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Sunday, March 28, 1999 Published at 03:46 GMT

Stealthy 'star' falls to earth

A Nighthawk arrives at Aviano, Italy

Kosovo: Special Report
The F-117A Nighthawk has a reputation as a star in the high performance world of the modern jet fighter plane.

A single-seater, the F-117A was originally conceived in the late 1970s to, in the jargon of the US Air Force, "penetrate dense threat environments as well as attack high value targets with pinpoint accuracy".

Since the first planes were delivered by Lockheed in 1982, the Stealth fighter has lived up to its claims, first in the US invasion of Panama in 1989, and during conflicts such as the Gulf War and more recently Operation Desert Fox in December 1998.

Until the Nato campaign against Yugoslavia, not a single Stealth fighter had been lost despite carrying out some of the most dangerous missions.

[ image: The F-117A is comparable in size to the F-15 Eagle]
The F-117A is comparable in size to the F-15 Eagle
During the 1991 Gulf war, the F-117A was the only aircraft to carry out strikes on targets in downtown Baghad.

The secret of the fighter's success is stealth technology. Special composite materials make up the instantly recognisable, gawky shape designed to minimise the plane's profile to enemy radar systems.

Absorbent paint futher reduces the Nighthawk's visibility, while the engines are designed to release as little as possible of the tell-tale heat trails that missiles home in on.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Stealth fighter is a slow aircraft.

[ image: Holloman's 8th Fighter Squadron is better known as the Black Sheep]
Holloman's 8th Fighter Squadron is better known as the Black Sheep
Rated as "high-subsonic", that means it stays below the sound barrier making it two or three times more leisurely than its high-visibility cousins.

Altogether, 59 F-117s were accepted into service between 1982 to 1990 at a cost of $45m each.

Twelve Nighthawks were sent to Aviano, Italy from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. They are flown by the Eighth Fighter Squadron, better known as the Black Sheep.

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