A restored F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter, one of the most iconic aircraft in Air Force history, will soon be on permanent display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.
The F-117A (Tail No. 803), nicknamed “Unexpected Guest,” entered service in May 1984 and flew 78 combat sorties, more than any other Nighthawk, according to the foundation.
It will go on public display at the Reagan Library Dec. 7 at an official ribbon-cutting ceremony during the annual Reagan National Defense Forum. The jet will be located outdoors near the library’s F-14 aircraft on the west side of the site and clearly visible from inside its auditorium.
The Lockheed F-117A was developed in response to an Air Force request for an aircraft capable of attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radar, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
"By the 1970s, new materials and techniques allowed engineers to design an aircraft with radar-evading or “stealth” qualities. The result was the F-117A, the world’s first operational stealth aircraft, according to the museum.
The first single-seat, dual engine Nighthawk flew on June 18, 1981, at Groom Lake, Nevada, and the first F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group — renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989 — achieved initial operating capability in October 1983. Between 1981 and 2008, when the aircraft was retired due to the fielding of the F-22, the secretive Skunk Works produced 59 operational F-117s and five developmental prototypes.
The F-117A, which the Air Force did not publicly acknowledge existed until 1988, first flew in combat over Panama on Dec. 19, 1989, when two of the stealth aircraft attacked targets during Operation Just Cause.
The Nighthawk went into action again during Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991, when the 415th and the 416th squadrons of the 37th TFW moved to a base in Saudi Arabia, according to the museum.
It played a key role in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, flying 1,271 sorties and hitting 1,600 or so high-value targets in Iraq. The aircraft sustained no losses or battle damage.
F-117s also took part in the conflict in Yugoslavia, where one was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in 1999; it was the only Nighthawk to be lost in combat.
“I was privileged to fly the airplane when the program was classified,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Stimpert, who flew the very plane going on display at the Reagan Library. “It was an exciting time, and a vitally important capability, but not something you could share with friends or family. I’m glad the airplane can come out of the dark to take its rightful place in the light, somewhere it can be seen and appreciated by the people it helped to protect.”
The Nighthawk display “will serve as a visible reminder to the library’s near half-million annual visitors of President Reagan’s commitment to the rebuilding of the U.S. military through his ‘Peace through Strength’ program,” according to a press release from the Reagan Foundation.
The joint effort between the Reagan Foundation and Lockheed Martin Skunk Works was made possible through a loan from the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
“The Reagan Library will now be one of two places in the nation where the general public can visit an F-117 stealth fighter on permanent display,” said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. “We are deeply grateful to Lockheed Martin for their outstanding assistance in restoring the aircraft for such a meaningful display and to the U.S. Air Force for making it possible for the Reagan Library to exhibit the plane for millions of visitors to enjoy for years to come.”