Somewhere in the California skies, a real-life scenario similar to scenes from the movie classic “Top Gun” has been playing out this week.
And those planes in mock combat have been taking off out of Fresno.
A pair of F-117 fighter jets arrived in town Monday for aerial combat training against the F-15 planes based at the 144th Fighter Wing, the military airbase located next to Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
The combat planes never are as close to one another as portrayed in the 1986 fictional movie that starred Tom Cruise as “Maverick.”
However, the practice of fighter jets engaging in mock combat while opposing pilots try to outmaneuver each other is quite common in the military.
What makes the dissimilar air combat training missions being conducted out of Fresno all the more unique is the fact that this is the first time F-15 planes out of the 144th Fighter Wing have gotten a chance to face F-117 competition, according to the airbase’s public affairs officer Capt. Jason Sanchez.
“This is a great opportunity for our base,” Sanchez said. “It’s very unusual for the F-117s to visit our base to engage in dissimilar air combat training.
“Our fighter jets usually train as F-15 vs. F-15. They’ll get to practice combat maneuvers and combat training against F-117s this time.”
U.S. Air Force Col. Troy Havener, the commander of the 144th Wing, said training with F-117 pilots will benefit the wing’s F-15 pilots.
“This week we reap the benefits of two plus years of careful communication and determined coordination with agencies and leaders overseeing these unique USAF assets,” Havener said. “The training against integrated forces that include the F-117 will challenge and sharpen pilots, as well as build confidence in tactics and systems needed to defend our nation.”
What’s so special about the F-117?
Nicknamed the “Nighthawk,” the F-117 once was considered one of the Air Force’s most closely guarded secrets as the world’s first operational stealth aircraft.
Designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology, the stealth fighter jet could evade detection by radar and other sensors, according to the aerospace company that built the plane, Lockheed Martin.
It was used for six years before the U.S. Air Force admitted the plane’s existence in 1988, according to The National Interest.
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the F-117 was spotlighted for its role in America’s success in the aerial campaign against Iraq while striking key targets on the ground. The plane was used in a similar fashion again in 2003 during the Iraq War.
In 2008, the Air Force retired the F-117, though it’s still used for combat practice against other fighter jets.
The F-117 is a relatively slower plane with a top seed of 684 mph. By comparison, the F-15 can reach 1,875 mph, and the SR-71 Blackbird, which is considered the fastest plane in the world, could hit approximately 2,100 mph.
Nonetheless, the F-117’s all-black look and sharp triangular shape tends to make the jet stand out.
Some at the Fresno airport immediately took notice when the Nighthawks arrived, and photos of the F-117 quickly circulated on social media.
The F-117s that came to Fresno are based at Tonopah Test Range Airfield in Nevada.
F-117 vs. F-15
Aerial combat training traditionally pits similar aircraft against one another; dissimilar combat training matches different types of planes.
The idea is to help pilots exploit differences in the aircraft, and maximize one’s own advantages while minimizing the disadvantages of one’s own fighter jet.
Though the 144th Wing would not divulge how the F-117s were being used to help train the F-15 fighter pilots, the stealth fighters have been known to act as radar-evading adversaries in mock battles.
But if you were looking to see the jets in action just by staring into the skies, you’re out of luck.
While specific aerial training locations were not specified, Sanchez confirmed those on the ground in Fresno would not be able to see the combat training since the planes practice elsewhere.
Military jets, however, have been known to conduct combat training along the western edge of Death Valley National Park near “Star Wars Canyon.”
What makes the F-117 vs. F-15 matchup interesting is that the stealth fighter can go undetected by radar detection while pilots of the F-15 must rely on tactics, skill and speed to outmaneuver enemy contact.
Training between the two jets was expected to last a few days with the F-117s expected to leave the 144th wing late in the week, Sanchez confirmed.
As of the start of this year, the U.S. Air Force had 48 F-117s remaining in its inventory and is disposing approximately four aircraft each year, according to the 144th Fighter Wing.
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