The Air Force Flight Test Museum’s YF-117A Stealth Fighter tail number 783 is on the move.
After a number of years of being displayed at the Museum’s Blackbird Park in Palmdale, Calif., it was moved to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., June 7 where it will be put into inside storage awaiting a full restoration and its eventual display at the museum’s new facilities at the Edwards AFB Main gate. Tail number 783 is one of only four F-117s on display.
The Stealth Fighter traces its roots to 1974 when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency asked five major military aircraft manufacturers to study the potential for developing fighter aircraft with significantly reduced radar detectability. Having not produced a fighter since its F-104 Starfighter a decade earlier, Lockheed was not invited to participate.
By early 1975, word of the unclassified DARPA project reached Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects. Reducing radar detectability had been an ADP priority for a number of years and a degree of success had been achieved by using radar absorbing material and shaping. After the CIA granted permission for Lockheed to discuss its A-12’s low observable characteristics Lockheed was allowed to petition DARPA to be included in the project.
Lockheed’s breakthrough in developing such an aircraft was the ability to reasonably analyze a complex shape using a concept developed by Bill Schroder, a retired Lockheed mathematician. His approach resulted in faceting and creating a three dimensional aircraft not out of smooth curved surfaces, but out of a collection of flat panels.
To validate this approach a simple idealized aircraft model, nicknamed the “Hopeless Diamond” was built and tested. Its radar cross section proved to be far lower than any shape Lockheed had previously tested.
Under the project designation Have Blue, various models were tested to further validate the design concept. In April 1976 Lockheed was declared the winner of the DARPA competition. The unclassified program immediately went black.
ADP, better known as the Skunk Works, built two small piloted technology demonstrators for more extensive flight and full scale RCS testing. Their performance led to a full-scale engineering development contract for the Stealth Fighter Nov. 16, 1978.
There would be no prototypes. The first five aircraft would be built as flight test articles. Their performance would determine what design changes would be implemented even as succeeding aircraft were rolling down the assembly line.
The museum’s YF-117A (783, U.S. Air Force serial 79-10783) is the fourth Full Scale Development aircraft, being delivered Dec. 5, 1981. Lockheed pilot Tom Morganfeld flew it for the first time July 7, 1982.
Two functional check flights by Air Force pilots were followed by several weeks of infrared signature measurements. This was followed by integration of avionics for Infrared Acquisition and Designation System trials. From April 24 to July 23, 1984, 783 was flown against F-14, F-15, F-16, and EF-111A aircraft to collect air-to-air threat analysis data.
Afterward, the airplane was used alternatively between low-observables tests and integration of improvements to navigation and weapon delivery systems.
In October 1984, two Navy pilots used 783 to conduct a performance review to evaluate the F-117A for carrier suitability. In March 1989, 783 was officially accepted by the Air Force. In 1998, after being assigned to the 410th Flight Test Squadron, 783 became the first F-117A modified in the Single Configuration Fleet program, a four-month test series to evaluate an optimized radar-absorbent coating to improve maintainability. In April 2004, the airplane was used to evaluate a two-tone grey camouflage paint scheme. 783 was retired in March 2007 with 2,464.6 flight hours.
After its retirement volunteers with the 410th Flight Test Squadron, assigned to Edwards AFB but based at nearby U.S. Air Force Plant 42, prepared 783 for static display. In doing so the aircraft had to be slightly modified. The original leading edges, nose assembly, pitot tubes and exhaust were removed and replaced, adue to their sensitive technology. Unfortunately this also included the cockpit.Â Aluminum sheet replaced the canopy and sensor glass.
March 3, 2008, 783 was moved from the 410th FLTS to Blackbird Air Park.
The Air Force Flight Test Center Museum is an Air Force Field Museum operating within the guidelines of the U.S. Air Force Heritage Program. The museum’s mission is to collect, interpret, preserve, and display the material history of the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards AFB and its antecedents, and the history of Air Force flight testing. The museum is an integral part of the public education and display of base and Air Force history as well as flight test.
The museum is supported by the Flight Test Historical Foundation, a nonprofit private organization authorized to operate on Edwards AFB for the specific purpose of financially supporting the museum.
Please note that access to Edwards AFB is restricted. The museum is accessible only to base personnel and individuals who have appropriate credentials to enter the installation.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. for personnel with base access. The museum’s phone number is (661) 277-8050.
For those who do not have base access there is a General Public Tour offered twice a month. The tours are free, but reservations are required. For more information on the General Public Tours please visit www.edwards.af.mil or call (661) 661-277-3517/4803/8707/3510/3511 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
A new and exciting facility at West Gate is being planned that will complement the already existing Century Circle display allowing the public unrestricted access to the museum collection. The goal is relocate the museum in stages as funds become available. Donations are required to make this goal a reality. Donations may be sent to the Flight Test Historical Foundation, P.O. Box 57, Edwards, CA 93523 or by calling (661) 275-3169.