In October 2020 some of the retired F-117 stealth aircraft were once again spotted operating at the Miramar Naval Air Station in southern California. F-117 sightings have been reported in the United States and overseas since 2016. It has not been officially unretired but several of them are still active. The F-117 was officially retired in 2008. After six years of retirement F-117s were spotted over training areas, where they apparently served as “enemy stealth aircraft” so American pilots could experience what that was like.
Retirement in 2018 meant the 51 remaining F-117s were placed in a high-level, Type 1000, storage at the desert “boneyard” where there are several levels of “retirement”. The highest level, where the F-117 ended up, has the aircraft “semi-retired” and periodically flown. What this semiretirement status meant was that the air force still had a force of maintainers and pilots for F-117s. It soon became sort-of clear what semi-retirement really meant. The air force will not say how many of those maintainers and pilots there are, but just to maintain 51 F-117s in Type 1000 storage required several hundred maintainers, pilots and other operations personnel. All of this was kept quiet, with no press releases. However, F-117s have been spotted in the air frequently since 2008 and in 2016 four were apparently sent to the Middle East for an unspecified mission. Their presence became public when one of those F-117s had to make an emergency landing at a Kuwait airbase. It is believed that the F-117s have been used as stealth reconnaissance aircraft to determine if a target had been destroyed or just damaged.
The F-117 was not only the first stealth aircraft to enter service but also the first one to be retired and then quietly brought out of retirement. There are probably some more firsts that are still classified. In 2019 some F-117s were spotted over a training area and the local gossip was that the F-117 stealth capabilities were similar to those of Russian and Chinese stealth aircraft and thus useful for training, or testing how effective the foreign stealth aircraft could be. Russia has twice sent some of its Su-57 stealth fighters to Syria and that allowed the Americans and Israelis to measure the degree of stealth the Russians had developed. China believes the Russian stealth technology is superior to their own. Chinese stealth fighters have been less available for close observation but apparently some have been spotted operating near the coast. The air force concluded that the F-117 would be a good aircraft to use as “enemy stealth fighters” during training and a small squadron of F-117s appear to be back in service performing that duty as well as any other chores the three-decade old stealth warplane is suitable for.
The air force won’t say how many of the F-117s have been unretired but it is believed the air force still considers the F-117 a viable combat asset. Its internal bomb bay could carry some of the new weapons coming into service, like the hypersonic missile and it may be that test flights off China indicate that the F-117 stealth is still adequate for operating against the Chinese, Iranians or North Koreas. Some may have been used over Syria to tests its stealth against the latest Russian S-400 air defense system radars.
The F-117 is a 23 ton, twin-engine, single-seat aircraft. It has an internal bomb bay that can hold two 2,000 pound (909 kg) smart bombs. The bomb bay may also have been modified to carry a reconnaissance pod that has the same shape as a bomb but contains high-resolution digital cameras for recording what is down below in great detail, day or night. The range on internal fuel is 1,700 kilometers but the aircraft can be refueled in the air and has been observed doing that since retirement.
After several attempts, the U.S. Air Force was finally able to retire the F-117 light bomber in 2008. Long called the "stealth fighter," the F-117 was designed from the start as a bomber. The retirement decision was made in 2006 when the aircraft was 18 years old. Official retirement came two years later. That was two years after the last class of new F-117 pilots graduated. Additional pilots could be quietly trained at a base near the boneyard, and then go to the boneyard for training flights.
The F-117 was 1970s technology that, after years of effort, was made to work in the 1980s. But better stuff is out there, and the stealth technology of the F-117 is obsolete when it comes to some of the more recent sensor developments. The F-22 was a direct, and more effective, replacement for the F-117 as a light bomber. Plus the F-22 is also a superior fighter. Within five years of retirement, the F-35 showed up and took over the light bomber functions of the F-117. Or so it was thought.
Earlier attempts to take the F-117 out of service ran up against political opposition. Bases would have to be closed, which meant lost jobs. The air force finally got Congress to allow retirement by working out deals to take care of jobs angle, and the F-117 was assumed to be gone by 2008. But the F-117 was not completely retired, still isn’t and that was not publicized as much as it was gradually discovered.