After the Storm
Back at Tonopah, arrangements were finalised to relocate the 37th Wing to Holloman AFB, New Mexico (NM). The first aircraft to be delivered was ’791, which arrived from Tonopah on 7 January 1992, for maintenance familiarisation. The move officially got underway however on 8 May, when aircraft ’814, flown by Lt Col ‘Moose’
Merritt of the 416th TFS touched down. On 8 July 1992, the 37th FW at Tonopah Test Range took part in an stand down ceremony, and at the same time the 37FW was deactivated and its assets transferred across to the 49FW. Similarly, command of the F-117A wing was also transferred from Col A1 Whitley to Brig Gen Lloyd ‘Fig’ Newton. Unusually however, the squadron designations of the F-117A units remained initially unchanged. The move at last reunited families, enabling them to join their loved ones in living quarters on or close to the base. It also eradicated the need for Key Airlines to shuttle over 2,500 personnel on 75 weekly flights to and from their place of work – a change that would, in itself save millions of dollars a year.
On Tuesday 4 August 1992, the first Holloman based F-117A was lost in an accident. Capt John В Mills of the 416th FS, was forced to eject from Aircraft ’801 (not ’810 or ’802 as reported elsewhere), after it entered an uncommanded roll and caught fire. The crash occurred just eight miles northwest of Holloman; a crash investigation identified the cause as an improperly reinstalled bleed air duct, which led to a hydraulic line malfunction to flight controls and a fire.
Above Col Greg ‘Beast’ Feest was the first pilot to ever drop a weapon in anger from an F-117. This occurred during Operation Just Cause over Panama. In addition he also released the first bomb to mark the beginning of Operation Desert Storm; by a strange twist of fate, he happened to be flying the same aircraft on both occasions, F-117A. ‘816. (Col Greg Feest)
Below left Gen Norman Schwarzkopf receives a briefing from Lt Col Ralph Getchell on some of the F-117’s intricacies. (USAF)
Below Having been retired from flight test on 11 April 1985, Aircraft ‘780, the F-l I7A prototype, became a gate-guard during a ceremony at Nellis AFB on 16 May 1992. (USAF)
The move to Holloman also signalled a steady integration of the F-117A into theatre operational planning, enabling it to become a true ‘force multiplier’, something impossible to achieve during its years in the black. Accordingly, the 416th participated in Exercise Team Spirit, a short deployment to South Korea. And in June 1993, eight F-117As from the 415th deployed briefly to Gilze-Rijen, in the Netherlands, for Exercise Central Enterprise.
The 49th lost its second F-117A from Holloman, (the fifth to date) on 10 May 1995, at 22:25 hours. Aircraft ’822 was being flown by Capt Ken Levens of the 9th Fighter Squadron on a night training flight when contact was lost. The aircraft crashed on Red Mesa, at the Zuri Indian Reservation; the pilot hadn’t attempted to eject prior to the crash, and ’822 gouged out a 20-foot deep crater upon impact. Having received his bandit number (Bandit 461), on 16 December 1994, Capt Levens had accumulated just 70 hours on the aircraft prior to the incident. An accident investigation team established that there were no signs of mechanical or electrical failure prior to impact and that pilot disorientation seemed, yet again, to be the most likely cause of the tragedy.
The sixth accidental loss of an F-117A occurred publicly and in spectacular fashion. On 14 September 1997, Maj Bryan Knight, an instructor with the 7th FS, flying Aircraft ’793, was coming to the end of his expertly choreographed display routine during an airshow at Chesapeake Bay, near Baltimore, Md.. Flying at 380kts and at a height of between 600 and 700 ft, he entered a 15 degree climb when the left outboard clevon made at least four rapid oscillations, causing a 2.5ft section of the inboard elevon to become detached. The aircraft then
rolled rapidly left (90 degrees within 0.8 seconds) and pitched sharply up into a high angle of attack. Bryan ejected safely and during the subsequent accident investigation it was determined that the incident had occurred because four Hi-Lok fasteners used to secure the elevon hydraulic actuator to a spanwisc, ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ 1- beam, had not been re-installed, following maintenance conducted at Holloman in January 1996.