilot will spend some 82.5 hours in academics, 24.2 device hours and a total of 16 flying hours flying some 12 sorties. Academic training is divided into six different blocks, namely Aircraft General (AG 1 to 19), Avionics (AV 1 to 10), Weapons (WP 1 to 14), Life Support (LS 1 to 8), Phase Briefs (PB 1 to 4) and Specialized Training (ST 1 to 9). During AG-17 for example, students are lectured on the procedures and operation of the antenna control panel, UHF, Have Quick, KY-58 secure voice radio, Intercom, IFF, etceteras. During AV-7, students are taught how to operate the Data Entry Panel (DEP), while in class AV-8 the Infrared Acquisition/Designation System (IRADS) is introduced. The characteristics of the F-117 specific GBU-27 (Paveway III) and the enhanced EGBU-27 are lectured during WP-6 and 7 respectively. Each Track I student will during some 24 sessions spend some 36.2 hours on Device Training, consisting of T-38 Cockpit Familiarization Training (CFT), Part-Task Training (PTT), Simulator Training (Operational Flight Trainer) and Aircraft Hands-on Training (AHT). Operational Flight Training (OFT) starts on day 15 of the course and lasts until day 26. Part-task simulator training missions are to reinforce aircraft general, avionics, and weapon academics and are aimed to make pilots familiar with the different displays, controls and procedures. click for the original size picture During the single Aircraft Hands-on Training mission, training will be accomplished on the ground using a F-117A putting emphasis on the preflight of the aircraft and its weapons and lasts around two hours. Flying Training officially starts with the T-38 Landing Currency (LC) phase on day 2 and 3 of the course, consisting of two missions of approximately 1.1 hours each, in which the upgrading pilot is familiarized with the local area and will practice aircraft handling, stall characteristics and normal patterns and landings. This will be the only time the students will fly the dual seat Talon and they will have to wait until day 28 of the course before they get to fly again, but this time they will do so by going solo in the F-117A Nighthawk. Upon their first flight the students are given their Bandit number, stemming from the days when the F-117 Formal Training Unit was the 417th Fighter Squadron "Bandits". Using this nickname, Nighthawk (or "Stinkbug") pilots could talk about being Bandits without making any reference to the classified program. After the first flight of this Transition (TR) phase, some 5 more training missions in the F-117 are made until TR-6, when the student will need to fly an Initial Instrument/Qualification Check flight. During the TR phase, all flights in the F-117A are flown clean (no bombs) with the transponders and Radar Enhancers on to make sure the aircraft is visible on the radar. During the Transition phase, Track I and IA students need to make a minimum of three chuted-landings, while Track 2 students need a minimum of two. All students need a minimum of one intentional no-chute landing while a F-117 Instructor Pilot in a T-38 chases all these flights in order to observe the student's performance in the single-seat F-117. Prior to going back to the academic part of the course, the students will enter the Air Refueling (AR) phase. Here Track I and II pilots will complete a minimum of one instructor pilot supervised day air-refueling-mission taking fuel from a KC-135 or KC-10, while Track IA pilots will complete a minimum of two IP-supervised day air refueling sorties. To complete the air-refueling event, each student pilot must successfully hookup and either take on fuel or maintain contact with the refueling boom for a minimum of one minute. It will be the only time during the course that the student pilots will be chased by another F-117A flown by the instructor pilot. The course then enters its last stage on day 46 when the first mission of the Surface Attack (SA) phase is accomplished. Consisting of 5 sub-phases, the student will learn to employ the aircraft sensors, make use of different techniques and modes, and how to actually prosecute the targets as this is the first time the students pilot will use the aircraft as a weapon platform, gradually gaining proficiency in route navigation and level weapons delivery. Offset, Downward Looking Infrared (DLIR), Color Multipurpose Display Indicator (CMDI), Inertial (INS) and Dual-door attack procedures are introduced as are back-up attack and heavyweight weapons delivery procedures. During these Surface Attack missions, the F-117A will be laden with 3 to 6 BDU-33s on one or two SUU-20 practice bomb dispenser to subsequently perform surface attack flights while a T-38 continues to chase the student pilot in the F-117A. On day 51, during the fourth Surface Attack sortie (SA-4), the student will besides showing proficiency in navigation and level weapons by dropping 3 BDU-33s, also gain familiarity with heavyweight weapons to which purpose the student will drop a single GBU-12. In total, each Track I or IA pilot will drop a total of 24 BDU-33s and one GBU-12, while Track II students will dispend a total of 18 BDU-33s and a single GBU-12. The Surface Attack phase is completed on day 52, the last day of the course.

