Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Black Jet

Listening to: Capricornia-Midnight Oil

Back to posting about planes again.

A significant aviation milestone occurred about a month ago, on April 22. A legend passed into history.

After more than 25 years in service, the last Stealth Fighters were retired. (Link to story here. Couldn't find the Dompost one, but the LA times one is from the same source).

Often regarded as the epitome of sexy high tech, especially in the 90's, the stealth fighter is now yesterdays technology. The stealth is state of the art; for the late 1970's when it was designed. The proof of concept vehicle was test flown in 1977, and the first Nighthawk (its actual name) in 1981.

All of this was done in the utmost secrecy. By the time Italeri made this model kit of a Stealth jet in 1986, the real thing had been operational and ready to go to war for more than two years. It would be another two years before any photograph of the F-117 would be made public, and three before it would be allowed to fly in daylight. Throughout most of its history, anyone making their first flight in a Nighthawk did so at night, and on their own, as no two seaters were ever built.

In addition to releasing a kit of the US stealth, Italeri also produced a model of a highly speculative (and completely fictional) Soviet Stealth aircraft. As far as I know, the Soviets never built anything like this, although ironically, conceptually it is closer to the real thing than the US model.

The real thing employed complex faceting to deflect radar beams, rather than curves to attenuate them. Plus radar absorbing paint, radar absorbing skin, and a host of other things.
In the mid eighties, stealth was the buzzword for plane enthusiasts. People knew about it, but its real world applications were years away from being made public.

While the Italeri model may have been conceptually misguided, it prompted a lot of security questions from politicians when it was released, as no-one not in the know knew that at the time. There has been speculation that one of the competing designs for the Nighthawk from another manufacturer that was never built may have looked like that though.

If the Cold War had ever turned hot, the Nighthawks would have been in the first wave, hitting high value and well defended targets with laser guided bombs, or nuclear weapons if things had gone that far. Contrary to its tag, the aircraft was never a fighter. Fighter is generally used to describe an aircraft able to fight other aircraft. The Nighthawk was never capable of that. Slow and relatively unmaneuverable, it would be dead meat for anything able to find it, hence it only operated at night. It carried no defensive weapons at all. It was not able to fly supersonically. Not being able to carry any extra fuel tanks externally limited its range. The need to carry all weapons internally limited the usual bomb load to two large laser guided bombs, meaning that in strict speed, range and weapons load terms, it was equivalent to something from the 1940's or 50's. The need to make it practically invisible to radar, and radically reduce the heat signature forced performance compromises. The difference though, was that while the performance may have lacking, it could go anywhere it needed to with virtual impunity, and put a couple of precisely aimed weapons on its target when it got there. 100 were wanted, but only 59 were built.

And it worked. When you are invisible you can get away with a lot. Although most famous for its role in the first Gulf War, where it was the only aircraft allowed to operate over highly defended Baghdad, it actually flew its first live mission during the invasion of Panama in 1989, putting a couple of bombs into a field beside a barracks to create confusion and panic. Only one was ever shot down, over Serbia in 1999. Speculation over just how is rife, but the main theory is that the mission planners had gotten a little relaxed, and sent the jets night after night along the same route and the same time. The canny Serbs got wise to this, and hit one with an optically guided missile (no-one has figured out how to make things disappear at visual wavelengths yet, although it is being worked on I'm sure). Also speculation is that the 'accidental' bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade occurred because the wreckage was being stored in its compound.

The Nighthawk is one of the aircraft that gave Area 51 its reputation; all of the test flying was done there. And the thing I'm curious about is, if this is the sort of thing the black world could come up with thirty years ago, what have they got cooking now?


d3vo said...

As I understand it the flat facet design of the stealth fighter was due to a limitation in the design process.

At the time the design was happening there was no software to calculate the radar effects of curved surfaces. The software for curves is much more complicated and computationally expensive.

I'm sure that all got solved in the early 80s.


Dan said...

I had the model when I was 11! It was so exciting.