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A historian investigates the Cold War competition to create an invisible aircraft

Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft

Peter Westwick
Oxford University Press
272 pp.
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Since the beginning of aerial combat, designers have attempted to make aircraft invisible. With each advance, however, other technologists have developed better methods for detecting covert combatants.

Although scientists and engineers worked on both sides of this difficult problem for years, it was not until the 1970s that the creation of an aircraft invisible to radar became more than a mere possibility. In his excellent new book, Stealth, Peter Westwick argues that the solution was the product of a host of special circumstances, fortuitous geography, and the aggregation of thousands of innovative and highly skilled individuals in Southern California. This concise, highly readable history of the creation, development, and application of one of the most important technologies of the Cold War brings clarity and a thorough understanding to this complex subject.

Westwick’s story examines not the senior leaders of U.S. aerospace and the military but the brilliant and generally unknown individuals in the trenches—the engineers, project managers, and shop floor workers—who conceived of the idea of stealth, identified the problems involved, and found solutions for seemingly intractable challenges. These “men in the middle” worked primarily for either the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, in Burbank, or the Northrop Corporation, 20 miles away in El Segundo, both of which were challenged to create a stealth bomber by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1979.

Tensions between the aeronautical engineers and the electrical engineers arose immediately at both Lockheed and Northrop. The deflection and absorption of radio waves was an electrical problem, yet the aeronautical engineers were loath to surrender any of their stature as the lead designers. Engineers tend to be rational, however, and over time the two parties began to collaborate.

With the fortuitous discovery of the work of Soviet physicist Pyotr Ufimtsev, which described equations for predicting the reflection of magnetic waves from two- and three-dimensional objects, Lockheed began attempts to create an aircraft consisting of radar-deflecting facets. In 1981, after much work and little sleep, the Lockheed F-117A was introduced. This stealth aircraft—armed with newly developed precision-guided munitions and controlled by computers that kept the unstable aircraft flying—finally gave the Pentagon the force multiplier it had been looking for. Lockheed won the Department of Defense’s initial contract for the stealth fighter.

Across the Los Angeles basin, Northrop kept working. The U.S. Air Force was looking for a long-range, high-altitude stealth bomber to augment the aging B-52 and the new, but troubled, B-1 bombers. From their work developing the promising “Tacit Blue”—a high-altitude battlefield surveillance aircraft that was ultimately scrapped—the team had learned that curved surfaces, if properly designed, could deflect radar as well.

Northrop founder John K. “Jack” Northrop had been obsessed with “flying wing” aircraft (fixed-wing planes that lacked a defined fuselage) and for good reason. Pure flying wings have no upright tail surfaces and are extremely aerodynamic, making them an ideal shape for a long-range aircraft that is inherently low-observable. The company had lost interest in the flying wing when the Air Force canceled the YB-49 in 1949, but when Lockheed began to circle back to the design, Northrop mounted a renewed effort, delivering the B-2 flying wing bomber in 1989, much to the delight of its retired founder.

Although stealth technology did not end the Cold War, it helped prevent a nuclear conflict by making a precision stealth attack potentially as destructive as a nuclear strike. It also inspired the creation of technologies that have benefited both civilians and the military in ways not originally foreseen. New aircraft, particularly commercial airliners, are equipped with computer-driven fly-by-wire controls and built from innovative composite materials that provide greater strength and lightness.

Today, the F-117A is retired, but the B-2 flies on, joined by new aircraft and a host of remotely piloted vehicles and missiles. Together, these technologies dominate the skies—a tribute to the creativity and hard work of the countless men and women “in the middle.”

About the author

The reviewer is curator of air transportation and special purpose aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC 20560, USA.