LAST BANDITS

The last F-117 transition class ended when Colonel David Goldfein (49 Fighter Wing commander), Lieutenant Colonel Peter York (49 FW), Major Robert Noonan (7 FS), Captain Nathan Keethler (7 FS), and Captain Michael Harmon (7 FS) all graduated on 13 October 2006. In addition, Colonel David Moore, 49 Fighter Wing vice commander, has been re-qualified during this final course. Coincidentally, the wing commander not only was a graduate of the final class of the FTU, he also received Bandit number 708, the last Bandit. All Bandits are given a number upon their first flight and in accordance to this tradition, wing commander Colonel Goldfein (now Brigadier General) received his number on his first flight when he flew the F-117A on 14 September 2006. The first operational Air Force pilot to fly solo on the Nighthawk was Colonel (ret.) Alton C. Whitley as he received Bandit number 150 when he made his flight on 15 October 1982. The first 149 Bandit numbers were reserved for Test Program pilots from Lockheed Advanced Development Projects or the Air Force only. "The FTU's mission is to produce qualified pilots to offset permanent change of station (PCS) attrition and sustain combat capabilities", Colonel Knehans explains, whereby "the FTU is deactivating because its mission is complete, as there are enough qualified and experienced F-117A pilots to do the mission until the retirement of the F-117A." Since the 7th became the F-117 FTU, a total of 273 pilots (Transition/Requalification) were trained by the 7 Combat Training Squadron and 7 Fighter Squadron. On December 15, 2006, a closing ceremony was held at Holloman AFB and the long history of the 7th Fighter Squadron finally came to an end when the unit officially deactivated on the 31 December 2006 with the 8th Fighter Squadron taking over the wing's T-38A program for flight evaluations, to chase specific F-117A upgrades and other various missions. The 7 Fighter Squadron does have the opportunity to be reactivated at the discretion of Air Force Headquarters. So who knows, some day the "Screamin' Demons" may resurrect to fly again!

DETACHMENT 1 - 53 TEST AND EVALUATION GROUP click for the original size picture

Located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, 53d Wing serves as the focal point for the Combat Air Forces in electronic warfare, armament and avionics, chemical defense, reconnaissance, and aircrew training devices. The wing reports to the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, a Direct Reporting Unit to Headquarters Air Combat Command. The wing is also responsible for operational testing and evaluation of new equipment and systems proposed for use by these forces. Current wing initiatives include advanced self-protection systems for combat aircraft, aircrew life support systems, aerial reconnaissance improvements, new armament and weapons delivery systems, and improved maintenance equipment and logistics support. The 53d Wing, which is comprised of four groups, namely 53d Electronic Warfare Group, 53d Weapons Evaluation Group and 53d Test Management Group and the 53d Test and Evaluation Group. The 53d Test and Evaluation Group (TEG) is responsible for the overall management of the wing's flying activities at Eglin and Nellis. Members of the 53d TEG execute operational test and evaluation, tactics development, and evaluation projects assigned by Headquarters Air Combat Command (ACC). Aircraft assigned to the group include test-configured F-15 Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16, B-1, B-2, B-52 bombers, A-10, HH-60, Global Hawk, Predator, F-22 and until recently a single F-117A. The 53d TEG is made up of numerous squadrons, direct-reporting detachments and squadron detachments at 17 stateside bases. They are the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Eglin AFB, 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards AFB, 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, 72nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Whiteman AFB, 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Dyess AFB, 53 TEG Operation Location Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center at Tucson IAP and 49th Test Squadron at Barksdale AFB. Providing support to this group and its numerous squadrons, Detachments are at Kirtland AFB, Cannon AFB, Luke AFB, Tinker AFB, Hill AFB, Dyess AFB and last but not least, Detachment 1 at Holloman AFB. Being a tenant unit of the 49th Fighter Wing, Detachment 1, 53 Test and Evaluation Group better known as the Dragon Test Team, has been the sole Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) unit supporting the F-117 Stealth Fighter program managing and executing OT&E projects as directed first by Tactical Air Command (TAC) and later Air Combat Command (ACC) headquarters. This included survivability and tactics development and evaluation programs for F-117 Stealth Fighter hardware, software and weapon upgrades that have maximized operational combat capabilities. The unit also provided tactical and technical expertise to the United States Air Force, Department of Defense and the Aerospace Industry in the F-117 weapon system and future low observable concept development and employment techniques. Over the years more than one hundred test projects were planned, executed and reported to support the operational Warfighters.

