Now it can be told -– The 10 percent rule -– about the F-117 ‘stealth fighter’

Photograph by Dennis Anderson

In the movie “Men In Black,” super-secret government agents are dealing with an invasion of extraterrestrials.

The younger agent played by Will Smith, asks the older agent, played by Tommy Lee Jones, about the suit they are required to wear as “MIB” agents.
Smith asks if they will have to wear the same black suit, tie and shades, well, forever?

Jones nods yes. And they can’t tell anybody about what they do? Ever? Jones affirms this. Same suit. Same shades. Forever.

“I’ve just got one question,” asks Smith, who is already an FBI agent. “Is it worth it?”

“Absolutely!” And the pair begin their secret lives together. Smith exults, “I make this suit look good!”

How long is it before you can walk away from that black suit? Answer: it might be about 35 years.

A group gathered recently to be honored for their once-secret work weren’t the “Men In Black” with cool shades who do battle with interplanetary extraterrestrial threats.

They were the men in cool shades in the black planes who dealt with the Cold War existential threat.

This handful of members of the earliest fraternity of the pilots who ushered in the age of stealthy air combat are known to each other as “Bandits.”

Together in one place, they represented a magnificent seven -– plus or minus one or two -– who tested the first operational stealth “fighter,” the F-117 Nighthawk.

The F-117 was really a small bomber or attack aircraft more than a fighter, but that, also, was part of its mystique. So secret that its existence was denied, the program emerged as a Cold War deception to keep the main adversary in the dark.

The pilots who gathered recently to share a few stories about their Cold War mission were the ones who helped change air warfare in the biggest way in the half century since the radar was introduced to defeat the Nazi Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

At the recent annual gala dubbed the “Gathering of Eagles,” these half-dozen “Bandits” were inducted into the Order of the Eagle, an elite group of pilots renowned for their daring. Even above that, for their judgment and competence in the cockpit.

Introduced up on stage, one-by-one, they accepted their accolades, and raised a glass to honor their comrades in test flight. On the evening of the 2016 Gathering of Eagles, the year marker celebrated was the 35th anniversary of the first flight of the F-117.

Retired Air Force Col. Larry McClain noted that because of the secrecy of the work they engaged in, these were a corps of test pilots whose names remained in shadow until their stories could be told.

Thirty-five years after the stealth fighter’s early flights, the half-dozen fliers on stage in the Hunter Dodge Pavilion at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds looked like they could be the board of directors of a farmers and merchants bank -– except that even with hair gone silver to white, they retained the lean physique of the test pilot.

In certain ways, they will never lose that black suit or those dark glasses.

Four F-117 Nighthawks fly in formation during a sortie over the Antelope Valley.

Honored as Eagles at the gathering by the Flight Test Historical Foundation were the evening’s honorary co-chairmen, retired Air Force Col. Larry McClain and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Pete Winters. Respectively they were the test wing commander and vice test wing commander for the group that ushered in the age of stealth.

Also honored as Eagles were Skip Anderson, F-117 chief pilot and test force commander, Jon S. Beesley, U.S. Air Force F-117 test pilot, Harold Farley, Lockheed F-117 first flight pilot and retired Air Force Lt. Col. David L. Ferguson who was honored posthumously.

The night of Oct. 1, 2016, some of their stories could be told, under the humorous terms of the “10 percent rule … that 10 percent of what a glory pilot might tell is only 10 percent of the story, and that at least 10 percent of that is true.”

And it had to be told in a language best understood by those qualified to hear the tale.

The pilots spoke in a room of peers, engineers, flight test engineers and flight crews. And also for family members who were kept in the dark during the secrecy of the long Cold War.

For a long stretch of the program, no one even named the aircraft. It was simply “The Asset.”

Drawing the stories out of them on stage were a couple of brother pilots, “Evil” Bill Gray and Jim “JB” Brown. The pilots of the F-117 call themselves “Bandits,” and the original small team of test pilots from industry and the services claimed the name “Baja Scorpions,” in honor of a spiny, faceted creature with a big stinger that was found in a hangar at a remote desert test site.

The aircraft known to the public as the “stealth fighter” was really a tactical bomber, carrying 2,000-pound laser-guided munitions that could drop down a ventilation shaft, which is exactly what happened in Baghdad during the opening of Operation Desert Storm.

The F-117 Nighthawk was -– and is -– known to its pilots and crews simply as “the black plane.” Black for its color. Black for its program origins in the “denied access program need to know” world. The black world.

How it became the black plane was a story in itself. Hal Farley, the first to pilot what would be the operational stealth aircraft, said that gray had been deemed a good color for camouflage and stealth. He added, drily, “so they decided to make it black.”

Black would be the color for a plane flown mostly at night.
The program, beginning in the 1970s, had different code names, beginning with “Have Blue” and morphing into “Senior Trend” as the aircraft moved closer to operational capability. The reason for the secrecy emerged from the concept of stealth itself — to create an aircraft that would be impervious to radar systems.

According to aviation historian Peter W. Merlin, the loss of about 100 U.S. built frontline fighter aircraft to Soviet radar guided systems in just 18 days during the 1973 Yom Kippur war drove the need for a technology breakthrough. Soviet air defense needed to be thwarted in order to give NATO and other Allied forces the edge needed to survive in a tense Cold War era.

While Northrop was working out a different “low observable” design concept that would manifest in the B-2 stealth bomber, the brain trust at Lockheed’s renowned Skunk Works developed its stealth concept from -– of all things -– an unclassified 1966 Russian technical paper involving math formula that could be applied to diffuse radar energy.

The Skunk Works engineers overseen by Ben Rich and the legendary Kelly Johnson developed a radar-defeating technology that was as elegant as the aircraft they built was odd-looking. The plane itself was an aggregation of faceted surfaces that looked like a collection of diamond shapes called facets. The facets themselves would be coated with radar absorbent materials and paint.

