Just Cause

The F-117A received its baptism of fire on the night of 19/20 December 1989, w hilst participating in a highly controversial action against General Noriega of Panama, codenamed Operation Just Cause. Panama had no defen­sive radar network. However, it was decided to commit these high value assets on the basis of their bombing accuracy. Consequently, eight F-l 17s from the 415th TFS took off from Tonopah. Two aircraft w ere airborne spares and returned to Tonopah follow ing completion of the

Below The USAF took delivery of its last F-1 17A, aircraft ‘843 on 12 July 1990. (Lockheed Martin)

initial AR, two aircraft in the lead cell, were targeted to attack an army base at Rio Hato, 65 miles southwest of Panama city. The four remaining aircraft were to take part in an operation which remains classified, but involved special forces attempting to capture Noriega.

This element of the mission was air aborted through lack of ground intelligence. The three thousand mile round trip required five AR’s, and was supported by KC-lOs from the 22nd Air Refuelling Wing, out of March AFB. This ever dependable unit, actually escorted the F-l 17As from Tonopah, all the way down to the Panamanian coast and back! The objective of Major Greg Feest, flying lead, in aircraft ’816, and his wingman Major Dale Hanner (Bandit 239) was to drop one weapon apiece, in an open field adjacent to barracks belonging to Battalion 2000, a unit known to be loyal to Noriega. Their purpose was to stun the sleeping soldiers and disorientate them before they had an opportunity to engage parachute landings by the 2nd and elements of the 3rd Ranger Battalion. However, three hours before the invasion was due to begin, the PDF were alerted to the impending attack and

deployed to one of the Ranger’s objectives – an air strip. As the two F-117As approached their target area, the wind changed direction, a target change was called, caus­ing confusion; the subsequent bombing results were at best questionable. The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin, later stated that target acquisition problems had also added to the pilots’ confu­sion because, “The humid, varied, vegetation… lowered the contrast and gave the [IRAD] system problems”.