DRAGON TEST TEAM

The origin of the Dragon Test Team name can be traced back to 1982 when test pilot Pete Barnes (Bandit 110) was scheduled to make his first F-117A flight on 9 July 1982 in aircraft 80-0787. Inspired by the magical dragon in Walt Disney's movie "Pete's Dragon" of 1977, a green dragon was painted on the side of the aircraft, as the Stealth Fighter resembled the dragon in the movie in being invisible. click for the original size picture Consequently, this particular test aircraft became known as "The Dragon", while the USAF personnel involved in the Follow-On Test and Evaluation (FOT&E) program began calling themselves the "Dragon Test Team". In the early days, the Baja Scorpions (now 410th Flight Test Squadron) were responsible for flying and certifying each of the 59 production aircraft before they were turned over to Tactical Air Command. Testing of new concepts was done at the Developmental Test (DT) level before turned over to the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) organization. If a modification got approved, it would then be tested at the FOT&E level in an operational setting. After all test phases had been accomplished successfully, the improvement would be incorporated into the operational fleet. The first official commander of the Dragon Test Team was Lieutenant Colonel Bubba Jenny, who assumed command on 1 February 1984 and in 1985, aircraft 80-0787 was replaced by 83-0807 in the FOT& E role, thereby becoming Pete's Dragon II and was used for testing new weapons delivery computations after being updated with the second generation Weapons System Computer. Later aircraft were simply referred to as the Dragon, and known replacements were 85-0835, 82-0804, 82-0803, 86-0837, 82-0803 and finally Dragon 85-0835. The Dragon Test Team members initially reported to the 4450th Tactical Group, but when the 4450th TG became the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing on 5 October 1989, Tactical Air Command activated the unit as Detachment 1 (DET 1), 57th Fighter Weapons Wing and continued to operate from Tonopah Test Range, while receiving the WA tail code. On 1 October 1991, the detachment was renamed Detachment 1, 57th Fighter Wing, but less than a year later, Detachment 1, 57 FW was deactivated at Tonopah and re-activated at Holloman on 1 June 1992, this being the same day the entire F-117 force was relocated from Tonopah to Holloman AFB. On 1 February 1993, the 57th Fighter Wing became the 57th Wing, resulting in the Dragon Test Team to be renamed as Detachment 1, 57th Wing. On 1 October 1996, the Dragon Test Team became Detachment 1, 57th Test Group and resorted under 53d Wing and on 14 April 1997, the unit once more changed its name to become Detachment 1, 79th Test & Evaluation Group, 53d Wing, replacing its WA tail code for OT. On 20 November 1998, the unit was renamed for the last time to become Detachment 1, 53d Test & Evaluation Group, 53d Wing, the name it carried until its deactivation. In September 2003, former naval aviator Lieutenant Colonel Richard J. Silong received his orders to report to Detachment 1, 53d Test and Evaluation Group of the 53d Wing to become the assistant director of operation (ADO) and assumed command of the Detachment on 22 April 2005 being the fourteenth, and last commander of the Detachment since its activation.

