Flights of 'Stealth' Planes Spotted in Desert

Times Staff Writer

Sharp-eyed observers have spotted flocks of the Air Force's most secret fighter jets flying over Southern California in recent weeks, providing the first in-flight glimpses of an aircraft that has remained shrouded in mystery for more than 10 years, according to an authoritative defense industry magazine.

Groups of 10 F-117 "stealth" fighter jets have been seen during daylight hours streaking over Mojave, a small town outside Edwards Air Force Base about 90 miles north of Los Angeles, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported in its May 1 issue.

After flying the F-117 for five years, the Air Force last November unveiled the aircraft to the public for the first time. The plane uses special designs and materials to elude detection by radar.

At that time, the service said it wanted to begin daytime flights of the bat-like warplane and acknowledged that such training flights would lead to sightings by civilians. Until recently, the Air Force had been flying the aircraft under cover of night in an effort to keep details of the plane a secret.

The Air Force, which has remained secretive about most details of the plane, said Friday that it would not discuss operational matters regarding the program.

While the nation's 52-plane force of the stealth fighters is based at Tonopah Test Range Airfield in Nevada, the latest round of training flights appears to be conducted at Edwards Air Force Base and nearby test ranges in the Mojave Desert.

Aviation Week noted that Edwards Air Force Base traditionally has been used as a flying range for experimental planes, rather than as a training site for planes already in the force. Practice runs involving 10 aircraft, such as those observed on April 12 and 18, are rare in that area.

Overflights of the aircraft have revealed to area residents one its most distinctive characteristics--the faint, high-pitched whine of two engines as the jet passes overhead at speeds just below the speed of sound. "This sound was definitely different," one observer told the magazine. "There was no doubt this was something we hadn't heard before. It even set the dogs off before we heard it."

Lockheed Corp. is to build a total of 59 F-117s at its experimental "skunk works" facility in Palmdale.

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