Stealth 'Skin' Replaced
The nation's stealth fighters are getting a new skin, designed to make it easier to keep the planes in the sky.
The chemical composition and the shape of the skin, which the Air Force calls "Radar Absorbing Material," are largely what makes the stealth fighter stealthy.
The project aims to standardize the way the skin is applied to the plane, at a cost of $2 million an aircraft.
The new skin will make the plane easier to maintain, in hopes of reducing its time in the shop by 30 to 50 percent and the cost of maintaining the stealthy materials by 20 percent, officials said.
The first modified stealth fighters have arrived at the plane's home, Holloman Air Force Base, said Col. John Snider, commander of Holloman's 49th Operations Group. About 51 F-117 Nighthawks, the Air Force's entire inventory, are part of the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman, which is near Alamogordo.
The project recalls the frenetic pace in which the United States developed and deployed the stealth fighter in the early 1980s.
"The F-117 was introduced in great haste," said Gary Grigg, a spokesman at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., the successor to Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, the design shop in Palmdale, Calif., that developed the fighter. "There was a pressing need for this airplane. ... There was a significant surface-to-air missile threat in the Soviet Union - a SAM force that would significantly threaten conventional aircraft."
Enter the F-117, designed to evade the defensive radars, penetrate deep into the Soviet Union, and bomb highly defended targets. The fighter, which would cost between $70 million and $80 million in 2000 dollars, was put into production in a quick five years, half of what it usually takes for most new combat aircraft designs. Fifty-nine were built until production stopped in 1990. One was lost to enemy fire in Yugoslavia, and several more were destroyed in accidents.
During production, the radar-absorbing material was applied in linoleum-like sheets over much of the plane, Snider said. Robots sprayed some of the material on later in the production, and designers kept modifying the arrangement of the sheets to improve the planes' capabilities, resulting in six different skin configurations among all the production aircraft.
That made it difficult for technicians to work on, because they had to learn their way around six sets of planes, Snider said.
The material on the sheets is typically removed and reapplied every 300 hours the plane spends in the air, Snider said. With the modifications, now under way at Palmdale, a series of robots are spraying the radar-absorbing material on most of each aircraft.
With the standardization, maintenance time could be reduced by as much as half, Snider said.
Only a few airplanes are undergoing the standardization at one time. They should all be finished by 2005, Snider said. The plane is expected to remain in the U.S. arsenal until at least 2015.
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