US Air Force (USAF) Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk stealth ground-attack aircraft have once again been sighted flying missions - this time over Los Angeles, California, some 12 years after they were formally retired by the service.
On May 18, two aircraft using ‘Knight’ radio callsigns were heard operating with a KC-135R Stratotanker. However, cloud cover did not permit any visual identification as to what these two aircraft were, even though it was widely expected that they were F-117s.
Two days later – on May 20 – the aircraft repeated the mission, with two F-117As flying south and out over the Pacific Ocean. These aircraft were apparently taking part in manoeuvres in support of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 17, which is conducting flight operations aboard the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) as part of its composite training unit exercise (COMPTUEX).
Clear skies meant that the F-117As were then spotted returning north, flying directly over Long Beach and central Los Angeles and were photographed by Christopher McGreevy as they flew at high level near Mojave, California, as they routed back to their base at Tonopah, Nevada.
On both occasions, the aircraft were supported by the same KC-135R Stratotanker – serial 61-0320 (c/n 18227, line number T0542) – in southern California. The tanker, which uses the callsign ‘Ghost’, is assigned to the 416th Flight Test Squadron (FLTS) at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California, and is specifically used for testing and special mission support operations.
It is unclear exactly why and how the F-117s have been supporting the navy’s COMPTUEX exercise, but it is likely that the aircraft were used as low observable airborne targets for the carrier battle group to deal with. This could include the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye’s Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) that allows the battle group to share complex targeting data.
Following the introduction of the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor, the USAF retired its F-117As in April 2008. However, despite the type’s formal retirement, a portion of the fleet has been kept in an airworthy condition, with Nighthawks having been observed flying by locals and visitors to the Tonopah region over the last decade.