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  • Mach 3 Cruise Stealth Multirole Jet Unveiled!
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 3:40 PM on Nov 07, 2013

    About 50 years ago, Aviation Week's editor, Bob Hotz, set up a meeting with senior U.S. Air Force leaders. He told them that the magazine had a pretty good idea of what Lockheed's Skunk Works in Burbank had been up to in the preceding couple of years -- based on pilot eye-witness reports and other sources -- and while he had no intention of risking national security, neither was he going to be scooped by his competitors. That story is here, as well as in Central Intelligence Agency documents.

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    No damage was done to security. The Soviet Union already knew about the project, as MiG-25 designer Rostislav Belyakov stated quite firmly in his history of the bureau's designs. The notion that the Russians had continued building the Foxbat to defend against the B-70 Valkyrie, long after it had been relegated to experimental status, is CIA CYA.

    The USAF, in any event, did not think that the aircraft could be kept secret once it was in service. The much less obtrusive U-2 had been rumbled within weeks of its first overseas deployment. The result was a coordinated disclosure in February 1964, in which the Pentagon issued a deliberately misleading announcement that obscured the new aircraft's mission, misstated its designation, identified its secondary customer as the primary one, contained one factual error that had to be rectified by dispatching two secret aircraft hurriedly to Edwards AFB, and was accompanied by two side-view-only photos that had the world's aviation press scrabbling to guess at the plan-view, mostly with a remarkable lack of success. (That was great fun for an eight-year-old, in love with aviation.) 

    Even AW&ST was not immune. The magazine earned points by not swallowing the cover story that the "A-11" was an Air Force interceptor, but led its story with the statement that the aircraft had "already flown long-range reconnaissance missions over communist territory", which would not be technically correct for another three years. (Unless Hotz was talking about Massachusetts, which is entirely possible.) And as for the plan view...

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    It was an auspicious start to the public career of what was in fact the Lockheed A-12 reconnaissance aircraft, developed to meet a CIA requirement with the USAF providing management and support, and known by the then-classified codename Oxcart. One of the many remarkable things about the A-12 and its siblings - which constituted the most outstanding feat of aerospace engineering in history, moon landings included -- is that even after half a century it can still generate surprises. 

    Not long ago I was at a Washington event and found myself seated next to a gentleman whose job it is to supervise the declassification of secret USAF documents. I happened to mention the latest in a series of autobiographies written by long-retired engineers who worked on the A-12 family. He responded like a man in inward pain. "Are these books ever cleared?" he said. "No. Did they sign lifetime nondisclosure agreements? Yes. Are we going to go after them? No." The optics of trying to throw a nonagenarian engineer in the Federal slammer are not good. 

    The list of the major surprises out of the project started with the release of better photographs (of the YF-12 "interceptor" -- the fact that it originated as a bomber was also veiled) that revealed a very strange shape. It would have made perfect sense if anyone had realized what Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and his team had been trying to do, which was to reduce radar cross section as well as attain high speed, but as far as I can recall nobody had a clue about that (even Northrop's stealth guru, John Cashen, recalled being utterly astonished when Johnson talked about the A-12's stealth technology at a secret conference in 1975) until the early 1980s. 

    The A-12 itself stayed under cover until around 1982. The CIA's original single-seat aircraft had been retired in 1968 and replaced by the USAF's heavier, two-seat SR-71, and the fleet had been placed in storage. Only after they had been moved out into the open air -- after it was decided that they would not be needed as attrition replacements -- was the A-12 itself disclosed. 

    It was also in the early 1980s that more details emerged of how the aircraft worked. When the first announcement was made in 1964, one British magazine (which usually did better than that) managed to say that "statements such as 'the A-11 is made entirely of titanium' are patently false". (Whoops.) The details of the propulsion system -- a turbojet surrounded by an inlet, bypass and exhaust system, constituting a unique engine cycle -- started to be unveiled in the 1970s. Johnson's lieutenant and successor, Ben Rich, was even able to discuss some of the stealth features in public. 

    It was in the course of this opening-up of the program, in early 1981, that AW&ST's gifted and well-connected Los Angeles bureau chief, Robert Ropelewski ("Rope" to all and sundry), became the 371st person and first journalist to fly in the SR-71, resulting in a frank discussion of an aircraft that offered extraordinary performance but was also very demanding to fly -- by that time, 20 of the 50 aircraft built had been lost, all in accidents despite the best efforts of Vietnamese and other missile operators. Rope's flight took place at a point where a much improved flight control system was still in development and was an illuminating account of why it was needed. (In reading the report, remember that some operational missions lasted more than ten hours with multiple inflight refuellings.) 

    An aircraft that lived in mystery generated another when it retired with no apparent replacement. Since then, more of the extraordinary story behind it has been told: the series of General Dynamics Fish and Kingfish competitors, which pushed the CIA into demanding stealth from a skeptical and stubborn Kelly Johnson (Rich unforgettably encapsulated his boss as "like W.C. Fields, without a sense of humor"); the use of cesium injection into the exhausts to mask them from radar, along with experiments in head-on plasma stealth, all in the 1960s; the SR-71's specially developed sensors, including a radar that -- in flight -- recorded two radar signals on film, developed them, projected them together and filmed them again. In an aircraft that was mostly hot enough inside to cook a pizza. 

    Today, it's fun for that eight-year-old to take visitors to town around the Udvar-Hazy museum out at Dulles. If they don't know much aviation history, they are, well, more than a little surprised to look at the Blackbird and hear that it was designed in 1960 and still -- officially -- holds the record for sustained speed and altitude. (Although the prize for greatest range at supersonic speed goes to its contemporary and Dulles neighbor, as snow-white as the SR is coal-black.) And they are invariably knocked over by its combination of grace and menace. 

    When did we forget how to do that stuff?

    Tags: ar99

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