Area 51 mystery: Nighthawks seen over Nevada

They’re back.

The once-secret F-117A Nighthawk, the nation’s first stealth combat fighter jet that flew into history in 2008 when the fleet was retired, has been seen winging over the Tonopah Test Range as recently as late September.

A Nellis Air Force Base spokesman confirmed that the Nighthawks have resumed limited flights in an email he relayed from Air Force Materiel Command to answer a Review-Journal query.

“Since its retirement from active flying status in 2008, the Air Force’s cadre of F-117 Nighthawks have been maintained at their original, climate-friendly hangars at the Tonopah Test Range Airport in Nevada,” according to an email Wednesday from Nellis spokesman Master Sgt. David Miller.

“In order to confirm the effectiveness of the flyable storage program, some F-117 aircraft are occasionally flown,” Miller wrote.

That explains the blurry photos of an F-117A operating at the Tonopah Test Range in Nye County, 30 miles southeast of Tonopah, that were posted Oct. 3 on the Aviationist website. The Aviationist is run by David Cenciotti, a military aviation blogger and freelance journalist from Rome. The photos are credited to and claim to have been taken from Brainwash Butte on Sept. 30.

Other online reports published recently by Defense News and Tyler Rogoway’s Foxtrot Alpha blog offered theories on the timing of the flights in connection with radar-signature testing, such as what might be going on 70 miles away from Tonopah Test Range Airport at Area 51.

That’s where the F-117A Nighthawk evolved during the late-1970s and early-1980s, and where a large hangar was being built this summer at the south end of a taxiway near Groom Dry Lake. Construction was ongoing in August at Area 51 — an installation where classified work on future, high-tech aircraft is conducted, 90 miles north of Las Vegas.

The new hangar is presumably for a stealthy Unmanned Aerial Vehicle long-range bomber, according to John Pike, director of, a military information website.

So why would the F-117A be flying again in the vicinity of Area 51?

“What I think is, the truth can be so precious that it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies,” Pike said Wednesday in a philosophical answer about the government’s safety catch for masking the truth. He described it as a “strategic deception program.”

“If I’m flying a big UAV bomber and if someone catches sight of it, it can be explained away by the flight of the F-117A,” Pike said, adding, “There’s nobody in here but us chickens.”

With much fanfare, the last four F-117A Nighthawks, including one adorned with a specially painted U.S. flag on its belly, were flown April 22, 2008, on the last leg of their retirement journey from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works plant in Palmdale, Calif., to the Tonopah Test Range. The Nighthawk was lauded at a ceremony for former Skunk Works employees and stealth designers for blazing the trail for today’s air-superiority stealth jets, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 joint strike fighters.

The F-117A stealth jet with its secret, black coating and oblique, batlike shape revolutionized air warfare because it could evade detection and drop precision-guided bombs at night.

After years of secrecy, the Nighhawk made its public debut on April 21, 1990, when it was parked at Nellis in a heavily guarded display that drew 350 media representatives from around the world and tens of thousands of viewers.

During the Persian Gulf War the following year, 36 F-117As then assigned to an air wing base at the Tonopah range were used to strike targets in Baghdad. Then in March 2003, a pair of Nighthawks spearheaded the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Fifty-nine production models were made, with the last rolling off the line at Lockheed’s Palmdale plant on July 12, 1990. Seven were destroyed in crashes, including one lost in combat over Yugoslavia on March 27, 1999, in the Kosovo war effort. Two have been put on static display: one at Nellis’ Freedom Park and another at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., the fleet’s last operational home base.

In announcing the Nighthawk’s mothball plans in January 2008, Arlan Ponder, a spokesman for the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman, said, “They’re basically unbolting the wings. They’ll be in recallable condition.”

In the Air Force response Wednesday attributed to Materiel Command spokeswoman Susan Murphy, the Air Force chose to retire the fleet “at the pre-existing secure facilities at Tonopah Test Range” instead of the so-called “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

“Per Congressional direction with the (fiscal year 2007) National Defense Authorization Act, the aircraft were placed in Type 1000, flyable storage for potential recall to future service,” according to the Air Force response to the newspaper’s query.

But Pike, of, speculates that the reference to “future service” could entail radar signature tests for a remotely piloted, long-range bomber project at the hangar. “That could be one thing they’re doing in there,” he said.

A source familiar with the construction, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the project’s classified nature, said it will be 4-stories tall and has a square concrete floor, nearly the size of a couple of football fields — 215 feet by 215 feet.

Pike said a hangar of that dimension is needed because the UAV long-range bomber is huge. “It’s a big vehicle about the size of the B-2 (Spirit.) You might have more than one of them. Lord only knows what you have to do in there.”

He predicts the UAV long-range bomber will be ready for action before the end of the decade. “It’s going to cost a lot less than the B-2 cost because they’re using a lot of legacy hardware.”

He believes Northrup Grumman Corp. won the black-project contract because their proposal “was to take the long-range stealthy reconnaissance UAV they built and put bomb racks on it.”

“When they announced that Boeing and Lockheed teamed up for the competition, that’s an act of desperation. That said to me neither one of them had a reconnaissance UAV that could be converted to a bomber,” Pike said.

Contact Keith Rogers at or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.

