F-117A Nighthawk stealth aircraft taking part In Northern Lightning 2023 exercise

According to a tweet posted by animeyer on August 5, three old F-117A Nighthawks stealth fighters arrived at Duluth Air National Guard Base that same afternoon, immediately taxiing toward the 148th Fighter Wing’s installation on the NE side of the field in view of taking part in Northern Lightning 2023 exercise.

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F 117A Nighthawk stealth aircraft taking part In Northern Lightning 2023 exercise Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk landing at Duluth Air National Guard Base on August 5, 2023 (Picture source: Twitter account of animeyer)

As reported by David Cenciotti on The Avionist, Northern Lightning stands out as one among the seven joint accredited exercises organized by the Air National Guard at a Combat Readiness Training Center. Taking place from August 7 to August 18, 2023, at Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center in Winsconsin, this iteration of Northern Lightning is hosting a considerable assembly of 60 aircraft and approximately 1,000 service members.

The event, titled Northern Lightning 2023, serves as a combat readiness exercise marked by the convergence of units from various branches of the military, including the Air Force, National Guard, Marine, and Navy. These units, hailing from Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, and Virginia, collaborate in a tactical joint training environment. The official website of the Wisconsin National Guard elucidates that the exercise's primary focus is on air interdiction and the integration of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. The overarching objective centers on unit aircrew training to adeptly prepare participating factions for both their state and federal missions.

The core thrust of the drills remains Opposed Air Interdiction and Close Air Support, operating within a sophisticated air defense system consisting of pertinent surface-to-air and air-to-air threats. These simulations transpire in a contested/degraded operational setting, encompassing Offensive/Defensive Counter Air activities, Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defense missions, and Close Air Support operations, all orchestrated by the contributing assets.

A point of intrigue within this composition is the participation of three veteran F-117A Nighthawk aircraft. Often referred to as the "Black Jets", these aircraft, stationed at the Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield, have not been stationed at Volk Field ANGB for this occasion. Instead, they have taken up operations at Duluth ANGB in Minnesota, where they arrived on August 4, 2023. The F-117s engage in daily flights over Wisconsin, flying in pairs and adopting their iconic radio callsign "Night."

Evidently, the veil of secrecy surrounding the F-117s' status has been lifted. Despite their official retirement 15 years ago in 2008, the F-117s are far from idle. Their utilization extends beyond training exercises as adversary aircraft and stand-ins for cruise missiles. These stealth aircraft have found relevance in the realms of research, development, testing, and evaluation. Following a covert period of operation subsequent to their formal retirement, the stealth capabilities of these aircraft are now publicly employed to enhance the complexity of critical U.S. exercises.

Although the F-117 Nighthawk was officially retired in 2008, it continued to clandestinely operate from the Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield in Nevada. Maintained under a "Type 1000" storage status at TTR, the aircraft remained in a state of readiness until summoned back into active service. The arid conditions of the Nevada desert provide an optimal environment for preserving these stealth aircraft in impeccable condition.

In September 2022, the Air Force Test Center released a Request For Information (RFI) seeking maintenance and logistics support services for the F-117A fleet at the TTR airfield. This action corroborated the Air Force's commitment to keep these aircraft operational at least until 2034. While the precise number of airworthy F-117s remains undisclosed, figures from January 2023 indicate that out of the 59 originally built aircraft, approximately 45 are still part of the inventory. A portion of these has gained approval for transfer to museums, and the disposal rate has settled at a pace of merely two to three aircraft annually, diverging from the four-per-year projection declared in 2017.

As a reminder, the F-117 Nighthawk is a single-seat, subsonic twin-engine stealth attack aircraft developed by Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works division and operated by the US. Air Force. It was the first operational aircraft to be designed with stealth technology. The aircraft was based on the Have Blue technology demonstrator. The Nighthawk's maiden flight took place in 1981 at Groom Lake, Nevada, and the aircraft achieved initial operating capability status in 1983. The aircraft was shrouded in secrecy until it was revealed to the public in 1988. Of the 64 F-117s built, 59 were production versions, with the other five being prototypes.

The F-117 was widely publicized for its role in the Gulf War of 1991. Although it was commonly referred to as the "Stealth Fighter", it was strictly an attack aircraft. F-117s took part in the conflict in Yugoslavia, where one was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) in 1999. The U.S. Air Force retired the F-117 in April 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the F-22 Raptor.

F 117A Nighthawk stealth aircraft taking part In Northern Lightning 2023 exercise Lockheed F-117A Nighthawks landing at Duluth Air National Guard Base on August 5, 2023 (Picture source: Twitter account of animeyer)