The stealth fighter that crashed in Essex yesterday was among the most advanced aircraft ever produced, but it's no longer the "black world" secret it once was, and the lustrous reputation built up during the 1991 Persian Gulf war has taken a few dents recently.
The F-117 Nighthawk -- the existence of which was once denied by the federal government -- now performs in 200 air shows a year around the country, and a far more advanced fighter, the F-22, is in the works to replace it.
Yesterday's was the third crash of an F-117 since its introduction 15 years ago.
The plane, with a distinctive arrowhead-like form, is called a stealth fighter because of its ability to elude radar detection through a combination of its angular design and the use of radar-absorbing composite materials.
With a wingspan of 43 feet, it is a smaller cousin of the controversial B-2 stealth bomber.
The Lockheed Corp. developed the plane at its venerable Skunk Works installation in Palmdale, Calif.; a prototype was produced in 1978. The project was one of the Skunk Works' "black world" programs -- led by men who traveled under assumed names and slept with pistols at the ready, its very existence denied by the government.
The company delivered 59 F-117 Nighthawks to the Air Force between 1982 and 1990, at a price tag of $2.5 billion, or about $43 million apiece. That was about double the projected cost.
Ben Rich, who headed the Skunk Works from 1975 to 1991, later wrote that the F-117 was the most cost-effective weapons system in the Pentagon's possession, because of its revolutionary nature and the enormous strategic advantages it provided.
But more recent critics have cast doubt on that assessment.
First acknowledged by the Air Force in 1988 and used in the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, the F-117 came into prominence during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
At the time, the Air Force trumpeted its achievements, claiming that it hit 81 percent of its targets with laser-guided smart bombs.
But a report released in June by the General Accounting Office over the objections of the Pentagon said the success rate might have been as low as 40 percent.
The GAO report said the F-117 was no more effective than the older and much lower-priced A-10 Thunderbolt.
It also questioned the effectiveness of the stealth technology; the plane's success was due more to jamming enemy radar, flying at high altitude and at night, the report said.
Although the Air Force claimed the F-117 achieved complete surprise during attacks on the opening night of the gulf war, follow-up reports showed that some planes were fired upon before they dropped their bombs.
The GAO accused the Pentagon and Lockheed of indulging in "a pattern of overstatement" regarding the success of the Nighthawk.
The Pentagon said the GAO did not use "valid and consistent" measures to compare the planes' performance.
It noted that while flying 1,788 missions during Desert Storm, the stealth fighter suffered no losses and no battle damage.
But neither did the A-10.
The two previous crashes of F-117s occurred at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where all Nighthawks are based. The plane that crashed yesterday was one of two temporarily assigned to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., specifically to appear at air shows in the eastern United States.
The plane would have approached Martin State Airport under the control of traffic controllers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, said Fraser Jones, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. But during the air show, he said, the pilot would not have been in touch with them.
Because the plane is designed not to show up on radar screens, the pilot communicates with controllers by radio, said Col. Virginia Pribyla, an Air Force spokeswoman.
The crash, Pribyla said, leaves either 52 or 53 Nighthawks still in service.
"All F-117 pilots," she said, "must be fully capable and qualified combat pilots in another fighter aircraft before they're allowed to go to F-117s."
The Air Force will appoint a board to investigate the crash, including F-117 pilots and technical experts.
Pub Date: 9/15/97