What exactly does it take to fly an aircraft that doesn’t exist?
It’s no secret that one of the most secretive aircraft of all time needed some of the best pilots the Air Force had to offer behind its controls. The F-117 Nighthawk, an attack aircraft whose very existence was denied by the Department of Defense for years, required creative, yet highly-disciplined pilots with proven track records. Most importantly, pilots who could keep quiet about something the public really wasn’t supposed to know about.
When formulating the various base necessities and standards prospective Bandits would have to fulfill and meet/exceed, Air Force officers in the higher echelons of the Nighthawk project looked to none other than the legendary Blackbird program. Using the stringent prerequisites originally set in place for potential Lockheed A-12/SR-71 pilots as an example, they quickly drafted up selection requirements and a training program that would give Nighthawks suitable pilots to fly them. Let’s take a look at how some of the first operational Bandits in history got their jobs.
All prospective Bandits needed to have extensive fixed-wing fast jet experience. This narrowed down the selection pool to just fighter, strike and attack pilots with time in F-15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-111 Aardvarks and A-10 Warthogs. They had to have squeaky clean and glowing records, demonstrating a willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty. Equally as important was the fact that a bare minimum of 1000 hours in their previous airframes (prior to appearing for selection) had to be recorded in their log books. Typically, pilots with more than 2000 hours were looked at more favorably than other candidates. For the most part, these pilots were recommended to the program’s selection stage through impressed higher ranking unit officers or current Bandits who could attest to the abilities of their regular Air Force peers and could possibly see them becoming Bandits as well. Potential Nighthawk pilots were the kind who drove fast cars and wore the coolest Oakley sunglasses on the market, but weren’t prone to weekend benders and binges. Calm, highly capable, very collected and extremely professional… only the best were destined to earn the title “Bandit”.
After a battery of interviews, would-be Bandits were sent on temporary duty as part of the 4450th Tactical Group to Tuscon, Arizona, where they would learn to fly A-7 Corsair IIs with the 162d Tactical Fighter Group, a unit which concurrently trained A-7 pilots for the Air National Guard. Nighthawks and Corsair IIs shared a fairly similar cockpit layout and handling characteristics, so it made sense for pilots to be checked out in the Corsair before carrying on with their training and selection. Furthermore, the 4450 TG had a cover which presented it as a testing/evaluation unit based around the A-7D. Interestingly enough, the first officers and enlisted airmen to join the 4450 TG were also actually told that they were tasked with laying the foundation for a unit with that particular mission in mind. This, of course, was prior to them being “read in” to the real mission of the 4450 TG. Keep in mind that even the potential Bandits didn’t know what exactly the end result of all the Corsair training was. They still didn’t know that the real reason for all these interviews, training sorties, etc., was an assessment of their skills and capabilities which would determine whether or not they were the right fit for the F-117. None of them had a clue that the jet even existed to begin with.
Before the Air Force used the 162d TFG for their Nighthawk training purposes, the 4550 TG developed an in-house training scheme with their own A-7Ds, taken from England Air Force Base in Louisiana (which was, at the time, transitioning to the A-10 Thunderbolt II, and so had no more need for their Corsairs). Quickly, it was determined that handing off training to a dedicated Corsair unit would be far more prudent, and so, the 162d in Tucson was handed the task. After checking out and flying a fixed number of hours in the Corsair for four months in Tucson, Bandit candidates were sent back to Nevada where they would once again be flying the A-7D (and A-7K trainers) on mission profiles similar to those that the F-117 would eventually fly. After being checked out by an in-house instructor pilot in Nevada, selectees were finally read into the program. They were told that they were there to fly the F-117A.
For around six more months, pilots would keep flying A-7s until they were deemed highly proficient by watchful instructors. Only then were they allowed to progress to the next stage of Bandit training.
Now fully aware of their mission, it was time for future Bandits to learn more about the airframe they’ be tasked with flying: the Nighthawk itself. Pilots were put through rigorous classroom sessions where they would spend a number of months discovering the various intricacies and characteristics of the angular aircraft. Simulator time was also part of this third stage of training. Highly-advanced computers linked up to simulators were built under contract in New York, then flown to Nevada (and later New Mexico when Nighthawks were moved to Holloman AFB) for ground school. The simulators were so accurate and precise that they actually helped Lockheed engineers catch a number of small glitches in the performance of the aircraft and correct them before their [possibly] severe consequences were reached. Among their final tasks as trainees was making a no-flap landing in an F-15B at Luke Air Force Base. Pilots who didn’t have prior Eagle experience were put through a few days worth of training before a single F-15 flight with another instructor pilot riding shotgun in the rear cockpit. Landing without the use of flaps was considered to be as close to landing an F-117A that the pilots could get without actually strapping into the cockpit of one. Now more than a year after being first selected to enter the Nighthawk pipeline, future Bandits were finally given their chance to take their first flight in the Nighthawk.
First up for the soon-to-be Bandits was taxiing practice. After pacing their aircraft around taxiways and runways at Tonopah, they were then allowed their first near-flight. By “near-flight”, I mean an aborted takeoff. So close, yet so far! This was done so that trainee pilots could practice deploying the drag chute on the Nighthawk, designed for the purpose of quickly slowing the aircraft down during landings. Only after they successfully passed these training cycles were pilots allowed to finally lift their Nighthawks off and fly around. Since the F-117 was never built as a two-seater, instructor pilots chased behind student F-117 pilots in a supersonic T-38 Talon trainer, not that they really needed the high speed as the Nighthawk wasn’t able to reach more than 617 mph. After locking the oddly-shaped canopy into position and taxiing out to a runway, student pilots would take off with the guidance of instructors in T-38s, walking them through the entire process. Though this was all done in daylight, the vast majority of Nighthawk missions would be flown in pitch-black nighttime. After over 12 daytime flights, pilots then got their chance to fly at night, the primary environment of their aircraft. After more time in the simulator and written and practical evaluations, pilots, if judged as being capable and ready, were officially qualified as F-117A pilots. They were now worthy of the title “Bandit” and were given their Bandit number. To this day, only 558 Bandits have ever flown the F-117, since “retired” in 2008. Their training didn’t end there, however. Upon joining an operational squadron, Bandits still had to be mission qualified. To achieve this, they would fly with experienced Bandits who would train them in tactics specific to the missions they would eventually fly. Bandits were thenceforth transferred to an operational Nighthawk squadron, ready to fly one of the most extraordinary aircraft in history on some of the most highly classified attack missions to have ever taken place.