The Lockheed F-117 was developed in response to a U.S. Air Force (USAF) request for an aircraft capable of attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radar. By the 1970s, new materials and techniques allowed engineers to design an aircraft with radar-evading or “stealth” qualities. The result was the F-117A, the world’s first operational stealth aircraft.
The first F-117A flew on June 18, 1981, and the first F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group (renamed the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in October 1989), achieved initial operating capability in October 1983. The F-117A first saw combat during Operation Just Cause on Dec. 19, 1989, when two F-117As from the 37th TFW attacked military targets in Panama.
The F-117 again went into action during Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1990-1991 when the 415th and the 416th squadrons of the 37th TFW moved to a base in Saudi Arabia.
On Jan. 16, 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm with the largest aerial bombardment in the history of modern warfare. During the first night of bombing against targets in Iraq and Kuwait, there were over 1,000 sorties. That is equal to all the sorties flown during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
As told by Jim Goodall in his book F-117 Stealth In Action, the first manned USAF aircraft to fly into hostile Iraqi airspace were the F-117As of the 37th TFW. “At approximately 0130 on 17 January, two squadrons of F-117As dropped approximately sixty 2,000 pound bombs on key Iraqi air defense, command and control facilities, ammunition bunkers, SCUD surface-to-surface missile bunkers, missile storage facilities, and the headquarters of the Iraqi Air Force,” he explains.
On Jan. 20, 1991, Gen. Schwarzkopf, Commander of U.S./Allied forces in Gulf revealed to the media infrared video taken from an F-117A as it struck key targets within Iraq. “One of the key targets that showed the capability of the F-117A was a view of a SCUD storage facility that had three air ducts on its roof, each approximately a meter in diameter. The main air duct was identified by the F-117A pilot and the laser cursor was locked on the center of the air duct. A 2,000 pound laser-guided bomb was released and entered the bunker through the air duct. The SCUD storage bunker was totally destroyed in a spectacular explosion,” explains Goodall.
Another significant attack, shown on CNN and other major television networks, was a strike against an ammunition bunker near Baghdad. “The F-117A illuminated the front door of the bunker and guided two 2,000 pound Paveway II LGBs into the target. The first blew down the door; the second one went inside and blew up the bunker. Again the F-117A pilot hit his target dead center,” says Goodall.
However, as revealed by Gen. Kelly, Commander of Air Force Operations in Desert Storm, the most impressive attack was conducted against “My counterpart’s headquarters in downtown Baghdad.” The tape showed a square ten story building. In the center of the roof was an elevator shaft. The F-117A flew directly over the building, the laser cursor was locked on the elevator shaft and a BLU-109 deep penetration weapon was released. The bomb features a hardened steel casing capable of penetrating up to six feet of concrete and a delayed action fuse. It dropped through the top of the elevator shaft and appeared to go deep within the building before detonating. The video showed all four walls of the building being blown outward.
Col. Al Whitley revealed that the F-117As flew some 1,271 sorties during the war, or about one per cent of the total sorties flown (110,000) by Allied Air Forces, with a success rate of 80%. The F-117As attacked thirty-one percent of all targets struck during the first twenty-four hours of the war, and were the only aircraft involved in attacks on heavily defended targets in and around Baghdad on the first night of the war.
It was an F-117A that dropped the first bomb of the war, attacking a telecommunications center in Baghdad.
On the night of Jan. 16, 1991 “the F-117A proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Ben Rich, of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects, and this team of dedicated aerospace workers had built the most capable surgical strike aircraft in the story of modern warfare,” Goodall concludes.
The following footage was taken during the first night of Operation Desert Storm and features some clips of the F-117A attack against the telecommunications center in Baghdad.
This article originally appeared at the Aviation Geek Club in 2018.