The F-117, America’s first operational “stealth” aircraft, remains one of the most charismatic yet enigmatic jets ever. Even now it looks like something from the distant future, and its peculiar retirement has been followed by sightings of the “Black Jet” still flying over the desolate Nevada desert, very near where it operated for almost a decade under total secrecy: Tonopah Test Range Airport. This is also the place pictured in the rare photo above.
Tonopah Test Range Airport, or TTR, is located about 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It’s where the F-117 Nighthawk lived and worked before being disclosed to the public in November of 1988, and its eventual migration to its “white world” (aka unclassified) base at Holloman AFB in 1992. Tonopah is also where the fleet went to die, or at least went to be mummified after its retirement, and a place where “unique” aircraft continue to be spotted.
What may be more amazing than the F-117 Nighthawk itself was the team of highly dedicated maintenance staff, operations personnel and pilots who lived like vampires for the better part of a decade while the program was operating deep in the classified world.
Even the pilots of the F-117s had to have a cover, and so did the base when it came to prying Russian satellites. Officially, a fleet of purplish-gray and green painted A-7 Corsairs were assigned to it, maybe the ultimate “nothing to see here, move along” military aircraft of the time.
Chris Webb, a defense contractor who is familiar with the base, describes the exceedingly rare photo up top thusly:
“A rare, and (given that operations were normally conducted ‘Lights Out’) unusually well-lit view inside one of the shelters in the ‘canyon’ at TTR,” he told Foxtrot Alpha, referring to the taxiway between the shelters. “The shelters were relatively large but the camera lens has somewhat exaggerated their ‘cavernous’ nature. The parallel shelters were built in 3 batches & ultimately organized into 3 color coded sections – white (the Northern group) , blue (the middle group) & red (the Southern, and oldest, group). This is believed to be a photo’ of ‘Red’ section – 4450 Tactical Squadron later 415 Fighter Squadron.”
Brad Smith, an Avionics Technician that served on the F-117 program during its darkest days, describes what life was like at the reclusive base.
“I was an E-4 Avionics/Communication/Navigation specialist on the program from May of 1988 to June of 1991,” he said. “I was one of the first F-16 experienced troops to be assigned, prior to this it was F-111 experience that was assigned to TTR. I can tell you that I’m one of the few Air Force maintainers to have worked on all of the active F-117 airframes (minus 2 crashed airframes I believe). Blue section was tasked with prepping and launching of all of the deploying aircraft to Desert Shield. I was tasked keying the Mode 4 (Identification Friend or Foe system) on all airframes. I was also involved in the launches for Panama and on the first night of hostilities for Desert Storm, (by then I was stationed in Khamis Mushait).”
Smith described the “vampire life” of those who worked on such a highly classified program.
“Before all the combat action, normal training days consisted of proceeding into work about 2 p.m. to overlap with the day-shift,” he said. “We launched and recovered two sets of sorties on night-shift. Many, many times I would see the sunrise before I got to bed the next day. It was stressful, but rewarding, very hard work.”
During the F-117’s classified operational days in the 1980s, the logistics of just getting to Tonopah Test Range Airport, and even the flightline for that matter were arduous. Smith recounts this crazy regimen.
“The experience was incredible, first to have been selected for a highly secretive national asset was an honor and bestowed a strong sense of pride in our Air Force and country,” he said. “We worked long hours, away from our family for a week at a time. Night-shift (where everything operational happened) flew up on Monday afternoon from Las Vegas and returned Friday morning, mostly after having worked all night or with just a few hours sleep.”
He continued: “The day was regimented, and you fell into a routine early. Mancamp, (where all the living and recreational facilities were) was a 15 minute ride from the main base, so adding travel time from the secure areas to the main terminal, then catching another bus to Mancamp, made for long days.
“Families had no idea where we were, but accepted not knowing as part of their spouse’s job. When we came home, families knew not to ask what we did all week. Work related stress was relieved through the spectacular off duty facilities and opportunities we had onsite.”
One of the hardest parts of supporting the F-117 program during its classified days was the fact that the aircraft only flew at night. This was not just because of its unique mission profile but also for security reasons. Compared to standard fighter and attack aircraft, the now infamous “Black Jet” had its own set of challenges for those launching, recovering and maintaining it. Smith states:
“How did it differ? The extra steps we had to go through on a daily basis, handling and dealing with classified information, manuals, codes, was the biggest difference. Launch procedures were dramatically different, LIGHTS OUT. Launching a black jet that did not reflect light with only a government issued flashlight was challenging. Our night vision was amazing, it had to be. When assisting in a launch we walked with our hand at our forehead to prevent bumps and bruises,” he said.
