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The F-117A Nighthawk is the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. It can employ a variety of weapons and is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a state-of-the-art digital avionics suite that increases mission effectiveness and reduces pilot workload.

The F-117A Nighthawk is the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. It can employ a variety of weapons and is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a state-of-the-art digital avionics suite that increases mission effectiveness and reduces pilot workload. (Courtesty of Department of Defense)

The F-117A Nighthawk is the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. It can employ a variety of weapons and is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a state-of-the-art digital avionics suite that increases mission effectiveness and reduces pilot workload.

The F-117A Nighthawk is the world's first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. It can employ a variety of weapons and is equipped with sophisticated navigation and attack systems integrated into a state-of-the-art digital avionics suite that increases mission effectiveness and reduces pilot workload. (Courtesty of Department of Defense)

An Airman from the 8th Security Forces Squadron provides security for an F-117A Nighthawk 'Stealth Fighter' parked inside a hangar. Six F-117s are visiting Kunsan Air Base in South Korea to participate in exercise Foal Eagle 2003.

An Airman from the 8th Security Forces Squadron provides security for an F-117A Nighthawk 'Stealth Fighter' parked inside a hangar. Six F-117s are visiting Kunsan Air Base in South Korea to participate in exercise Foal Eagle 2003. (Greg L. Davis / S&S)

KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Standing in a hangar Friday, Lt. Col. Jay Lake stood before a sleek, jet-black F-117A Nighthawk fighter, extolling how science has turned “Batman”-like aircraft into reality.

“It was designed for a completely new way of approaching the task of attacking a target,” the pilot said. “And that is to use our science, and basically, our nation is blessed with very smart scientists.”

For the first time in 10 years, the Air Force brought its premier stealth fighter to Foal Eagle, the largest U.S.-South Korean military war game that practices defense against a North Korean attack. Six F-117A Nighthawks — “Stealth Fighters” — from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., arrived at Kunsan Wednesday after 11 refuelings over the Pacific Ocean and a stop at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

The $45 million fighter — a pillar of pride during the 1991 Gulf War for penetrating the heavily defended skies over Baghdad — arrives in a tense environment. On March 2, North Korean fighters chased an RC-135S spy plane over the Sea of Japan. North Korea also recently fired two anti-ship missiles during military exercises.

U.S. military officials have stressed that the fighters’ arrival isn’t in response to North Korean threats. But the stark warplane on display at Kunsan appeared to awe journalists and visitors Friday; they clamored for pictures and interviews with pilots.

The planes will stay for two weeks, taking off in pairs and splitting up for flight training. Officials have not determined if they will drop ordnance on South Korea’s training ranges. Pilots are planning day and night sorties, as most wartime attacks would occur under darkness.

The F-117A’s angular design is its only protection, snuffing radar waves. It has no weapons to protect itself from enemy fighters and usually carries just two laser-guided bombs for its target.

“They designed a weapon system that is low-observable to enemy radar and to many other spectrums,” Lake said. “While we would probably use different tactics in the old days to get the same job done, now we do that through our low-observable technology and the tactics associated with those.”

The plane isn’t invisible to radar but is “very hard to see,” said Maj. Jose Angel Pinedo, another pilot.

“Our defense is stealth technology,” Pinedo said. “The whole idea is for them not to be able to see us.”

During war, the fighter is assigned high-value targets heavily defended by enemy radar. But the stealth fighter hasn’t been foolproof, as one was downed during the Kosovo air campaign in 1999.

Maj. Lee Wyatt flew missions in the F-117A from Aviano Air Base, Italy, during the Kosovo conflict. The fighter really is no safer or more dangerous than any other plane, said Wyatt, who also has flown the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a subsonic tank killer.

“All the missions are different and they all have their dangers,” Wyatt said. “I certainly knew a lot more people who were killed flying A-10s just in training than were killed in this airplane. That’s not something I really think about, and that’s not really how I think about it. You train to do a mission, and you do it.”

Before climbing into the F-117A, pilots log many years in other fighter planes. Maj. Mark Hoover was an F-16 pilot. “It’s not as maneuverable as an F-16,” Hoover said. “It’s not an air-to-air fighter. Its entire purpose in life is precision attack versus dogfighting.”

Do pilots feel safer in the slick ride?

“I’d be confident that I’d be coming back,” Pinedo said. “But there’s no such thing as a risk-free mission in combat.”

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