Ben Rich’s “Odd-Looking Flying Machine”

June 29, 2009

“Remarks on the F-117”

Ben R. Rich

F-117A Final Delivery Ceremony

Palmdale, Calif.

July 12, 1990


Ben R. Rich, head of Lockheed’s Skunk Works in the period 1975-91, was the father of the first stealth fighter—the F-117. His drive to build it succeeded in 1981, but USAF denied its existence until 1988. In 1989, it flew in combat. In April 1990, it was shown in public. With delivery of the 59th and last model in July 1990, Rich revealed some unusual aspects of his remarkable development program. He observed that it was “just the beginning” for the F-117, and he was right. Not six months later, on Jan. 17, 1991, F-117s attacked targets in Baghdad, opening the Gulf War. Model No. 59—Affectionately, Christine—flew 33 missions in that war.

Today is a very special day, for, as we turn this last F-117A over to the Air Force, we celebrate the completion of the production phase of a unique aircraft program.

It’s not often that one has the opportunity to develop and field an aircraft that represents a true technological breakthrough. And the F-117 is just that—the world’s first very low observable fighter aircraft. It certainly is an odd-looking flying machine, all black, flat surfaces, highly swept wing and V-tail, and grids over the inlets. Yet it is a sterling example of what American ingenuity and hard work can create in response to a critical need.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union had begun developing and deploying new early warning radars, surface-to-air missiles, and fighter aircraft. These new systems posed a major threat to our conventional fighter and bomber forces. At the same time, technology breakthroughs in very low observables were emerging, which offered the potential to counter the menacing threat buildup. And working together, the Defense Department, Air Force, and Lockheed structured the F-117 program to capitalize on these breakthroughs by rapidly developing and fielding an operational stealth fighter. The result is the F-117A stealth fighter, an aircraft with dramatically reduced signatures, which can avoid detection, penetrate heavily defended airspace, and attack critical targets with extreme accuracy.

Prior to the program go-ahead, five dedicated air staff officers reporting to Gen. Al Slay (Gen. Alton D. Slay, commander of Air Force Systems Command) clearly defined a set of top-level requirements for the F-117 weapon system. Then, a system program office with a minimum number of people was established at the Aeronautical Systems Division, under the direction of the late General Dave Englund, then a colonel. Similarly, a small Lockheed team was also established under [the] leadership of Norm Nelson.

The F-117 SPO and Lockheed program office were supported by other organizations and groups, whose efforts were crucial to the program. …

Working together, this F-117A team established streamlined management methods with clear lines of communication and regularly scheduled meetings, but with a minimum amount of formal reporting. An appropriate amount of oversight was provided, but the team was not overburdened. We created a nonadversarial, problem-solving environment built on trust and commitment. Together, we guided the program through development and production and into operational service while maintaining the highest standards of program security.

As a result, the F-117A was developed and fielded in record time for modern fighter aircraft. Only 31 months after go-ahead, on June 18, 1981, Lockheed test pilot Hal Farley flew the F-117 for the first time. And with concurrent development and production, initial operational capability was achieved only 28 months later, in October 1983. In other words, the operating unit, the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing, was ready to go to battle only five years after the program go-ahead. That’s roughly half the time of conventional aircraft procurement programs. And here we are today, roughly nine years after [the] program start, delivering the last of 59 production aircraft.

But not only was the F-117 done quickly; it was done at low cost. At the same time we applied breakthrough stealth technology, we used proven components from other aircraft to reduce cost and risk—General Electric F404 engines, F-16 flight-control computers, F-18 cockpit displays, and many others. Total Air Force development cost to date is very low compared to other modern-day fighters—less than $2 billion. And the average unit flyaway cost for the 59 production aircraft is only $42.6 million including all government furnished equipment—very favorable compared to other fighters.

We built the F-117 at two a season, eight airplanes per year, and achieved a 78 percent learning curve. The total production program, by the way, was fixed price, and we did not lose any money. In addition, the Skunk Works guaranteed range, radar cross section, and bombing accuracy. And thanks to the hard work of many of you, we met all [of] our guarantees. …

And so today we complete a chapter in the F-117A story with the delivery of the final aircraft, but, in many ways, it is still just the beginning. The 37th is now at full strength and just beginning to be fully utilized as a high-leverage, integral unit within the Tactical Air Command.