Those who were driving on the highways near the Miramar Naval Base in San Diego on Tuesday may have witnessed a strange scene: two planes of unusual shapes and painted in black landing on the runway, famous for being the setting for the film Top Gun.

The mysterious planes were F-117 Nighthawk fighters, the first jet invisible to radar in history. But what did the two US Air Force aircraft at the Marines base do anyway? What’s more, why do they keep flying despite being retired in 2008?

The official answer does not exist since the US government does not admit that Lockheed Martin planes are in fact active, but it has become increasingly evident that the Pentagon has used some units to conduct military tests and exercises.

Miramar, for example, hosts the training of Navy fighter pilots and has aggressor aircraft, used to simulate enemy fighters. And nothing better than evaluating tactics and maneuvers with a jet that is difficult to detect.

F-117 flew over San Diego on Tuesday (Jamal Ingram/Instagram)

Increasingly frequent appearances

In service since 1983, the F-117 was the precursor to stealth technology. Developed by the Skunk Works team, also responsible for the SR-71 spy plane, the Nighthawk used a fuselage concept with faceted surfaces and radar-absorbing material to remain undetected.

In addition, both engines had covered air intakes and exhaust fans with cooling systems. The V-tail, like that of the single-engine Bonanza, was chosen to be hidden behind the wings.

The unusual design means that the F-117 is only able to fly because it has a fly-by-wire control system, being unstable in various flight conditions. The USAF only operated 59 units of the attack aircraft (although designated as a fighter, its role has always been different).

 

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F-117s at Miramar (20201020)

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Back to active

When it decided to retire them in the past decade, the Air Force stored them in a pattern known as “Type 1000”, which it plans to keep them able to fly again. Almost all of the remaining units were eventually preserved at Tonopah air base.

It looked like the end of the F-117’s career, but as of 2017 some fighters began to be seen in desert regions and near Edwards Air Force Base in California. Last year, rumors emerged that the USAF would have used some Nighthawks in attacks in Syria in 2017, information that has never been confirmed.

In May 2020, two of these planes were seen next to a KC-135, denoting an unusual activity. Until then, these sightings occurred in sparsely populated areas, so the landing of the two F-117s in San Diego may be an indication that the Pentagon no longer plans to hide from the public that the “Wobblin ‘Goblin” is back.

F-117 stored by USAF (USAF)