F-117 OPERATIONAL TEST & EVALUATION click for the original size picture

Since its creation, Detachment 1 has taken what was developed at the Lockheed-Martin facility in Palmdale, California, to test it out on the operational flying level to ensure that new equipment, weapons, and software are compatible with operational constraints. With 24 years of service, the Dragon Test Team has been involved in all the F-117 modifications and upgrades with it's mission to maximize the Air Forces and F-117 combat capabilities by conducting operational test and evaluation tactics, development and evaluation for military exploitations, force development and evaluation, maintainability testing, etceteras and included ground and open range testing, as well as every mission planning release that has been given to the Warfighters". The Dragon Test Team was one of the first organizations in the Air Force to be part of a Combined Developmental Test and Operational Test effort doing end-to-end testing, thereby directly involved in the entire test cycle of the different developments, modifications and upgrades, and in that sense responsible for actually expediting new concepts to the Warfighter itself. By working hand in hand with Developmental Test organizations (F-117 Combined Test Force - 410 Flight Test Squadron) and contractors, this combined effort resulted in modifications getting fielded quicker to the operational units as all relevant parties were directly involved in every stage of the process, starting from the early design phase, all the way through to actual fielding the modification or upgrade and sometimes even for post-implementation analysis. This way the Air Force was able to save valuable time and money and in the meantime many other test organizations followed this example. The Dragon and any other operational F-117 that is used for testing can be fitted with an instrumentation package called Low Observable Instrumentation System (LOIS), and is basically a black box with magnetic tape inside designed for the aircraft to read and record information of the MIL-STD-1553 data busses and certain parameters from the aircraft weapons computer. This data is then used to verify some of the profiles that are flown. Only some of the Palmdale DT aircraft are fully instrumented and have the typical orange (non standard) wiring, thereby giving up some space in the weapon bay. Consequently, the Dragon remained 100% representative for the operational fleet in terms of LO signature and weapon capability. Until December 2003, the Dragon had always been in the same black color scheme as any other operational jet, but that changed then when it rolled-out in an experimental two-tone light-grey color scheme. Preparation for the painting began on 17 November 2003, with the job completed by 26 November and it presumably took some 10 gallons of dark gray paint, five-and-a-half gallons of light gray paint and three gallons of silicon paint to give the test F-117A Nighthawk an F/A-22 Raptor-style makeover. The primary reason was that the unit was working on several test plans collectively called F-117 Mission Effectiveness - Force Development Evaluation (FDE) with flight testing starting on 25 May 2004. Force Development Evaluation is the last stage of testing where the operational capabilities of the modification or upgrade are tested on the aircraft and the information gathered is used to develop tactics for the aircraft. click for the original size picture When successfully completed, the upgrade or modification will be fielded to the operational units and while this umbrella program covered different areas it mainly focused on tactics and survivability during daytime operations, thereby expanding on a previous test plan that was run in the mid-nineties called "Evening Shade" in which the Dragon Test Team investigated using grey instead of the black color on the F-117 to extend the employment of the Nighthawk into dusk and dawn. At the same time, the unit was to look at some other advanced (classified) programs with the F-117 as well as supporting the F/A-22 daytime Force Protection Evaluation - IOT&E and the Low Observable (LO) Strike Force. To this purpose the aircraft was requested to be painted grey and flown during the daytime to evaluate survivability and daytime tactics required to operate stealth aircraft on a 24-hour basis. The gray paint scheme produced no degradation of the aircraft's ability to evade radar detection and while the experiment showed that using the grey color instead of black had its advantages to evade optical tracking systems, the use of two different shades of grey made no difference at range as they merge. The Fiscal Year '04 test schedule also included F-117 Advanced Employment Tactics Development & Evaluation (TD&E). This was a classified tactics development to improve the survivability of the F-117 in a strike force. Other tactics related development and evaluation plans executed during that year were F-117A Attack on Moving Targets TD&E, F-117 Off-Ship Lasing TD&E (buddy lasing) and F-117 Time Sensitive Targeting (TST) TD&E. Initial TST testing was completed in October 1998 and only allowed a pilot to receive live-threat information and manually re-plan a mission from the cockpit. Known as the Integrated Real-time Information into the Cockpit / Real-time Information Out of the Cockpit for Combat Aircraft (IRCCA) demonstration project, the IRRCA project was an initiative of the Air Force Research Laboratory - Sensors Directorate at Wright-Patterson AFB, which provided funding and guidance for the project since it began in 1997. The program made F-117 history when a test aircraft sent its first-ever attack sequence images via satellite data link out of the cockpit and into the hands of command and control forces on the ground during IRRCA Phase II flight-testing in September 2003. click for the original size picture The ability to send images of an attack sequence to a command and control element within minutes of the attack allowed commanders to assess the effectiveness of an attack and rapidly redirect an attack against the target if necessary. The IRRCA program developed an onboard mission manager (OMM) that facilitates the transfer of Real-time information into the cockpit (RTIC)/ Real-time information out of the cockpit (RTOC). The OMM also contained a modified version of the common low-observable auto-router (CLOAR) that allows a dynamic, signature-managed re-plan of the F-117's flight path in response to target re-tasking messages and pop-up threats. In Fiscal Year '04, the unit also looked at F-117A Composite Force Integration TD&E. This development and evaluation plan looked at ways to integrate the F-117 in the coalition force and utilize some of the aircraft specific features along with the features of other platforms to better defeat or destroy a threat. Tests were also conducted to continue improving the mission planning tools and related ground systems resulting in upgraded releases like the F-117 Mission Planning Environment (FMPE) version 7.2 and F-117 Target Area Planner (TAP) version 14 and 15 FDE. The latter is used for pre-mission threat and jamming analysis and is connected to a huge database. Initiated as a Concept & Technology Development (CTD) in Fiscal