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Stealth Fighter: A Year in the Life of an F-117 Pilot

 by Lt. Col. William B. O’Connor, USAF (ret.), Zenith Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2012, $30

Few aircraft have captivated Americans like the “Black Jet,” the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Pilots named the plane for its charcoal coloring, but the F-117 was developed in a “black” program, with its existence highly classified. Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard revealed the stealth warplane in 1988, after two squadrons had become operational.

Brad O’Connor began F-117 training a decade later. Stealth Fighter is one man’s very personal memoir of the ensuing year, culminating in combat over Kosovo. A largely unnoticed sidelight to the Balkans fighting in 1999 is that surface-to-air missiles were used more widely than in previous conflicts. One of them bagged Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, call sign Vega 31, the only time an F-117 was ever shot down. O’Connor tells us how the shootdown looked to the squadron’s pilots, waiting to learn that Zelko had been rescued in a dramatic night operation.

O’Connor traces the history of the F-117, a handy summing-up that contains little new. He gets more interesting when he gets more personal. If you love it when people talk cockpit to you, you’ll go wild over sentences like: “I saw a green ‘RDY’ light and could set either ‘FUS ONLY’ (the fuselage fuel tanks) or ‘ALL’ (both fuselage and wing tanks) on a selector knob that directed which tanks the incoming fuel [from a tanker] would flow into.” Fortunately, most of Stealth Fighter is more readable, though the book suffers from an editorial decision to neither publish real names of F-117 veterans nor include an index.


Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.