Considering its long and secretive history, we shouldn't be terribly surprised by any news on the US Air Force's F-117 Nighthawk. The iconic stealth fighter was officially retired in 2008, ending its service 25 years after its introduction. So, why is the black visage still streaking across the desert skies where it was developed?

The Aviationist uncovered grainy photos showing the stealth fighter on the taxi ways at the Tonopah Test Range, a classified testing site about 70 miles northwest of Area 51. While video has trickled out of the F-117 flying since it went out of service, the fact that these models are actively on the taxi ways signifies that they're still flying regularly, albeit in a limited capacity. Defense News has a few theories as to what's going on.

After getting the cold shoulder from the Air Force, DN reached out to analyst Richard Aboulafia at the Teal Group.

"I would just guess it's for radar signature testing," Aboulafia told DN. "It could conceivably be testing aerodynamics, also. It was one of the earlier generations of planes that shouldn't have been flying but did, thanks to the magic of fly by wire and computers. It could also be fatigue testing for materials that were used on the plane, to see how well those are holding up over time."

But because that answer is a bit too mundane and boring, DN has another theory – that the black planes are being tested with autonomous systems, perhaps to see how feasible optionally manned systems (that can be flown with or without a pilot in the cockpit) will be.

While that's a tantalizing idea, we're just kind of happy that the Air Force is still flying at least a pair of the historic fighter-bombers.

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