On 26 August 2008, the Full Scale Development YF-117A known as Article 784 was scrapped at the US Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, California.

The operation began by first removing the secretive leading edge structures and radar absorbent materials covering the exterior of the plane. The latter typically contains highly toxic substances that must be processed for safe disposal.

Disposal of Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk (1)

The scrapping was said to be a test of the best methods for disposing of the F-117 fleet now stored at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. The aircraft were moved to the remote facility following the retirement of the Nighthawk earlier in the year.

Disposal of Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk (2)

Although it has been stated the remaining F-117 fleet is to be preserved in a condition making it possible to reactivate the planes at a future date, if necessary, the destruction of Article 784 suggests the Air Force is instead planning to dispose of the stealthy attack bombers.

Disposal of Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk (3)

Article 784 was the fifth and final pre-production prototype of the F-117. The first four have been preserved as displays at the Air Force Museum in Ohio, Blackbird Airpark in California, Nellis AFB in Nevada, and Holloman AFB in New Mexico.

Disposal of Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk (4)

With these stealth measures removed, the F-117 is little different from any other outdated plane no longer needed by the military. The remainder of the scrapping process was therefore quite low tech. A demolition vehicle completed the task using shears to cut off the wings and break up the remains of the fuselage.

Disposal of Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk (5)

The exercise was apparently a practice run for finding the best way of scrapping an F-117A, and is therefore a gloomy bellwether for the remaining fleet now stored in the Tonopah Test Range, Nevada. Despite some discussion about maintaining the fleet for possible future use, the clinical destruction of 784 tends to support the view that this is highly unlikely. Stealth watchers say the clues were already there as the Tonopah hangars are not weather–proof, and that tooling has been destroyed along with many spare parts.

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The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is a single-seat, twin-engine stealth ground-attack aircraft formerly operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) developed from the Have Blue technology demonstrator and produced by Lockheed’s Skunk Works. It is the first operational aircraft to be designed around stealth technology. The maiden flight of the F-117 happened in 1981 and the aircraft achieved initial operating capability status in October 1983. The Nighthawk spent much of its early service life shrouded in secrecy, until it was “acknowledged” and unveiled to the world in November 1988.

The F-117 was widely publicized for its role in the Gulf War of 1991. It was commonly referred to as the “Stealth Fighter”, although it was a strictly ground-attack aircraft. F-117s took part in the conflict in Yugoslavia where one was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) on 27 March 1999, the only Nighthawk to be lost in combat. The Air Force retired the F-117 on 22 April 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the F-22 Raptor. Sixty-four F-117s were built, 59 of which were production versions with the other five being demonstrators/prototypes.

Why is the F-117 Nighthawk, America’s first true “stealth” aircraft, still prowling the skies years after its retirement in 2008?

Since the F-117 officially stopped flying, the famous triangular black jet has been spotted on numerous occasions. Even a video taken by a highly credible source emerged in 2010 of a lone F-117 ripping around the northern portion of the Nellis Range Complex, while other videos depicting the F-117 refueling from a KC-10 Extender and playing with an instrumented testbed aircraft north of Groom Lake have also appeared on the net. Additional sightings have occurred as recent as October of last year, and some have even said they saw a pair of F-117s recovering at Nellis AFB early in the evening fairly recently.

It was originally stated that the entire F-117A fleet, minus one pre-production example which was scrapped as an experiment at Plant 42 in Palmdale, CA, would be put into regenerative storage at the F-117′s original operational home, desolate Tonopah Test Range Air Base in south central Nevada. The stored aircraft’s systems would be “mummified” and their wings would be removed so that up to five aircraft could fit into a single hangar which once housed two of the jets during their early operational heyday. Although there were murmurs about a handful of F-117s being kept in flying condition, the USAF has not addressed exactly how many of the black jets would be kept in such a state, and more importantly, why they would be kept in a flyable condition in the first place.

Most of the F-117A production airframes are stored at Tonopah Test Range. The only airframe that has been scrapped is Article 784, the fifth pre-production Full-Scale Development (FSD) prototype. It was destroyed in August 2008 at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Palmdale, California.

Total production included five YF-117A FSD airframes (articles 780 through 784) and 59 production F-117A airframes (articles 785 through 843).

Aircraft lost:
785, crashed at Groom Lake, NV, 20 April 1982, non-fatal
792, crashed near Bakersfield, CA, 11 July 1986, fatal
793, crashed near Baltimore, MD, 14 September 1997, non-fatal
801, crashed near Alamogordo, NM, 4 August 1992, non-fatal
806, shot down near Budjanovci, Yugoslavia, 27 March 1999, non-fatal
815, crashed near Tonopah Test Range, NV, 14 October 1987, fatal
822, crashed near Zuni, NM, 10 May 1995, fatal

Aircraft on display:
780 at Nellis AFB, NV
781 at USAF Museum, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH
782 at Holloman AFB, NM (painted as 816)
783 at Blackbird Airpark, Palmdale, CA
785 at Lockheed Martin facility, Palmdale, CA (rebuilt with spare parts)

Aircraft scrapped:
784, broken up at AF Plant 42, Plamdale, CA, August 2008

Aircraft stored at TTR:
786, 787, 788, 789, 790, 791, 794, 795, 796, 797, 798, 799, 800, 802, 803, 804, 805, 807, 808, 809, 810, 811, 812, 813, 814, 816, 817, 818, 819, 820, 821, 823, 824, 825, 826, 827, 828, 829, 830, 831, 832, 833, 834, 835, 836, 837, 838, 839, 840, 841, 842, 843

Sources:

http://www.dreamlandresort.com/forum/messages/30845.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_F-117_Nighthawk
http://www.aerospaceweb.org/aircraft/bomber/f117/
http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/why-is-the-retired-f-117-nighthawk-still-flying-1544383008

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