Volunteers gather for annual Clark County homeless count
Volunteers gather for the annual Southern Nevada Homeless Census, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Who can understand hospital price lists?
Lists of costs for procedures, drugs and devices are now posted the websites of hospitals to comply with a new federal rule designed to provide additional consumer transparency. Good luck figuring out what they mean.
People in Mesquite deal with a massive power outage
People in Mesquite respond to a major power outage in the area on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Group helping stranded motorists during power outage
A group of Good Samaritans are offering free gas to people in need at the Glendale AM/PM, during a massive power outage near Mesquite on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen falls at Las Vegas parade
U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada fell and injured her wrist at the Martin Luther King Day parade in Las Vegas on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tate Elementary shows academic progress after categorical funding
Students at Tate Elementary in Las Vegas has benefited from a program to boost education funding in targeted student populations, known as categorical funding. One program called Zoom helps students who have fallen below grade level in reading. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Three Square helps TSA workers
Three Square Food Bank donated over 400 care bags to TSA workers affected by the government shutdown Wednesday, filled with food, personal hygiene products and water.
Las Vegas furniture store donates to Clark County firehouses
Walker Furniture donated new mattresses to all 30 Clark County firehouses in the Las Vegas Valley, starting today with Station 22. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Mount Charleston Gets Heavy Snow, Fog
Mount Charleston saw heavy snow today, and fog in lower elevations as a cold front swept across the Las Vegas Valley. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Krystal Whipple arrested in Arizona
Krystal Whipple, charged in the killing of a Las Vegas nail salon manager over a $35 manicure, is expected to return to Nevada to face a murder charge.
Holocaust survivor on acceptance
Holocaust survivor Celina Karp Biniaz, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, talks about the most important message for people to understand from her life and experiences.
Holocaust survivor speaks about telling her story
Holocaust survivor Celina Karp Biniaz, who was the youngest person on Schindler’s List, tells of opening up about her experiences during Sunday’s event at Temple Sinai.
Jesus Jara State of the Schools address
Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara delivers his State of the Schools address on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Michael Naft sworn in to Clark County Commission
Michael Naft, chosen by Gov. Steve Sisolak to be his replacement on the Clark County Commission, was sworn into office on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES Opening Party in Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace
CES conventioneers packed Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace, and let loose as they danced to DJs into the night. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas police piecing together details of fatal shooting
Six hours after the fact, Las Vegas homicide detectives worked to reconstruct the scene of a shooting early Jan. 7 that left one man dead in the southeast valley. (Rio Lacanlale/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dyer Lawrence explains college football playoff system proposal
Las Vegan Dyer Lawrence has a new idea for a college football playoff system that includes a unique scheduling component called National Call Out Day. (Ron Kantowski/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Death row inmate Scott Dozier found dead in his cell
Nevada death row inmate Scott Dozier is dead. Dozier’s death ends his legal odyssey, which began in 2007 when he was convicted in the 2002 murder of Jeremiah Miller, but does little to clarify what’s next for Nevada’s death penalty.
I-15 southbound near Primm closed after ‘major crash’
A rollover crash Saturday morning involving at least nine vehicles on southbound Interstate 15 near Primm caused an hourslong traffic delay. Traffic was backed up to Sloan, live traffic cameras show. (Rio Lacanlale/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Death Valley visitors deal with shutdown
Visitors staying at the Furnace Creek Campground were forced to move from the campground following health and safety concerns due to lack of resources during the partial government shutdown at Death Valley National Park in Calif., on Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. Richard Brian Las Vegas Review-Journal @vegasphotograph
Half of homicides in Henderson for 2018 domestic violence related
Lt. Kirk Moore of the public information office of the city of Henderson police department speaks to the Review-Journal in Henderson, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Henderson saw a slight increase in homicides in the past year. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Governor-elect Steve Sisolak stops by Las Vegas Boys and Girls Club
Governor-elect Steve Sisolak kicks off his tour to Carson City, which will take him from Las Vegas, through Tonopah, and up to the capital city. First stop is the Downtown Boys & Girls Club.
Certificates for renewing wedding vows in Clark County
The Marriage License Bureau in Clark County began issuing a Certificate of Vow Renewal to married couples who are renewing their wedding vows on Jan. 3, 2019. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas flu season better than last year (so far)
Dr. Fermin Leguen, chief medical officer and director of clinical services at the Southern Nevada Health District, said there were 24 flu-related deaths at this point in the flu season. No deaths have been reported so far this year. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
The Las Vegas Valley’s First Baby of 2019
The first 2019 baby in the Las Vegas Valley was Melialani Chihiro Manning, born at 12:10 a.m. at Henderson Hospital. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas NYE Fireworks - VIDEO
The full show: A spectacular view from the rooftop of the Trump International Hotel as 80,000 pyrotechnics illuminated the Las Vegas Strip at the stroke of midnight. Fireworks by Grucci choreographed launches from the Stratosphere, the Venetian, Treasure Island, Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood, Aria and MGM Grand.
Snow in Henderson on New Year's Eve morning
Light snow flurries in Anthem Highlands in Henderson on Monday morning, the last day of 2018.
Sources: Henderson Constable may face more charges
Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell may face additional charges ... stemming from his spending of county funds, sources said. Mitchell was indicted earlier this month on five felony theft and fraud charges ... after a Las Vegas Review-Journal story questioned his spending. But grand jury records show even more extensive spending including ... an $800 dinner at steakhouse ... nearly 200 atm withdrawals mostly at gambling establishments ... and even Disneyland tickets. But his attorney plans to ask a judge to dismiss the charges.
Las Vegas NYE Restrictions and Enhanced Security
If you are planning to celebrate New Year's Eve on the Las Vegas Strip or Fremont Street, be aware that you are not allowed to bring backpacks, coolers, strollers or glass. There will also be an increase in security to ensure safe celebrations across town.
Catholic Charities serves up 53rd annual Christmas dinner
Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and more than 100 volunteers served 1,000 Christmas meals to Southern Nevada's homeless and less fortunate. (K.M. Cannon Las Vegas Review-Journal @kmcannonphoto)
News Headlines
Local Spotlight
Military Video
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like