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F-117 Stealth Jets Are Taking Part In Northern Lightning 2023

F-117 Duluth
Two F-117s over Duluth ANGB (Image credit: Zach P. Nipper Photography)

Three F-117 jets have deployed to Duluth Air National Guard Base, Minnesota, to take part in Northern Lightning 2023.

Northern Lightning is one of seven Air National Guard joint accredited exercises held at a Combat Readiness Training Center. From August 7 to August 18, 2023, Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center, Winsconsin, is hosting the most of the 60 aircraft and 1,000 service members taking part in Northern Lightning 2023, a combat readiness exercise that brings together units of the Air Force, National Guard, Marine and Navy units from Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio and Virginia to provide a tactical level, joint training environment.

“Northern Lightning emphasizes air interdiction and fourth- and fifth-generation fighter integration, while focusing specifically on unit aircrew training objectives to prepare participating units for both their state and federal missions,” says the Winsconsin National Guard website.

The focus of the drills is Opposed Air Interdiction and Close Air Support against a highly integrated air defense system composed of relevant surface-to-air and air-to-air threats in a contested/degraded operational (CDO) environment, with Offensive/Defensive Counter Air (OCA/DCA), Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD/DEAD), and Close Air Support (CAS) missions flown by the participating assets.

Interestingly, among them, there are also three F-117s. The “Black Jets” from Tonopah Test Range airfield are not deployed to Volk Field ANGB but they are operating at Duluth ANGB, Minnesota, where they have arrived on Aug. 4, 2023.

The F-117s are supporting the exercise over Winsconsin, flying daily, in pairs, using their very well known radio callsign “NIGHT”. Photograher Zach P. Nipper got a closer look at the iconic jets as they returned from their Northern Lightning mission on Aug. 8, 2023.

It’s no longer a secret that 15 years after being officially retired, the F-117s are being actively used not only for training purposes as adversary aircraft and cruise missile surrogate, but also for research, development, test and evaluation. We have already reported in detail about their recent participation in exercise Northern Edge in Alaska, when they were deployed to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson along with some really interesting testbeds.

What’s clear is that the after secretly operating for several years after their official retirement in 2008, the stealth jets are now publicly supporting all the most important exercises in the U.S. and, as we commented last time, “we don’t know the exact role the F-117s played in the exercise but, if they were called in, their somewhat vintage stealth capabilities were needed to make the scenario more challenging for the other players!”

Here’s a recap of the F-117 career from 2008 to today as already published in a previous article here at The Aviationist:

While officially retired in 2008, the F-117 Nighthawk have continued to fly, unofficially, from Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airfield in Nevada. As explained in a detailed story, back in 2014, after a few videos and photographs had already appeared online, the U.S. Air Force admitted that the Nighthawk was kept in a “Type 1000” storage at TTR which meant that the type is had to be maintained until called into active service. Desert conditions of Nevada are perfect for maintaining the stealth jets in pristine conditions (due to the low level of humidity and hence, lower probability of corrosion), hence the reason to operate the enigmatic aircraft from TTR.

In July 2016, we published a video showing two F-117s flying together, filmed from the distant hills east of Tonopah Test Range, then, in 2017, the U.S. Air Force announced the decision to retire the fleet permanently, once and for all. In fact, “in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, passed Dec. 23, 2017 the Air Force said it would remove four F-117s every year to fully divest them. However, the aircraft continued to be spotted, even more than it had happened until then, with the Nighthawks also deploying to several U.S. bases to carry out Dissimilar Air Combat Training with other U.S. types. Until 2021, when the U.S. Air Force published the first official images of the type still involved in flight operations on the DVIDS (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service) network.

Then, in September 2022 the Air Force Test Center published a Request For Information (RFI) about a possible 10-year contract for maintenance and logistics support services for the F-117A fleet at the TTR airfield, acknowledging that the U.S. Air Force is willing to keep the aircraft flying at least until 2034.

It is not known, how many Nighthawks are still airworthy. As of January 2023, of the 59 F-117s built, approximately 45 F-117s were  in the inventory, with more than 10 already approved for transfer to museums. The current disposal rate is only between two and three jets per year, instead of four per year announced in 2017.

Thank you to Zach P. Nipper Photography for allowing us to use his photographs!

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.

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