Air Force's Stealth Fighters Making Final Flights

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) -- The world's first attack aircraft to employ stealth technology is slipping quietly into history.

The inky black, angular, radar-evading F-117, which spent 27 years in the Air Force arsenal secretly patrolling hostile skies from Serbia to Iraq, will be put in mothballs next month in Nevada.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, which manages the F-117 program, will have an informal, private retirement ceremony Tuesday with military leaders, base employees and representatives from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The last F-117s scheduled to fly will leave Holloman on April 21, stop in Palmdale, California, for another retirement ceremony, then arrive on April 22 at their final destination: Tonopah Test Range Airfield in Nevada, where the jet made its first flight in 1981.

The government has no plans to bring the fighter out of retirement, but could do so if necessary.

"I'm happy to hear they are putting it in a place where they could bring it back if they ever needed it," said Brig. Gen. Gregory Feest, the first person to fly an F-117 in combat, during the 1989 invasion of Panama that led to the capture of dictator Manuel Noriega.

The Air Force decided to accelerate the retirement of the F-117s to free up money to modernize the rest of the fleet. The F-117 is being replaced by the F-22 Raptor, which also has stealth technology.

Fifty-nine F-117s were made; 10 were retired in December 2006 and 27 since then, the Air Force said. Seven of the planes have crashed, one in Serbia in 1999.

Stealth technology used on the F-117 was developed in the 1970s to help evade enemy radar. While not invisible to radar, the F-117's shape and coating greatly reduced its detection.

The F-117, a single-seat aircraft, was designed to fly into heavily defended areas undetected and drop its payloads with surgical precision.

A total of 558 pilots have flown the F-117 since it went operational. They dub themselves "bandits," with each given a "bandit number" after their first flight.

Feest, who is Bandit 261, also led the first stealth fighter mission into Iraq during Desert Storm in 1991. He said the fire from surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns was so intense that he stopped looking at it to try to ease his fears.

"We knew stealth worked and it would take a lucky shot to hit us, but we knew a lucky shot could hit us at any time," he said.

Incredibly, not one stealth was hit during those missions, he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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