Feb. 17, 2006 -- America's iconic stealth fighters, known around the world for their invisibility to radar, will soon really start to disappear from view.
The Air Force plans on replacing the once super-secret F-117 Nighthawks with the next generation stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor. The new plane boasts huge improvements over the sharply angled matte-black F-117s.
The plan to phase out the Nighthawk first became public last week, when the Pentagon's budget was rolled out, even though the Air Force has been considering it for the past four years. Congress still must approve the plan.
Not only is the new F-22 harder to spot on radar, it can also fly faster than the speed of sound -- something the F-117 could never do. The newer planes can also carry heavier bomb payloads than the Nighthawk, making it more valuable to war planners.
Plans now call for retiring the current fleet of 52 F-117s by 2008, and the first 10 fighters could be retired next year. Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Michelle Lai said the Air Force is now going through "the final steps" of what will happen next.
Fifty of the planes are based with the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB in Alamogordo, N.M., while two others are assigned to test squadrons.
The 'Black Program'
The F-117 was developed in the 1970s and early 1980s as a so-called "black program" -- the military's term for classified programs. Testing of early prototypes at Groom Lake, north of Las Vegas, helped fuel the facility's notoriety among UFOlogists as "area 51."
The F-117 Nighthawk was unveiled in 1988 at a cost of about $45 million each.
Though operational since 1982, the planes were so secret that the Pentagon didn't acknowledge their existence until 1988, and even then the planes were kept under tight security. The planes were never seen publicly, and no pictures were allowed to be taken by reporters who were lucky enough to see them.
The fear was that America's enemies might obtain the plane's secrets by looking at publicly available pictures. Nowadays, anyone can snap a picture of the planes at military airshows.
The planes first saw combat in 1989 when they were used for air strikes during Operation Just Cause in Panama. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the planes were the only aircraft allowed to strike targets inside Baghdad's heavily defended city limits.
Their stealth capabilities enabled them to slip through enemy radar and strike key targets unannounced. The F-117s repeated their assignment during the aerial bombing of Baghdad that began Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.
For all the hype, stealth fighters were never truly invisible to radar. Their angular appearance often left a signature on radar screens similar to a flock of birds -- a signature often ignored by radar operators. The F-22 Raptor is a sleeker-looking aircraft with improved stealth technologies that make it even less detectable to radar.
Amazingly, one of the aircraft was shot down by enemy fire during air operations in Yugoslavia in March 1999. At the time, military officials said a "lucky shot" from an anti-aircraft missile brought the aircraft down.
Off to 'The Boneyard'?
No decision has been made about where the planes will end up, but like many retirees, the stealth fighter could be headed to warm climes. One option under discussion is to send the planes to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. -- aka "the boneyard" -- where scrapped military planes are stored in the desert for spare parts or for future use.
The area's arid climate and alkaline soil mean aircraft can be stored indefinitely with a minimum of corrosion and deterioration. In addition, the soil is so hard it is possible to park aircraft in the desert without constructing concrete or steel parking ramps.
The desert base houses row upon row of 4,200 scrapped military aircraft in what is likely the world's single-largest gathering area for military aircraft.
If the Pentagon's plan moves forward, the F-117s may soon be joining the crowd.