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F-117: A long, storied history that is about to end

Capt. Christina Szasz prepares an F-117 Nighthawk for takeoff at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Oct. 27. The plane was part of a 25-plane formation celebrating the Nighthawk's 25th anniversary and 250,000 flying hour. The planes were separated into five groups and flew over the base to end the celebration ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Capt. Christina Szasz prepares an F-117 Nighthawk for takeoff at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Oct. 27. The plane was part of a 25-plane formation celebrating the Nighthawk's 25th anniversary and 250,000 flying hour. The planes were separated into five groups and flew over the base to end the celebration ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Senior Airman Justin Byars marshals in an F-117 Nighthawk for an end of runway inspection before takeoff from the Holloman Air Force Base N.M. The stealth fighter was one 25 Nighthawks that flew in a formation celebrating the plane's 25th Anniversary. Airman Byars is a crew chief with the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Senior Airman Justin Byars marshals in an F-117 Nighthawk for an end of runway inspection before takeoff from the Holloman Air Force Base N.M. The stealth fighter was one 25 Nighthawks that flew in a formation celebrating the plane's 25th Anniversary. Airman Byars is a crew chief with the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Twenty-five F-117 Nighthawks line up before takeoff from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The planes were part of a formation celebrating the Nighthawk's 25th anniversary and 250,000 flying hour. The 25 aircraft were separated into five groups and flew over the base to end the celebration ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Twenty-five F-117 Nighthawks line up before takeoff from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The planes were part of a formation celebrating the Nighthawk's 25th anniversary and 250,000 flying hour. The 25 aircraft were separated into five groups and flew over the base to end the celebration ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Guest speaker, retired Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton and Brig. Gen. David Goldfein unveil the Silver Stealth lithograph at the 25th Anniversary celebration at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Oct. 27. General Newton was instrumental in the success and integration of the early history of the F-117 Nighthawk. General Goldfein is the 49th Fighter Wing commander. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Guest speaker, retired Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton and Brig. Gen. David Goldfein unveil the Silver Stealth lithograph at the 25th Anniversary celebration at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Oct. 27. General Newton was instrumental in the success and integration of the early history of the F-117 Nighthawk. General Goldfein is the 49th Fighter Wing commander. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Brig. Gen. David Goldfein speaks at the 25th Anniversary celebration of the F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Many of the people who developed the aircraft and worked on it over the last 25 years attended. General Goldfein is the 49th Fighter Wing commander. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Brig. Gen. David Goldfein speaks at the 25th Anniversary celebration of the F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Many of the people who developed the aircraft and worked on it over the last 25 years attended. General Goldfein is the 49th Fighter Wing commander. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Senior Airman Francisco Pio and Staff Sgt. Joseph Metoyer finish an end of runway inspection on an F-117 Nighthawk before takeoff from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The stealth fighter was one of 25 Nighthawks that flew in a formation celebrating the plane's 25th Anniversary Oct. 27. Airman Pio and Sergeant Metoyer are from the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Senior Airman Francisco Pio and Staff Sgt. Joseph Metoyer finish an end of runway inspection on an F-117 Nighthawk before takeoff from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The stealth fighter was one of 25 Nighthawks that flew in a formation celebrating the plane's 25th Anniversary Oct. 27. Airman Pio and Sergeant Metoyer are from the 49th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Capt. Heath Armstrong (front) and 2nd Lt. Scott Panzer watch as a formation of F-117 Nighthawks pass overhead. The formation was part of the Nighthawk's 25th anniversary and 250,000 flying-hour celebration at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.  The formation consisted of 25 planes staggered into five separate groups. Captain Armstrong and Lieutenant Panzer are part of the 49th Operations Support Squadron. 
(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

Capt. Heath Armstrong (front) and 2nd Lt. Scott Panzer watch as a formation of F-117 Nighthawks pass overhead. The formation was part of the Nighthawk's 25th anniversary and 250,000 flying-hour celebration at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The formation consisted of 25 planes staggered into five separate groups. Captain Armstrong and Lieutenant Panzer are part of the 49th Operations Support Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFPN) -- After 25 years of storied service, the F-117 Nighthawk, the Air Force's first stealth fighter, is about to retire. The technology that once made it a unique weapon system has now caught up to it and newer fighter aircraft are now joining the fleet. Still, the Nighthawk was the first of its kind, a fact anyone who has spent time around the aircraft is quick to point out.

Many of these people were gathered here Oct. 29 to commemorate 25 years of Nighthawk history at the Silver Stealth ceremony. Members of the F-117 community, past and present, were on hand to pay homage to the aircraft's illustrious history, a history that contains as many secrets as it does legends.

Since it was officially named a part of the Air Force in 1981, the Nighthawk began making an impression on military officials. Not just because it was "funny" looking, but because the aircraft brought many new capabilities to the battlefield.

The Nighthawk, after all, was the stuff of science fiction. It could fly across enemy skies and through the world's most advanced radar systems without being detected. This capability allowed the aircraft to perform reconnaissance missions and bomb critical targets, all without the enemy knowing who or what had hit them.

"This is a strategic weapon that really reshaped how the Air Force looked at strategic warfare," said Lt. Col. Chris Knehans, commander of the 7th Fighter Squadron here. "It doesn't matter what defenses you put up, how deep you try to hide or how much you surround yourself with collateral damage, this airplane will come and get you."

This fact has made the Nighthawk a vital part of the Air Force's various campaigns since the aircraft's introduction. It has seen service in Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia as part of such operations as Desert Storm, Allied Force, Just Cause and Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.

For those who either fly or provide support to the Nighthawk, the aircraft has been a faithful one. Knowing it is now in its last days is bittersweet for many of them.

"From a pragmatic point of view, we all understand why it's leaving," Colonel Knehans said. "I mean it's a 30-year-old concept now. But when you look at its history, its design and its combat record ... yeah, the Air Force is going to lose basically a very unique weapon system."

For Master Sgt. Byron Osborn, who has worked on the F-117 for almost 19 years, the emotions are clearer.

"For old timers like me, it's a sad day," he said. "A lot of the younger guys like the new, flashier aircraft, but I'll stick with this old dog any day."

The Air Force is saying goodbye to the F-117, but not to the effect it has had on modern warfare. Its successor, the F-22 Raptor, will continue the fight the Nighthawk started, which, according to retired Gen. Lloyd "Fig" Newton, one of the first F-117 pilots, is a hard job to fill.

"Whenever its nation called, the F-117 answered, providing capabilities that had never been known before," he said. "If we needed the door kicked in, the stealth was the one to do it. Never before had such an aircraft existed."

Modern technology may have caught up with the F-117, and new aircraft may be set to take its place on the tarmac, but none will ever be able to replace it.

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