The U.S. Air Force is looking for suppliers of maintenance and logistic support to continue flight operations of the Nighthawk for 10 years.
The F-117 Nighthawk, the first operational stealth aircraft, was officially retired in 2008. However, as we have often reported here at The Aviationist, the Nighthawks have continued to fly, unofficially, from Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield with the Air Force neither confirming nor denying it.
In 2021, things started to change, with the service publishing the first official images of the type still involved in flight operations on the DVIDS (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service) network. Now it appears that in September 2022 the Air Force Test Center published a Request For Information (RFI) about a possible 10-year contract for maintenance and logistics support services for the F-117A fleet at the TTR airfield, acknowledging that the U.S. Air Force is willing to keep the aircraft flying at least until 2034.
Funky F-117 Nighthawk yesterday (sorry about the crap pic) pic.twitter.com/mhR9g8kAVt
— Sean Mitchell (@Smitchphoto) January 8, 2023
Tonopah, a highly classified site about 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been the home to the F-117 since it was inducted in service as well as other “exotic” types like Russian MiGs and Sukhois involved in classified programs like Constant Peg and alike. The airfield is also the place where all the F-117 were stored after the official retirement, awaiting the eventual disposal.
The details in the RFI mentioned an Industry Day to be held in October 2022, where the Air Force was going to meet companies with the needed qualifications and use the information to determine the best acquisition strategy and procure this service, expected to kick off from January 1, 2024.
The RFI also provides further details about the type of support the Air Force is looking for:
Background: These services involve the following main technical objectives:
- Maintenance and logistics support for F-117A limited flight operations at the Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield.
- The preservation of the F-117A aircraft fleet in an extended storage condition.
- The demilitarization/declassification of F-117A aircraft determined to be an excess to Department of Defense requirements. Anticipated demilitarization/declassification rate is expected is a maximum of 2-3 aircraft per year.
Performance areas: The following are projected core performance areas related to F-117A Maintenance and support services:
- F-117A Aircraft Maintenance Services
- Maintenance management
- Launch and recovery operations
- Aircraft inspection (pre/post flight, phase, calendar, etc.)
- Aircraft systems troubleshooting and repair
- Maintenance support tasks
- Aircrew flight equipment (AFE)
- Wheel and tire maintenance
- Oil analysis
- Aircraft weight and balance management
- Engine maintenance/management
- Low Observable (LO) configuration management, including composite and structural repair support
- Mishap response
- Munitions handling and storage – ejection seat explosives only
- Maintenance plans and scheduling
- F-117A Mission Support
- F-117A T-2 modification services
- Instrumentation systems design, installation and repairs
- Operation and maintenance of the F-117A mission planning system
- Ground Diagnostic Imaging Radar operations and sustainment
- Avionics repair using Consolidated Automated Test Equipment (CATES)
- Aircraft Structural Integrity Program management
- Quality management
- Logistics support
- Environmental, Safety and Occupational Health program management
- Aircraft demilitarization, declassification and museum delivery assistance
More information about the T-2 modification services can be readily found in a publicly available Air Force Materiel Command manual:
“T-2 modifications are configuration changes that support research and development; design changes to existing T-2 modifications; and Developmental Test and Evaluation programs or in-service testing of systems or equipment. The T-2 modifications are temporary hardware or software changes or alterations to aerospace vehicles, airborne support equipment, external and internal stores, subsystems, components, or support equipment which is governed by Technical Orders (T.O.) that interface with an aerospace vehicle. T-2 modifications include instrumentation modifications, but can also be temporary changes to prove, develop, or characterize future permanent modifications.”
This somewhat gives a more official confirmation to the fact that the F-117 is being actively used not only for training purposes as adversary aircraft and cruise missile surrogate, but also for research, development, test and evaluation. Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said the same also in a statement released to media, mentioning that the service continues to “fly certain [F-117A] aircraft to support limited research and training activities”.
It is not known, however, how many Nighthawks will benefit from this contract. Of the 59 F-117s built, the spokesperson confirmed that approximately 45 F-117s are currently in the inventory, with more than 10 already approved for transfer to museums. She also mentioned that the Air Force will eventually get rid of the entire F-117 fleet, but a timeline for this is not yet available.
Interestingly, the RFI also shows a slow-down in the Nighthawk’s disposal, mentioning that the expected maximum rate of demilitarization/declassification is now only between two and three jets per year. In 2017 the Air Force received the authorization from the Congress to begin disposing of the F-117 at a rate of up to four airframes per year.
Officially retired or not, the F-117 is making a comeback, and it’s here to stay for a long time.