Year 2000, testing continued during Fiscal Year 2005 and 2006 of the numerous avionics upgrades and modifications to be done on the F-117 as part of the so-called F-117 Combat Capability Sustainment Program (CCSP) - Combined DT/OT/FDE. The program was aimed at replacing obsolete avionics systems, the establishment of new vendors and improving reliability and maintainability to keep the F-117 operational. It also provided the aircraft with future capabilities for new releases of Operational Flight Program (OFP) software and weapons capability. Under this program, one particular part that needed to be replaced was the Expanded Data Transfer System (ETDS) as it was approaching non-supportability and the end of its service life. System Development & Demonstration (SDD) of the ETDS started in Fiscal Year '04 and in order to integrate new smart weapons, its existing memory capacity required to be expanded. Affectionately known as the 'Lunch box', this 10-pound heavy 8" x 4.5" boxlike device is still hand-carried by the Nighthawk pilots allowing data to be transferred from the mission-planning environment to the aircraft for operations. The new system developed and tested by DET 1 works with a PCMCIA type of card and is basically similar to a modem card. These cards are pocketsize, highly reliable and come with sufficient memory, whereby pilots can always carry a spare, thereby minimizing mission delays or aborts in case of data transfer problems. This particular program was a clear example of the Combined Developmental Test and Operational Test effort where the unit has been part of the entire development and test cycle, joining up with the contractors and the development test team, concluding the program with a fielding recommendation to the operational fleet. However, as the Dragon in the meantime has been retired, it remains the only aircraft in the operational fleet that had this new ETDS built-in and although DET 1 released its recommendation to field it in August 2006, only a handful of 49 Fighter Wing aircraft will receive the same upgrade once they go through depot at Palmdale, as funding is limited. Almost certain to be the last software upgrade for the F-117, OFP-87 mainly integrates the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD) weapons capability on the F-117 and while OFP-86 was fielded, only specially produced laser-guided bombs like the GBU-27 or hybrid EGBU-27s could be dropped from the Nighthawk. Integrating the JDAM in the F-117 was to resolve all this as JDAM expands the F-117 adverse weather, accurate weapons employment capability and permits attack against certain target sets without visual target acquisition. Although the integration of smart weapons was already part of OFP-86, it was not certified until OFP-87 and when the initial release for OFP-87 in combination with JDAM on the F-117A was issued by Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, a significant amount of testing had to be done before is could be released to the operational units. click for the original size picture These tests were not about testing the weapon itself, but testing the aircraft as a platform employing the new weapon to make sure any software, aerodynamic or configuration problems were ironed out before finally releasing the use of it. The first OPF-87 upgrade tests were done dropping legacy weapons (eg. GBU-27) to make sure no conflicts arose with the normal weaponry and to compare the results with the known parameters. Then tests continued with asymmetrical (mixed) weapon load of a single inert JDAM and a legacy weapon, to continue with the full-up tryouts with a load of two inert JDAMs. As with the Raptor, the bombs are in the closed bomb bay and for these GPS-guided bombs the precise navigational coordinates are fed into the weapons up to the moment of opening the doors and their release. Then within a few seconds the antenna on the bomb needs to find the satellites for orientation and guidance to the target. Different types of tests are done including putting the aircraft and its weapons to their limits in terms of speed and altitude, to flying missions testing the upgrade under similar conditions the Warfighter would use it. During these tests, no instrumented or live JDAMs were dropped as the test team at Palmdale already did this. The bombs DET 1 has used are so-called separation test vehicles (STV), and these are used to purely test the separation characteristics of the weapon and once the weapon clears the aircraft in accordance to the test specifications, it is considered a successful test. Obviously, the use of JDAM would open new possibilities for the Stealth Fighter as previously pilots would only squeeze the trigger at the optimal release point and had to maintain the laser fixed until impact. With JDAM, the pilot can release the weapon the moment the aircraft reaches the release point within the Launch Acceptable Region (LAR), with the GPS then guiding the bomb to the target. During Fiscal Year '05, testing continued on the F-117 Time Sensitive Targeting TD&E test plan as it was carried over from previous year. click for the original size picture Also tested and fielded was the F-117 Video Tracker/System Controller version 1.4, which is an improvement to the Infra Red Acquisition & Designation System (IRADS) and tests started on 19 July 2004 to be finalized on 13 July 2005. Other Force Development and Evaluation plans tested and recommended for fielding during that year were F-117 Target Area Planning v17 FDE, F-117 Mission Effectiveness FDE, F-117 FMPE v8.0 Life Cycle Upgrade FDE and F-117 TAP v16 FDE. Also initiated during that year was a series of tests involving the Night Visual Imaging System (NVIS), with operational testing starting in September 2005. Although the Head Up Display (HUD) was already NVG compatible, many of the cockpit lights were not, and had different covers with different filters to make them compatible with the Night Vision Goggles. The project focused on optimizing and standardizing the cockpit lighting to improve the working environment of the pilot and tests were conducted day and night to verify that the new lights working perfectly under all conditions. Throughout the year, DET 1 also provided test support to other agencies like Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), testing the penetration abilities of weapons to defeat hardened and deeply buried targets (HDBT) with the weapons effects accurately measured (weapon deceleration and penetration path, blast environment, target response) to quantify the effectiveness of the attack tactic. Additionally, the unit worked on classified projects with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright Patterson, Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB, Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) at Wright Patterson and Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC) at Kirtland AFB. The Dragon Test Team also supported GPS jamming tests of the 586 Flight Test Squadron as part of a test plan called "Gypsy Echo". In another test organized by AFRL, the unit participated in testing commercially available ground based laser systems that potentially could defeat the aircraft weapon systems like targeting pods or night vision systems.

