Stealth B-2A F-111 F-117
Doubts about the B-1Bs ability to penetrate well-defended enemy targets led the Air Force to explore the possibility of reducing a night bomber’s chances of being detected by radar. Aircraft like the B-1 and the SR-71 had reduced their front cross section enough to make them less reflective to hostile radar, and the advantage of building a nearly invisible night bomber was attractive.
It is not surprising that Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works was selected for this project, beginning with a contract in April 1976 to develop a test vehicle called Have Blue with Very Low Observable (VLO) characteristics. That small-scale, proof-of-concept aircraft began test flights at the secret Groom Lake base on December 1, 1977. A second Have Blue prototype in 1978 refined the VLO concept, which replaced aircraft curves with less-reflective straight facets, and careful engine intake screening.
Very strict security protected the program as it advanced to a bomber design. As Oxcart had disguised the A-12, the world’s fastest airplane, F-117 was the misleading designation of the secret night bomber. Our first fighters, had been called pursuits, which chased and shot down enemy aircraft, but the F-117 could not catch or shoot anything.
The radical F-117 achieved VLO traits by a faceted delta shape, radar absorbent composite materials, and reduced infrared exhaust emissions. This shape did limit performance, and no radar was allowed, for any emissions must be prevented. Two General Electric F-404 engines like those of the F/A-18, but without afterburners, powered the F-117A, and a unique V-tail was used. No external stations are allowed.
One man flew the Stealth plane, using a built-in computerized inertial navigation and autopilot flight control system. When a target is acquired by infrared detection from a 25,000-foot altitude, a laser target designator releases a 2,000-pound GBU-10 Paveway II or GBU-27 Paveway III bomb.
Piloted by Harold Farley, Jr., the first F-117A flew at Groom Lake on June 18, 1981. Fifty-nine were delivered from January 15, 1982, to July 12, 1990. They achieved operational capability in October 1983 with the 4450th Tactical Group, which became the 37th TFW at the Tonopah Test Range in October 1989.
Armament usually comprised two GBU-27 or GBU-10 bombs in twin bays, and an inflight refueling receptacle allowed movement to any part of the world. Not until November 10, 1988, was the F-117 revealed to the public. Two 37th TFW Nighthawks targeted a Rio Hato military base on December 20, 1989, during the operation against Panama’s dictator.
Air Force Bombers in Desert Storm
That most modern Air Force bomber was joined by the oldest when seven 2nd BW B-52Gs flew from Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, to launch 35 AGM-86Bs and returned on January 17, after a 35-hour, 14,000-mile flight, the longest combat mission in history. During the Gulf War, 1,624 missions by 86 B-52s were flown with 25,700 tons of iron bombs from Fairford, England; Moron, Spain; and the island of Diego Garcia, as well as SAC bases in the U.S. Twenty-seven 800-pound M117 bombs were inside each B-52G bay, and 18 more could be added on the external beams.