Because the program was so challenging socially, physically and mentally for those involved, the Air Force took extra steps to make their lives a little more livable while on base.
“Living conditions were good,” Smith said. “Junior enlisted had two per room, we had maid service, satellite TV, and laundry facilities in our dorms. The recreation building was great. It had a bar, Olympic pool, weight room, gymnasium, library, sauna, bowling alley, pool tables, and more and it was all located in one building. We had football and softball fields, tennis courts and a track. The dining facility was top notch with steak and lobster every Wednesday.”
Still, keeping things under-wraps was always the priority, and that helped bond the officially non-existent group together.
“Logistically, you just did your job,” he said. “We knew to keep info locked up and our tongues still. We all knew how important our assignment was. We had something (as far as we knew) that no other country did, and this was at the height of the cold war. The secrecy created a tight bond between us all.”
For a good portion of the F-117s time at Tonopah, another highly sensitive program was underway at the base under the code name Constant Peg. This program worked to exploit foreign military hardware, where American pilots would fly Soviet-built fighters smuggled into the U.S. to learn their strengths, weaknesses, and to familiarize selected fleet pilots with their capabilities up-close. Smith mentions the presence of this bizarre flying unit at the clandestine base, and how the F-117 force referred to them:
“The Red Hats were there when I started at TTR (actually the 4477TES ‘Red Eagles’ not the 6513 Tactical Squadron ‘Red Hats,’ but they were known as ‘Red Hats’ by the ‘Black Hats’ of the 4450 Tactical Group), but left within 6 months. After that, no other projects were located there.”
The F-117 was an incredibly exotic looking machine, but it was somewhat of a franken-plane, built from internal components and sub-systems of existing aircraft in order to save design time and cost. Still, its unique low-observable shape and coatings made it unlike anything else operational at the time.
“I don’t think the jets were all that different to maintain than standard production aircraft,” Smith said. “There were differences, like this canopy won’t fit on that airplane sort of thing, but I have seen that on F-16’s as well. Dealing with the LO (low observable i.e. stealth) aspect aspect was different. The antennas had retractions systems that often required adjustment and the RAM (radar absorbent material) situation was unique. The asset, from a maintenance standpoint, wasn’t that exotic. I tell people now that it was only the shape that made that aircraft different, it had all the usual systems, wires and coax.”
As the Cold War ended the F-117 came out of the black and into the light, with elements of the program slowly being declassified and the whole F-117 operation eventually move from Tonopah Test Range Airport to Holloman AFB in New Mexico. Smith described his own move from the black world back into the light world:
“I left the program before the move to Holloman AFB, but rejoining another unit seemed like suddenly moving in slow motion. I had left the tempo of a unit at war, and joined the 314th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Luke AFB, a training unit, so my mindset had to downshift. The transition had some bumps, but the guys in the new unit were rather curious to have a ‘war hero’ and Nighthawk maintainer among them.”
The F-117’s time at Tonopah was so hush-hush that many of those who were a part of program then still find the incredible secrecy around it intriguing.
“When we were briefed on the program, we were collected in a secure room at Nellis, signed a lot of paperwork and shown a film of the asset flying and on the ground. The official briefing us had us repeat the word ‘STEALTH’ three times and then told us to never say it again. When you sign a paper stating that you can be put to death for revealing government secrets, you tend to follow instructions.
“He did say humorously that if we ever had the need to say it, to kick the family out of the house, lock ourselves in a closet, put our hand over our mouth and whisper it three times,” he added.
By the time the F-117 was first disclosed to the public, some had been working on it since back in the mid to late 1970s and had seen it go from an idea (Hopeless Diamond) to a flying prototype (the HAVE BLUE demonstrator) to a fairly mature operational aircraft. Even for those who had not been with the program so long, finally being able to speak about it, even if in a very limited way, was incredibly exciting. Smith recollects how it was a high-point in his career:
“Even to each other at Tonopah we didn’t say that word (stealth),” Smith said. “In November of 1988, when the asset was released to the public, we were given a press release to read to anyone that asked, I called my father to read the release to him, and was literally unable to say the word “stealth.’ My voice was shaky and I had to read it twice so he could understand me. Afterwards I could feel him beaming with pride, knowing his son, who grew up on a farm in Illinois, could be part of such and amazing program.”
“After all I experienced on that program, that is the best feeling I ever had, the pride of a father,” he said.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.