Airframe 777: What Became of the F-117 Stealth Fatigue Test Article?

f-117-fatigure-test-airframe-777 (Image: Lockheed Martin/Tony Landis; F-117 fatigue test Airframe 777)

After the F-117 Nighthawk, better known as the Stealth Fighter, was withdrawn from US Air Force service in 2008, the surviving fleet was retired to the highly classified Tonopah Test Range Airport in Nevada, where each aircraft’s wings were removed before they were cocooned in their original hangars.

Now in Type 1000 storage, the jets are occasionally test flown to ensure they remain airworthy in the unlikely event of them ever being returned to operations. Meanwhile, four YF-117 Full Scale Development (FSD) aircraft have been placed on display. Another YF-117 was scrapped in a bid to test an effective way of disposing of the secretive stealth planes.

That leaves a hybrid airframe, which is mounted on a pole outside Lockheed Martin’s famous Skunk Work plant in Palmdale, California. This example was pieced together from the wreckage of the first production F-117 (s/n 79-0785), which crashed on its maiden flight in 1982, and various structural test articles, including a forward fuselage section (Lockheed article #778) and a mid fuselage with weapons bay (#779).

f-117-pole-mounted-skunk-works-palmdale (Image: Alan Radecki; Hybrid F-117 outside the Skunk Works)

But one other complete F-117 airframe, which was built as a fatigue test article and never flew, remains seemingly unaccounted for. Constructed without engines or instrumentation, and never intended for flight, this elusive Nighthawk, known as article #777, is understood to have been constructed in 1985 and was later used for radar cross section (RCS) testing at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. Though photos of it are rare, the image above (top) reveals a complete aircraft. And while most engineering rigs of this kind are never painted, this one sports the Nighthawk’s signature dark finish and US national insignia.

In their book Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, Paul F. Crickmore, Adam Tooby and Henry Morshead write that: “Airframe 777 was originally used as a structural test article. On completion of these tests the aircraft was modified and a 53in. hole was cut into the fuselage to enable a rotation device to be installed before undertaking RCS pole tests.”

The hole can clearly be seen in the top of the airframe, which appears to be standing on its undercarriage. The excellent website states that construction of Airframe #777 began in January 1985. That same month, static test rig #779 was stressed to failure. Two years later, on February 20, 1987, fatigue tests began on article 777.

These were reportedly concluded seven months later on September 24. Then, on September 8, 1988, as writes: “Airframe #777 (fatigue test frame) fatigue life completed at 20,500 equivilant hours.” Two months after that date, on November 8, the US Air Force finally issued the first grainy photo of a then-top secret F-117 Nighthawk to the public.

What ultimately became of Airframe 777, however, and indeed whether it still exists, remains unclear. But if the test article hasn’t been destroyed, and is sitting in storage somewhere gathering dust, perhaps one day it’ll find its way to a museum.

B-2-Spirit-AT-1000-fatigue-test-article (Image: Greg Hume; B-2 fatigue test article, serial number AT-1000)

Article 777 may never have flown, but it certainly looked the part. Furthermore, a similar structural test article, this time a B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber (s/n AT-1000), which has sometimes been erroneously referred to as a ‘mockup’, is displayed in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.

For those interested in such engineering rigs, Boeing maintains an unusual aircraft boneyard in a corner of its Everett, Washington facility, where the structural ground test articles of the company’s most famous airliners quietly corrode amid the damp air of the Pacific Northwest.

Related F-117 Cockpit Procedures Trainer Displayed in Alamogordo, NM


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