F-117 Nighthawk coming to Reagan Presidential Library

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Two specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly on one of their last missions. The F-117s were retired in a farewell ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, April 22, 2008. (Air Force photograph by Senior Master Sgt. Kim Frey)

Visitors to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., will soon have the opportunity to see, up close, an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.

A joint effort between the Reagan Foundation & Institute and Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, the project to bring the stealth fighter to the museum has been dubbed “Operation Nighthawk Landing.”

The aircraft will be on permanent loan from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, and will serve as a visible reminder to the library’s near half-million annual visitors of President Reagan’s commitment to the rebuilding of the U.S. military through his “Peace through Strength” program.

The F-117 Nighthawk, Tail #803, nicknamed “Unexpected Guest,” flew more combat sorties (78) than all other F-117s combined. The aircraft entered service in May 1984, during Reagan’s administration.

“The Reagan Library will now be one of two places in the nation where the general public can visit an F-117 Stealth Fighter on permanent display,” said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. “We are deeply grateful to Lockheed Martin for their outstanding assistance in restoring the aircraft for such a meaningful display and to the U.S. Air Force for making it possible for the Reagan Library to exhibit the plane for millions of visitors to enjoy for years to come.”

The F-117 Nighthawk was the world’s first operational stealth aircraft. Between 1981 and 2008, Lockheed Martin produced 59 operational F-117s and five developmental prototypes, but the aircraft weren’t publicly acknowledged until 1988.  Known as “stealth fighters,” the F-117’s angular shape was designed to reflect radar waves and was bolstered by the use of a radar-absorbing material. Because the aircraft was only expected to operate at night, it was painted black to make it more difficult to discern against the night sky.

The F-117s maiden flight was June 18, 1981, at Groom Lake in Nevada, and the aircraft reached initial operating capability in 1983.

Although it was commonly referred to as the “Stealth Fighter”, it was strictly a ground-attack aircraft.

The F-117 was widely publicized for its role in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, but its first mission was during the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.

During that mission, two Nighthawks dropped two bombs on Rio Hato airfield.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the F-117 flew approximately 1,300 sorties and scored direct hits on 1,600 high-value targets in Iraq over 6,905 flight hours.

F-117s also took part in the conflict in Yugoslavia, where one was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in 1999; it was the only Nighthawk to be lost in combat. The U.S. Air Force retired the F-117 in 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the F-22 Raptor.

“I was privileged to fly the airplane when the program was classified,” said retired Air Force Lt Col Scott Stimpert, a pilot for the F-117 tail number 803 going on display at the Reagan Library. “It was an exciting time, and a vitally important capability, but not something you could share with friends or family. I’m glad the airplane can come out of the dark to take its rightful place in the light, somewhere it can be seen and appreciated by the people it helped to protect.” 

The F-117 Nighthawk will be going on public display at the Reagan Library beginning Dec. 7, 2019, at an official ribbon-cutting ceremony during the Reagan Foundation and Institute’s annual Reagan National Defense Forum.  The jet will be located outdoors near the Library’s F-14 aircraft, situated on the west side of the Library’s property and clearly visible from inside the Library’s famous auditorium. 

“The F-117 was developed in response to an urgent national need,” said Jeff Babione, vice president and general manager of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works®. “It has paved the way for today’s stealth technology and reminds us to continue redefining what’s possible. It’s been a privilege for our team to collaborate with the U.S. Air Force and the Reagan Foundation on this effort, and we are excited to see it on proud display at its new home.”

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is located at 40 Presidential Drive in Simi Valley. For more information, visit www.reaganfoundation.org.