Based on earlier test results and the fact that lighter grey can sometimes create unwanted reflections in the sky, the unit wanted to experiment with a darker paint scheme and to this purpose, the test F-117 received a new single-tone grey paint scheme in January 2006 and was of the same composition like any other operational Nighthawk, albeit with a F-15E Strike Eagle pigment. This was also done in preparation for a test plan called F-117 Advanced Threat Defeat - Tactics Development & Evaluation (TD&E) in which follow-on testing was scheduled to further explore the grey paint scheme and to continue to develop the related tactics and employment of the F-117 in conjunction with the F-22. With preparations started in Fiscal Year '05, this test was also aimed to explore ways to defeat emerging world threats by using better tactics, utilizing different formation tactics, different paint schemes, different strike force compositions, jamming efforts, etceteras. Flight testing was approved to take place in Fiscal Year '06 and this test in itself was a lead-in test that was going to help support the Global Strike TD&E effort, which is the Air Force doctrine to obtain a global strike capability anywhere on the globe. Global Strike TD&E - phase 1 was successfully completed in the summer of 2006, but as both tests were cancelled for DET 1, the Dragon Test Team was unable to demonstrate in this follow-on test the advances made using this grey paint scheme and future tactics. click for the original size picture In Fiscal Year '06, tests did continue on F-117 OFP-87 Combined DT/OT/FDE to expedite it's fielding and started on 26 October 2005 and lasted until 5 July 2006. Upon completion, Detachment 1 made the fielding recommendation to have the upgrade released which was formally accepted 9 August 2006, yet another fine example of the Combined Developmental Test and Operational Test effort, the Dragon Test Team's forte. In 2006, tests were finalized for F-117 Target Area Planning v17 and v18 and the latter was recommended for fielding in August 2006 together with the final release of the F-117 Mission Planning Environment - Life Cycle Upgrade, version 8.1.4 Follow-on testing continued for the F-117 Cockpit NVIS test program running from 15 to 22 September 2005 with the night portion of the tests being finalized at Palmdale between 10 to 13 July 2006. This resulted in an even more improved cockpit lighting system with the latest version (NVIS-spiral 1) fielded in August 2006 and the Dragon is currently the only aircraft in the inventory with production NVIS cockpit lights installed. Testing also continued on F-117 Time Sensitive Targeting TD&E, which was carried over from Fiscal Year '05 in which a new communications suite was proposed for the F-117 with a Dual-Radio capability that has a better frequency agility and different frequency ranges including FM, VHF, UHF and that was to be combined with SATCOM with all related antennas being low observable (LO). The LO Dual Radio was (and still is) required as employment and tactics have changed over the years and the F-117 is required to integrate with conventional strike packages, support aircraft, and special operations forces both in the air and on the ground. This requires the ability to communicate on and monitor multiple frequencies at the same time and using the Dual Radios, the pilot would be able to receive and transmit target, threat, and other critical mission data on two UHF channels at the same time. The dual radio capability would also allow the development of advanced tactics to support time sensitive targeting. This LO SATCOM antenna project would extend the F-117s ability to receive and transmit dynamic targeting data from beyond line of sight locations to a point much closer to the target area. The ground mission-planning phase of the Fiscal Year '06 TST test program was finalized and flight-testing with the Dual-Radio had already started when the next phase was cancelled as a result of the decision to inactivate. This next phase would have included flight tests with live weapons to be used at moving targets at the nearby McGregor range with Real-Time-Targeting utilizing Special Forces, Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) to support laser operations and a datalink with over the horizon communications. As the unit was unable to conclude these important tests, it is unlikely that this modification package will be integrated into the operational fleet which remains to work with a single UHF radio, but thanks to the DET 1 efforts, one Developmental Test F-117 at Palmdale actually has been modified with the LO Dual Radio and SATCOM modifications to evaluate the package so future projects may benefit. Would the unit not have been closed down, the replacement Dragon (84-0824) would have received the LO Dual Radio, SATCOM and Link 16 modifications. Other test plans that were cancelled included the integration of the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD), an off-the-shelf weapon that would allow Nighthawk pilots to independently target weapons and strike multiple targets on a single release/pass. Originally, WCMD was scheduled to be fielded in August 2006 whereby the F-117 would carry two dispensers. DET 1 also pushed to integrate the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) in the F-117 and this would have increased the weapon load-out capability significantly, enabling the Nighthawk to defeat 8 and possibly 16 targets. click for the original size picture A load-out of four SDBs per weapon bay was already demonstrated. Test plans were also drawn to integrate the 500-pound GBU-38 JDAM in the F-117 and this would have increased the number of GPS bombs to be carried to four per aircraft. This program was also halted. A new mission tactics development that was scheduled in Fiscal Year '06 was a test plan called F-117 Non-Traditional Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (NTISR) TD&E. This tactic would tie-in the new communications suite and the datalink with all the results already obtained in projects like TST, NTISR, Advanced Threat Defeat, NVIS, Global Strike with the Raptors, OPF-87 with the smart weapons integration (JDAM and WCMD), and combine this with the improvements made to the IRADS system and some other classified projects. DET 1 requested additional modifications to be made to the IRADS that would allow the pilot to send real-time high definition still pictures or streaming video over some safe communication network back to the CAOC. Currently, the Nighthawk is the only LO aircraft in the Air Force inventory that can put 'eyes' on a target, thanks to IRADS. This way the Nighthawk would be fully integrated in a network centric combat environment with beyond line of sight, reach-back and Time Sensitive Targeting (TST) capabilities and provide the combatant commanders a single low observable platform that is capable of sending highly detailed live-pictures of a target, with deep strike capabilities, that has the right tools to extremely accurately destroy that target, that can retarget on the spot when requested or continue to gather real-time battlefield intelligence. Lieutenant Colonel Silong: "This is what the Nighthawk needed. With this package, you change the entire tactics and employability of this aircraft as you can strike deeper, do retargeting, provide real-time battlefield intelligence and acquire and destroy time-sensitive-targets while remaining stealthy. You would basically have a whole new aircraft that has unprecedented capabilities. We are talking a whole new future based on a platform that is combat proven. Right now, there is no other operational platform that can offer that". Regardless the cancellation of several high-value test plans, the Dragon Test Team still managed to make some 240 sorties accumulating just over 300 hours, including T-38 missions for test support during fiscal year 2006.

