Kelly Johnson had seen enough. The brilliant but irascible pioneer of Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works division grabbed the blueprint he’d been studying—specs for an alien-looking, diamond-shaped aircraft—walked over to his successor, Ben Rich, and promptly booted him in his rear end.
“Have you lost your mind?” Johnson barked, throwing the crumpled blueprint at Rich’s feet and fuming that the design would “never get off the ground.” Johnson valued sleek designs—highly aerodynamic aircraft. The blueprint offered neither.
Although a bit sore, Rich was unfazed. Aerodynamics was not the priority. Two years earlier, in 1973, defense officials had called for a competition to build a stealth bomber undetectable by enemy radar.
Rich had embraced the challenge with gusto. He turned to a pair of young Lockheed engineers, Denys Overholser and Dick Sherrer, who developed a computer program based on obscure German and Russian theories, which postulated that radar beams could be reflected by a series of carefully angled triangular panels.
The pair’s computer program had revealed that a diamond-shaped aircraft—what looked on paper like a flying engagement ring—would be 1,000 times less visible than any other aircraft ever created at Lockheed.
The plans Johnson had crumpled up? They were specs for the world’s first aircraft invisible to radar.
Diamond in the Sky
The blueprints—dubbed the Hopeless Diamond by naysayers—were converted into a 38-foot-span wooden model, mounted on a pole, and exposed to radar from every angle to see just how invisible it was.
Early tests showed the model registered no bigger than an ordinary marble, and was thus nearly impossible to detect. In response, Ben Rich, ever the savvy salesman, brought a bag of ball bearings to the Pentagon and rolled a few across a general’s desk, saying, “Here’s the observability of your airplane on radar.”
A contract was immediately awarded in 1976 to begin work on Have Blue, the stealth demonstrator that would lead to the F-117A Nighthawk. Constructed almost entirely of aluminum, its external surfaces sheathed with radar-absorbent material bound with putty, the Nighthawk had to be immaculately flush. Even the slightest crack or unfastened screw would make it visible to enemy radar. And the unconventional shape required a quadruple-redundant fly-by-wire system to correct its natural instability.
On June 8, 1981, the F-117A had its inaugural flight, showing off its unprecedented stealth capabilities. In the ensuing years, the project would be kept under the strictest of secrecy, with all training conducted at night, prepping the Nighthawk for its stunning debut over the skies of Iraq.
A Storm in the Desert
During the early-morning hours of January 17, 1991, in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, a fleet of Nighthawks slipped in unseen by Iraqi radar and neutralized 37 targets across Baghdad. Over the ensuring weeks, Nighthawks would strike with remarkable accuracy, helping bring the campaign to a successful end in just 43 days.
Although retired in 2008, the F-117 would be the basis upon which subsequent stealth fighters, including the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, would be designed. As remarked during a banquet celebrating the plane’s achievements in 2008, before the F-117, the question to ask was how many aircraft were needed to take out a target. After the Nighthawk, the question was how many targets could be taken out with a single aircraft.
Sources and Additional Reading
- Boyne, Walter. Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
- Jacobsen, Annie. Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Bases. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011.
- Rich, Ben E. and Leo Janos. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. London: Time Warner, 2003.
- Sweetman, Bill. “Unconventional Weapon.” Air & Space. January 2008. https://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/unconventional-weapon-23371597/, accessed July 16, 2012.