THE FIRST NIGHTHAWKS
by William B. Scott
Depicting a symbolic nighthawk in flight and worn on a man’s suit lapel, it’s just a small, innocuous silver pin. But a red ruby in the hawk’s eye silently speaks volumes. It says the pin’s owner is part of a very small, elite club–the U. S. Air Force’s first group of operational F-117 Nighthawk pilots.
Each pilot was hand picked during the early 1980s to fly the world’s first stealth fighter, a program so steeped in secrecy that few top U.S. government officials knew it even existed. The first cadre of pilots, maintenance technicians and commanders quietly moved their families to the Las Vegas, Nev., area, not exactly sure why they were there. The uniformed officers and enlisted personnel who departed early each week and returned on weekends were not allowed to reveal where they went or what they did.
For years, the pilots spent most of the work week at an air base near Tonapah, Nev., flying a black arrowhead-like attack aircraft only at night. They also flew the Vought A-7 Corsair, which served as a companion trainer for the F-117 Nighthawk, and used A-7 call signs and identifiers when talking to air traffic controllers–even when actually in a Nighthawk.
As the 4450th Tactical Fighter Group–the first operational F-117 unit–trained and developed air-to-ground tactics, its pilots were restricted to flying simulated and actual bombing missions within the Nellis AFB range boundaries. The aircraft’s very existence was top-secret, and venturing outside those boundaries posed a risk of being seen. At the time, being spotted was unacceptable.
Then-Col. Howell M. Estes, III, arrived at Tonapah in May 1984 and assumed command of the 4450th TFG as the transition to full operational status was getting underway. Three production F-117s were on-base, but the fleet and unit were expanding rapidly. An operations-oriented base, complete with hangars, barracks, fuel supplies, maintenance facilities and ordnance storage sites, was still being built.
But getting the unit combat-ready was Estes’ top priority. That meant flying outside the Nellis range, and running simulated “real-world” missions. Flights soon started making simulated attacks on targets outside the range complex–but still near the Nellis area, staying relatively close to the Nighthawk “home” in Tonapah.
One night mission took a still-secret F-117 over downtown Las Vegas, simulating a bombing attack on selected buildings in an urban setting. The night was dark, but as the solo Nighthawk flew over the famous “Strip’s” bright lights, its black arrowhead planform was illuminated from below–unbeknownst to the pilot. Besides, who on the floodlit streets of Vegas could possibly look up through that glare and see a black airplane against the dark sky? But the F-117 pilot hadn’t counted on a two-seat F-16 also cruising over Las Vegas, about 1,000 ft. below his Nighthawk.
A local air traffic controller dutifully called the F-16 to report an aircraft crossing overhead, saying, “there’s an A-7 1,000 ft. above you.”
The F-16 pilot shot back: “I don’t know what it is, but that’s no #%&@* A-7!”
A highly classified Nighthawk had been spotted off-range for the first time. The F-117 pilot quickly called his Tonapah operations center and reported the F-16 crew’s sighting, unleashing a flurry of activity. The wheels of Air Force security turned quickly that night, and no-nonsense officials met the sharp-eyed F-16 crew after it landed. The Viper pilots were sternly “debriefed” and told to keep their mouths shut. Nobody would tolerate a couple of fighter pilots discussing the service’s most-secret bird at the officers’ club.
That incident marked a turning point for the still-embryonic attack aircraft’s operations. As the F-117 fleet grew and its pilots became more proficient, Estes’ boss at then-Tactical Air Command (TAC) decided it was time to test the Nighthawk unit’s combat readiness. A lot of money had been spent on the nation’s first stealth fighter, and some very important people wanted to know whether it could really do its primary job–slip past enemy radars and hit a target at night. The 4450th TFG would have its first Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) in May 1985.
An ORI is a unit’s ultimate non-combat test. A passing grade is mandatory, or heads roll–usually starting with the commander. For a spanking-new weapon system like the F-117–an aircraft that symbolized a massive departure in Air Force capabilities and combat strategy–the stakes were even higher.
The Virginia-based TAC inspection team had a few tricks in its playbook when it arrived in Nevada, too. Nighthawks would be required to attack targets miles away from Tonapah–targets the pilots had never seen before. These “first-look” targets were miles away in Utah, Idaho and California. Eight F-117s would fly on several nights, stressing the small cadre of commanders, pilots, maintenance technicians and intelligence troops.
“We had a ‘shack’ on each and every target the ORI team gave us,” Estes recalled. “It was unbelievable. Nobody had ever seen anything like it.” A “shack” in pilot’s bombing parlance is a direct hit.
As a result, the TAC inspection team gave the 4450th TFG an “Outstanding” rating in each category on its first ORI, and raved about the unit’s proficiency.
When the TAC team briefed Vern Orr, the Air Force Secretary, about the Nighthawk’s sterling performance, Orr turned to Estes and said: “Great job. But you can’t tell anybody!”
A few years later, the F-117 flew its first combat engagement during attacks in Panama. Results were mixed, thanks to target-changes given to the Nighthawks during their nonstop flight to the Central American nation. “It wasn’t an accurate reflection of what we all knew the F-117’s capabilities really were,” Estes said.
Any inaccurate perceptions vanished during the 1991 Gulf War, when Nighthawks bombed vital targets in Baghdad on the first night of air attacks, braving a barrage of anti-aircraft fire and missiles. Throughout the subsequent intense air campaign over several weeks, not a single F-117 was damaged by enemy fire. Without question, “this stealth [stuff] works,” a pilot declared later.
Estes retired in the late 1990s as a four-star general commanding America’s military space forces. He accomplished a great deal in his Air Force career, from flying fighters in Vietnam to overseeing billions of dollars worth of satellites, rockets and nuclear-armed missiles.
But he’s particularly proud of that small red-eyed nighthawk on his lapel.
(Based on interviews with Gen. Howell M. Estes, III.)
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Robert McAuley now resides in Long Beach, N.Y. He worked in New York City as an Art Director for 3 different magazines one of which was Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. It was there that he started to write and has just finished his 18th book plus a children’s coloring book.