Combat Aircraft has acquired exclusive images that appear to show a US Air Force F-117A Nighthawk in a hybrid aggressor scheme.
Taken by photographer Steve Lewis on July 11, the F-117 in the accompanying images was seen while conducting aerial refueling high above Death Valley, California, with a KC-135R Stratotanker.
The pair were accompanied by a NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center F-15D that was carrying an unidentified podded sensor under its starboard wing.
Although the aircraft were flying at high altitude, the F-117 can be clearly seen and it appears to be wearing a black/white/gray hybrid aggressor-type scheme on parts of its underside leading edges, on some of the top surfaces and on parts of the twin fins, rather than the F-117’s traditional overall matt black. Observed from several angles, this doesn’t appear to be reflection or shadows, with black areas apparently depicting a smaller F-117 shape, in much the same way as some aggressors feature paint on wingtips and tails to change their visual signature so that they appear similar to the aircraft they are replicating.
The photographer observed the F-117 as it completed in-flight refueling, and as it disconnected from the tanker it joined with the F-15 and headed back towards the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR).
Combat Aircraft has reported about the considerable level of secretive USAF F-117 activity of recent, a highlight of which was low level passes in the same area in February. Having been formally retired in 2008, the F-117s are officially being kept in Type 1000 storage at Tonopah, Nevada, as per a 2007 government ruling, indicating that they are maintained in a status from which they could be recalled to active service, should the need arise. Type 1000 aircraft are termed ‘inviolate’, meaning they have a high potential to return to flying status and no parts may be removed from them. The USAF stated that the aircraft should be able to be reactivated within 30 to 120 days depending upon how long the particular aircraft has been in storage.
Markings applied to one aircraft photographed in February suggest that the Tonopah-based F-117 unit could be named the ‘Dark Knights’.
The USAF has refused to comment on the spate of recent sightings, but these new images could add weight to speculation that the F-117s are being used as stealth aggressors.
The USAF already has plans in train for a new F-35A Lightning II aggressor squadron by 2022 — it’s possible the F-117s are filling the role until then.
It’s not the first time F-117s have worn different schemes. The very first F-117A (79-10780) started its flight-test career in a scheme designed to disguise its shape. Various light gray schemes were also worn, notably by the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group Detachment 1’s ‘Gray Dragon’ that flew at Holloman until 2007.
These latest images are further proof that the F-117s are doing a lot more than just staying ‘current’ should they need to be reactivated. In February, a Nighthawk was observed flying with two F-16s that were apparently engaged in some sort of trials work. The F-15D seen on the latest occasion appears to have been doing the same.
We will feature more coverage and exclusive images of this breaking story in Combat Aircraft’s September 2019 issue.