END OF AN ERA

First indications of a possible closedown emerged during the first two months of 2006, which firmed up in March 2006, when ACC put a timeline to the closure and planning could start to deactivate the Detachment. Prior to shutting-down, the Dragon Test Team operated entirely autonomous and had a complete staff, including four pilots, an electronic warfare officer, an active duty analyst, a civilian analyst and the unit had its own life-support section. The Dragon Test Team has been the voice of the F-117 weapon system for the operational world for the last three years, and the colonel and his team attended every program management review (PMR), Weapon Review Board (WRB), every working group, every brief with ACC, AFOTEC, AFMC, etc. but also the joint conferences at Nellis with the Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army, JDAM Warfighter conferences and Weapons & Tactics conferences. As colonel Silong described: "We talked to them and made sure we were getting the information where they wanted to go, what capabilities they wanted to have. click for the original size picture Gathering the information what is required today and tomorrow and bring that back to the unit, allowed the Dragon Test Team to develop the test plans that would go down the road into the future, versus living in the past and give the Warfighter a capability they might need. We as a team were thinking out of the box". Records show that more OT&E testing has been completed during the last three years and fielded to the Warfighters than any period before, providing them the best capabilities they ever had with a lot of improved capabilities in the pipeline. Had some of the described new developments and capabilities been pushed for earlier on, the decision to no longer keep the F-117 could have looked different. As the colonel described it: "We were a dollar short." One has to keep in mind that contrary to some Developmental Test pilots at Palmdale, none of the Dragon pilots was a Test Pilot School (TPS) graduate or had previous test experience, but all were extremely experienced with the F-117 Nighthawk. Although this TPS background is not required for operational test pilots, profound knowledge from the frontline what the aircraft can do and what is required to do even better, is. All new pilots were trained in-house though to learn and comply with all the procedures for managing, controlling, documenting, and processing of test modifications as required by the Modification Engineering Authority (MEA) and System Program Manager (SPM) as they are the authority to approve T-2 modifications like OFP-87, ETDS and NVIS. Temporary-2 (T-2) modifications are temporary hardware or software changes or alterations to a specific aerospace vehicle and can include instrumentation modifications, but can also be temporary changes to prove, develop, or characterize future permanent modifications and T-2 modifications are unique and only remain on a specific aerospace vehicle for the duration of the flight test program. With the date of closure in the back of everybody's mind, the final month kept the Dragon Test Team extremely busy as they were finalizing their final test reports on OFP-87, CCSP, EDTS, ENVIS-spiral 1, TAP v18, FMPE v8.1.4, Mission Effectiveness, etceteras were all completed with all the data analysis, charts, graphs and conclusions and sent up the chain of command before 25 August 2006 to be signed by Major General Goldfein at the Air Warfare Center before going to ACC for further distribution. By doing so, most if not all test modifications made to the Dragon are now production modifications and no longer have a T-2 status. On 14 September 2006, "The Dragon" made its last flight and is part of the first lot of 10 aircraft coded for retirement but a replacement aircraft was already found in aircraft 84-0824 that would come out of depot somewhere during the October/November 2006 timeframe. click for the original size picture Being a replacement for the existing Dragon, this aircraft was to have the same modifications as aircraft 85-0835 including Link 16, but as the decision to deactivate the unit became known, this aircraft did not receive the planned modifications and is now part of the operational wing. The inactivation ceremony took place at Holloman AFB on 15 September in the presence of some 500 invitees including General Ronald E. Keys, commander Air Combat Command, Colonel F. Gregory Neubeck Jr., commander 53d Test and Evaluation Group, representatives of the 49th Fighter Wing, 46th Test Group, past Dragon Test Team personnel, Navy commanders, an astronaut (previous DET 1 pilot Colonel Lee Archimbault), Industry (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BAE, Westech Int, etc.). Lieutenant Colonel Silong explained the inactivation: "By law, whenever a weapon system is within five years of retirement we stop conducting modifications and testing and since the F-117s have been scheduled for retirement, we must inactivate the test unit at Holloman". The colonel continued: "When a detachment inactivates, it goes out of existence on a non-permanent basis - unlike a deactivation, where the unit is permanently closed. Detachment 1 was then officially inactivated 1 October 2006, not deactivated. The facilities have been taken over by the Integration Office housing the team that will draw down the F-117 and integrate the F-22 into the 49 Fighter Wing as it is located close to maintenance and has sophisticated briefing and debriefing facilities. With more than 3,700 flight hours, over 600 arrested landings and distinguished with three Air Medals, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and other various campaign and unit awards, Lieutenant Colonel Silong's vast experience has already been recognized, as he went back to his roots when he assumed his new function as the U.S. Navy F/A-18 Operational Test Director with Air Test & Evaluation Squadron Nine (VX-9) at China Lake. Coincidentally, being Bandit number 620, the colonel also managed to rack up 620 flight hours in the Nighthawk. And the Nighthawk? It is evident that the potential of the F-117 will not be further explored nor exploited and funding to get the new capabilities to the operational fleet is limited or redirected in favour of other platforms. One thing the Nighthawk will always be remembered of is the fact that apart from fighting glorious battles, it revolutionized modern air warfare and as such has set the benchmark for any existing or future platform to match or beat and that is something the Dragon Test Team can proudly take credit for.