Depending on the beholder, the black plane was either odd, or the shape of things to come.

“The aircraft looked like the box it should come in,” McClain said.

It not only “looked like the box it should come in,” it was inherently unstable, stabilized by a fly-by-wire control system as sophisticated as the air frame. The plane looked like an extraterrestrial fusion of an oversize sparrow built from armor plate, with a hint of Darth Vader built into the nose.

Farley, Lockheed’s test pilot and a former naval aviator, would be the first to fly the F-117. He provided his audience a practical example of how unstable the arrowhead-shaped plane was for its pilots. At the Gathering of Eagles, Farley showed a dinner hall full of guests a folded paper airplane. Tape a dime to it, he said, and the paper plane loops over on its back and falls flat on its dorsal.

A pair of specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly off from their last refueling by the Ohio National Guard’s 121st Air Refueling Wing. The F-117s were retired March 11, 2008, in a farewell ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The evening’s honorary co-chairmen, McClain and Winters, were among the skeptics who would become believers. A cutting edge design team such as the elite Skunk Works crew could fashion an airframe from shapes designed to reduce the aircraft’s signature on radar scopes, but would the darn thing fly?

Shown the airplane intended to thwart the formidable Soviet threat, McClain said, “You gotta be kidding me,” and Winters put in, “I don’t think that will work.”

“It was amazing that the damn thing flew, because it didn’t look like it was going to fly,” he said.

Ripples of laughter flowed from engineers and stealth savants, because they understood the pilots’ doubts. There never had been — and would not be another — that looked like the black plane.

Winters also recalled a classified presentation of the aircraft to then Vice President George H.W. Bush. Anderson recalled that Bush was a combat flier in the Pacific during World War II.

As Bush watched the plane fly past at a secret location, “He just looked up and said, ‘What is it?’”

Yet, to another of the Baja Scorpions, Air Force test pilot Jon S. Beesley, the black plane “looked like it was right out of the future.”

It did look like it was right out of the future, but would it work?

On, June 18, 1981, the F-117 took wing for the first time with Farley at the controls. He described “directional stability as rather low” and an “extender switch” to “turn on yaw augmentation in case it turned out it was that unstable.”

Excess pitch or yaw, fluttering through a treacherous flight envelope, these are the test pilot’s waking nightmares.

Almost immediately after takeoff on first flight, Farley said, “the aircraft wasn’t answering my commands.”

Farley made his ground support team aware of the test plane’s unstable handling in a calm voice, noting that the test pilot “tries to perfect the ability to remain calm while totally terrified.”

The basic airplane, Farley said, “Had no idea which pointy end was forward.”

Harley landed the plane less than 20 minutes later, he noted, drily, “with a lot of data.”

That first flight, Farley said, was exhilarating in spite of all the bumps, squeaks and threats to imminent survival. It was, he said, “the highlight of my career.”

Less than a decade after the 1973 Yom Kippur War with massive loss of frontline U.S. combat aircraft to Soviet air defenses, the stealth pioneers were engaged in writing a new chapter of combat aviation history.

They did their work during the early 1980s at a time when war with the Soviet Union appeared depressingly possible, with films about nuclear war airing like “The Day After” and “War Games.”

Sacrifices of service were made. Family life was confined to weekends, with the Baja Scorpions encamped in a remote test area of those broad, flat sweeps of salt flats, desert and rangeland that include places out of legend like Area 51, the Tonopah Test Range, a lot of nothing in the way, and night-time to fly in to shield the project from Cold War snooping.

The Baja Scorpions lived to work, and worked to live, in remote desert outposts. And there was fun, beer busts and baseball, and somebody getting handcuffed to a flagpole for an unauthorized landing and run-in with Air Force security.

Each of the stealth pioneers, whether their background was Air Force, Navy or company test pilot, flew different aspects of the plane’s performance envelope, and by the time they finished their work and the F-117 went operational, they knew they had accomplished something historic, and remarkable.

And for each of them, it was thrilling from their own first flight, until the plane went operational, with a maiden sortie in the invasion of Panama, and historic role in the quick end of another Middle East War.

Tom Morgenfeld, another former Navy aviator, recalled his first flight.

“Each of our planes had its own hangar, and when I looked up and saw the American flag draped in the hangar, I thought, ‘Holy crap,’ Mrs. Morgenfeld’s boy is finally gonna do something right,” Morgenfeld said.

He added, “I believed we were putting a nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union … I think we were one of the straws that broke the camel’s back, and I was so darn proud to do that.”

Seated next to him on stage his brother Scorpion, and Eagle, and Bandit, Beesley, shared his love for the project.

“We never went to war after that that the F-117, in its limited numbers, didn’t kick down the door,” Beesley said. “It’s something I am always proud to have been a part of.”

In a testimonial, he added, “The F-117 changed the way wars are fought … They are a critical part of history.”

Brother Scorpion-Bandit-Eagle Skip Anderson added, “I was driving home from work in Denver about 4:30 in the afternoon on the day we hit Baghdad (in Desert Storm).” Anderson might have been a little misty when he said, “When they said every plane returned undamaged, I thought, ‘Wow! It actually worked! I think it was the first time we knew it actually worked, and it did.”

Before these men in the black plane left the stage, each gave their hearty thanks to all the “engineers, flight test engineers, maintainers and everybody who made this happen.”

As aviation historian Merlin notes, two months short of 27 years since it first flew, the F-117 was retired in ceremonies at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., on April 21, 2008, and in Palmdale on April 22, for the designers and builders. Only numbering in the dozens, the plane was honorably retired.

With the pilots of the Baja Scorpion team honorably retired, they still make those suits look good.