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November 11, 1988, Page 00027Buy Reprints The New York Times Archives

The Air Force confirmed today that it has been flying dozens of top-secret jet aircraft from a base in Nevada for the last seven years and released a photograph of what has come to be called the ''Stealth fighter.''

The plane's existence has been known for years, but the military has gone to great lengths to hide it, flying the aircraft only at night from a remote desert base.

Even today the Pentagon refused to discuss any details of the plane's operations. But those familiar with it said it has been operated abroad at times, occasionally flying to Britain for training exercises. The Air Force acknowledged today that a British pilot is attached to the American squadron that flies the plane. First Flew in 1981

A Pentagon spokesman, J. Daniel Howard, said at a news conference today that the Stealth first flew in 1981 and became combat-ready in 1983. He said the Pentagon decided to release a few details now because it is to be flown more widely and during daylight, making fuller use of its capabilities.

The plane is designed to elude detection by radar, and its job is to penetrate enemy territory and destroy a few especially important targets, such as command posts, during a war. In fact, the term ''fighter,'' implying air-to-air combat, is a misnomer for this plane, officially called the F-117A; it would be more accurately termed a strike or attack plane. The Air Force's strategic bomber, the B-2 Stealth, built by Northrop Corporation, is a different plane that is to be shown to the public for the first time this month.

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Few new details of the aircraft, which is being produced by the Lockheed Corporation, were disclosed today. The shadowy photograph showed it to be boxy and angular, unlike the smooth and sleek machine that previous speculation had suggested.

The Air Force has received 52 of the planes, and seven more are in production, with final delivery expected by 1990. Two have crashed, one in July 1986 and one in October 1987; the Air Force tersely acknowledged these accidents at the time, serving to confirm that the plane existed. Cost: at Least $7 Billion

The military had planned to release information on the plane in October, but members of Congress objected that publicity should be withheld until after the election.

The Stealth's development began in 1978, in the Carter Administration, and is thought by aerospace and financial experts to have cost at least $7 billion. It was supported by lawmakers of both parties who had access to classified information about the plane. The high cost was due partly to the experimental design and partly to the small numbers made, which meant that every one was virtually handcrafted.

Workers at the California plant where the plane is built have complained in lawsuits about unexplained health problems, ranging from minor illnesses to cancer, that the workers attribute to unusual materials in its production. The lawsuits have not been settled. Flown by Senior Pilots

The aircraft are deployed in the 4450th Tactical Group at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. They fly mainly at the nearby Tonapah test range.

Only senior pilots fly the aircraft, which has a single seat and two engines produced by the Pratt & Whitney subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation. The tactical group also flies 18 A-7 attack planes that can be equipped with special equipment to allow simulated training on the Stealth. One such A-7 crashed last year during an emergency landing at Indianapolis, striking a hotel and killing 10 people.

Aerospace experts said the use of the A-7 as a training aircraft suggests that the Stealth is a slow-moving plane designed to hug the ground as it moves into hostile territory.

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