When U.S. Air Force Got Caught Trying To Sneak F-117s Stealth Fighter Through Austrian Airspace

When U.S. Air Force Got Caught Trying To Sneak F-117s Stealth Fighter Through Austrian Airspace
“Goldhaube” radar plotting – flight paths from Friday, October 18, 2002, 3: 03-3: 10 p.m. – Graphic: Armed Forces

An unusual story has surfaced involving the U.S. Air Force F-117s Stealth Fighter aircraft, and a little bit of trickery.

The story dates back to Oct. 18, 2002, when the USAF filed a flight plan for what turned out to be a McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Extender tanker to fly through Austrian airspace.

What the USAF reportedly didn’t divulge was that two F-117s were neatly tucked under the wings of the big tanker in a close formation during the flight.

The Austrian air force, suspecting something was up with a U.S. government overflight of its territory, sent a pair of fighter jets to investigate the activity.

The Drakens discovered the single approved plane was actually flying with two more unapproved planes: F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters, according to Airpower.at, which bills itself as “Austria’s virtual military aviation journal.”

The two Sidewinder-toting Drakens shadowed the formation and captured imagery, which was presented by the Austrian Minister of Defense Herbert Scheiber during a meeting of the National Security Council and was presented as part of a diplomatic protest lodged at the US embassy in Vienna. 

When U.S. Air Force Got Caught Trying To Sneak F-117s Stealth Fighter Through Austrian Airspace
Herbert Scheibner presents the photo in parliament. Click to enlarge. Photo: Georg Mader

According to the Wall Street Journal report and an online feature by Austrian defense journalists, MP Peter Pilz spoke at the National Security Council meeting on Oct. 24 accusing the government of authorizing illegal overflights. However, the Austrian Ministry of Defense presented the imagery to prove that such incidents were being taken very seriously.

So why did the Air Force try to pull a fast one on Austria?

At the time, the service was flying combat missions over Afghanistan, but the F-117A’s short-range kept the jet out of the air campaign. By the fall of 2002, however, the U.S. military had begun a buildup of military forces in the Persian Gulf region, which eventually led to the invasion of Iraq. The two stealth fighters were probably part of that buildup, and a desire to get them there quickly, by the most direct route, likely led the Air Force to file the intentionally misleading flight plan.

While F-117As did take part in the invasion of Iraq five months later, there’s no way to know if the ones that tried to sneak across Austria were part of the aerial armada that pulverized the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. military regularly overflew Austria and Switzerland when routing from Germany to Italy or to the Middle East to avoid long transits over France, however, the two neutral countries could block any unwanted transits.

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