NIGHTHAWK'S FUTURE

By the end of December 2006, five F-117s will be coded for retirement. Then the 49 Fighter Wing will retire, by quarter, one, then two and then two more to meet the required 10 by the end of 2007. Under Program Budget Decision 720, 49th FW has its orders to prepare the entire fleet for retirement by the end of Fiscal Year '08, while the wing is planning to receive the first Holloman tailed F-22s arriving in the first quarter of fiscal year '09. The disposition of the retired airframes is yet to be announced. Until that time, Lockheed Martin Corporation will continue to support the aircraft under the Total System Performance Partnership II program. click for the original size picture On 30 September 1998, the US Air Force awarded an eight-year $1.8 billion depot-level acquisition and sustainment weapon system support contract for maintaining the F-117 fleet to Lockheed Martin. The program, called Total System Performance Responsibility or TSPR, covers depot level maintenance but also engineering technical assistance, logistics support, spare parts administration, and subcontractor management - positions previously held by USAF. The original concept for F-117 was for a Contractor Logistics Supported weapons system with a small System Program Office (SPO) to oversee necessary government functions. TSPR allowed the Air Force to reduce the size of its SPO from 242 people to 55 and total savings were projected at over $170 million. In addition, program efficiencies have increased mission capable aircraft. All technical support was conducted under the annual sustaining contract and individual upgrade programs as Lockheed Martin also operates the modification/depot line at Site 7, AF Plant 42. TSPR expanded Lockheed Martin's responsibilities in the areas of system engineering, material management, subcontractor management, system & subsystem support, direct support to the user and AF reporting requirements. The objective of the TSPR contract was to return the F-117 to the original concept, being Contractor Logistics Support with Lockheed Martin as the prime system integrator and a small SPO providing oversight capacity. Now referred to as Total System Support Partnership (TSSP), the original TSPR was the Air Force's first foray into a performance-based logistics (PBL) arrangement for one of its major platforms and the program was recognized in November 2005 with the first-ever, system-level Secretary of Defense PBL Award for innovative contracting measures, enhancing war fighter capabilities, and cutting costs. On 29 September 2006, Lockheed Martin received a follow-on contract, worth $1,4 billion with cost-plus-incentive fee as the predominant contract type. This contract is for the Total System Support Partnership (TSSP) II effort which provides continued sustainment support for the F-117 weapon system. Individual delivery orders may also be issued for aircraft modification induction, change proposal activities, supplemental sustainment support, tailored depot work packages, and aircraft disposition. Lockheed Martin could be tasked in the extra work years beyond Fiscal Year '08 to "accommodate possible retirement tasks" as the F-117 is the first Low Observable aircraft to go into retirement presenting unique challenges. However, if the Nighthawk fleet flies for longer, the TSSP II can support "an extension of support" by Lockheed Martin through fiscal year '11. Making Lockheed Martin accountable for complete weapons system support, this TSSP challenges the company to provide support to the 49th FW that is "equal to or better than" current levels while reducing Total Ownership Cost to the US Air Force. The same day this important contract was signed, a vast crowd gathered to commemorate 25 years of Nighthawk history at the Silver Stealth ceremony at Holloman AFB, where a formation of 25 Nighthawks made a unique flyby, symbolizing this milestone. click for the original size picture But yet another milestone was reached around this same date as from 28 September to 1 October 2005 the entire F-117A fleet at Holloman was 100 percent mission capable. This is unique for any squadron and it was the first time in known history that the F-117A had been mission capable for four consecutive days as the Nighthawk had only been 100 percent mission capable for one day maybe two times since its declassification. This was obviously a true testimony of the excellent cooperation between the military maintenance people at Holloman and all those involved from Lockheed Martin. As Brigadier General David Goldfein, 49th Fighter Wing commander underlined in his silver jubilee speech: "The F-117A fleet is full up for any contingency until completely retired, and I believe our readiness was demonstrated today by putting half our fleet in the air, with the remaining being 100% mission capable. This is a clear a testament to our capabilities." The commander continued: "While Silver Stealth is a culmination of 25 years, the F-117A mission still continues on. We have not been relieved of our combat tasking." A clearer statement could not be made with the Nighthawk continuing to be a national strategic asset to the combatant commanders. Today and at least a few more years to come.

MIAS.Aero likes to thank the 49st Fighter Wing leadership for its support in preparing this article. MIAS.Aero 2006.



A comprehensive report on the 7 Fighter Squadron & the Dragon Test Team can be read in the following publications:
    International Air Power Review, Volume 21, 20 pages
    Combat Aircraft, Volume 8 No.1, 16 pages
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