20 Cold War-Era Warplanes of the U.S. Air Force

F-117 Nighthawk

The world’s first stealth “fighter” — Lockheed’s top-secret F-117 Nighthawk — wasn’t publicly announced until 1989 and made its first flight in 1981. While the F-117 was classified as a fighter, the plane had no afterburner, no airborne radar or defensive armaments like cannon or air-to-air missiles and should have technically been classified as an attack aircraft. But former TAC Commander Gen. Robert J. Dixon reportedly said that the Air Force wouldn’t have been able to recruit top-notch pilots needed to fly the Nighthawk if it wasn’t called a fighter. It’s only defense was that enemy air defense crews couldn’t shoot what they couldn’t see. The F-117 owed its avant-garde style to the fact that Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works based their design around minimizing radar cross section (about 1.5 square inches) and then figured out how to make it fly. In fact, the F-117 is so aerodynamically unstable that it relies on computer systems to stay airborne. Nighthawk pilots — called “Bandits” — made their combat debut in the Invasion of Panama (Operation JUST CAUSE), then flew over 1,000 sorties during Operation DESERT STORM in 1991.

Author: Chris Carter

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