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Thu, Apr 24, 2008

Lockheed Marks Nighthawk Retirement With Bittersweet Ceremony

F-117As To Be Mothballed In Nevada Desert

Workers at the Lockheed Martin plant in Palmdale, CA played host to some very special visitors Tuesday -- four of the last F-117A Nighthawk "stealth" fighters still flying, though the advanced planes won't be taking flight much longer.

The four aircraft took off from Holloman Air Force Base last weekend, the last Nighthawks to fly from that southern New Mexico facility. Holloman is home to the 49th Fighter Wing, which flew the F-117A, and recently received their first F-22 Raptor fighters... which are quite stealthy in their own right.

Tuesday's ceremony in Palmdale paid homage to Lockheed's "Skunk Works" unit that developed the aircraft, reports The Los Angeles Daily News.

"I read it's the most recognized aircraft on the face of the Earth," Andy McElhaney, a 12-year Lockheed worker, told the paper. "Just to see it, to come in the hangar in the morning (without) the lights on, it was the most awesome thing to look at."

As ANN reported last month, the Air Force began to gradually retire its remaining 52-plane fleet -- out of 59 delivered to the Air Force between August 1982 and July 1990 -- in December 2006. The first Nighthawks left Holloman in March 2007.

The aircraft will be mothballed at Nevada's Tonopah Test Range, where the first Nighthawk flew in June 1981. The planes will be stored in protective hangars, their distinctive wings and V-tails removed. In theory, at least some of the planes could be recalled if needed... though as modern fighter aircraft like the Raptor gain in numbers, that possibility will likely be increasingly remote.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Lockheed workers and invited guests bid farewell to the planes in Palmdale. Those who participated in building the Nighthawks signed the planes' bomb bay doors, as is tradition when aircraft are retired.

"It's a bittersweet moment, saying goodbye to a remarkable aircraft," Cheryl O'Leary, Lockheed vice president and site general manager, told the crowd. "We can all be proud of the groundbreaking legacy of the stealth fighter. We did own the night."

Nighthawk pilot Tom Morgenfeld, 64, said his time at the controls was "the most rewarding thing I've ever done."

Morgenfeld was the fourth person to fly the F-117A, and would only say he made his first flight before Thanksgiving 1981. "I'm kind of sorry to see it go," he added. "It was nice to be part of an airplane that had a fairly important part in history."

FMI: www.lockheed.com, www.f-117a.com, www.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=104

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