A sneaky photo taken the last time a stealth bomber was unveiled shows why parts of the new B-21 are still under wraps
On December 2, the US Air Force unveiled its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider.
Security was tight, with officials tightly controlling the bomber’s visibility.
This may have been an effort to avoid what happened the last time a stealth bomber was unveiled.
Security was heightened when the US Air Force unveiled its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber on December 2.
Reporters and onlookers could only see the front of the plane from afar, making its details indistinct. But the most interesting thing was that the event did not take place outdoors on a track.
Instead, the rollout took place after sunset at the Northrop Grumman plant in Palmdale, California, with the bomber partially inside a hangar. One reason for this could be what happened the last time the Air Force unveiled a stealth bomber.
On November 22, 1988, as armed guards patrolled the tarmac and a Huey helicopter circled overhead, the world got a chance to see the B-2 Spirit – the B-21’s predecessor in appearance and in office – in the same Palmdale facility.
As with the B-21, spectators were kept at a distance and only the front of the B-2 was visible. It was frustrating for those who wanted to see the rear of the B-2, especially the distinctive trailing edges and engine exhausts of the tailless flying wing bomber, which would give clues to the aircraft’s capabilities and its stealth.
Despite the Pentagon’s efforts to limit the amount of B-2s that could be seen, the bomber’s unique characteristics soon became visible to the world through a series of events worthy of a spy novel or goofy comedy. .
‘Why should they care?’
In a feat that made aviation journalism history, enterprising reporters and photographers from Aviation Week magazine managed to get an aerial glimpse of the B-2, taking advantage of oversights in Pentagon security measures.
“One of the driving functions to get us into this mode was, ‘Hey, if they were to get this thing out of the hangar into the open, I can guarantee the Russians will have a satellite over their heads,’ William Scott, a retired Aviation Week editor, said of the efforts to get the photo.
“And if the powers that be don’t care if the Russians see the trailing edge, why should they care about the American people?” Scott told Aviation Week in a photo scoop article published the same day as the B-21’s deployment.
The team considered several ideas, including flying a hot air balloon over the B-2, which was jettisoned for safety reasons. Eventually, they noticed that the FAA’s advisory to airmen — an alert known as a NOTAM — did not restrict flights in the area above 1,000 feet.
Aviation Week editor Michael Dornheim and photographer Bill Hartenstein flew a rental Cessna 172 into Palmdale Airport the weekend before the B-2 was unveiled.
“Dornheim made several home runs and touchdowns to dispel any potential suspicion from air traffic control, while Hartenstein tried various telephoto lenses to ensure he would have the best images of the day,” wrote Guy Norris, editor-in-chief of Aviation Week this month. .
When the big day arrived, security kept the crowd at least 200 feet ahead of the plane, while the low-flying Huey helicopter watched for intruders. But the Cessna circled overhead, unnoticed, as Hartenstein took shot after shot.
When the plane landed, Dornheim and Hartenstein “were just giddy,” Scott said. “They had in no way been yelled at by ATC [air traffic control] and I told them I didn’t even notice anyone looking up!”
The team then raced to meet Thanksgiving week deadlines. Hartenstein’s film was sent on an overnight FedEx flight to New York and appeared in the pages of Aviation Week as a beautiful color photo of the B-2 – its trailing edges and exhausts fully visible.
A few days later, Scott received a call from Colonel Richard Couch, director of the B-2 Combined Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base. Couch said some “civilians” swore heads would roll on the leak. Couch said he told them “get over it. We thought you at Aviation Week would do something like this anyway!”
Thirty-four years later, security at the B-21 ceremony was tight both on the ground and in the air.
According to Brian Everstine, editor of Aviation Week, which covered the deployment, authorities imposed “very, very strict regulations on cameras” and prevented journalists from bringing cameras and recording devices into certain areas.
In the risers where the reporters sat, “a very obnoxious security guard” measured cameras and tripods to make sure they weren’t taller than allowed, Everstine said on the Check podcast. 6 of Aviation Week.
US officials issued a NOTAM this time, closing the airspace above the event, not that it would have mattered. “They didn’t even get it all the way out” of the shed, Everstine said. “Even if there was someone above, you couldn’t see the trailing edge.”
Secret, but not for long
Is all this secrecy really necessary? Photographs can tell the enemy a lot about a weapon.
For stealth aircraft in particular, whose surfaces and components are carefully designed to minimize the radar waves they reflect, a degree of discretion is understandable.
On the other hand, for an aircraft to be properly tested, it must leave the hangar and be on public display.
According to Air & Space Forces Journal.
Of course, that’s assuming the foreign spies haven’t discovered the secrets yet.
Beijing in particular is suspected of fueling its rapid military advancement with the widespread theft of intellectual property, including materials related to crucial hardware like aircraft engines.
In 2010, a former Northrop engineer was convicted for selling classified information – including details of the lock-on range of infrared missiles against the B-2 – to China.
In 2015, documents leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden suggested Chinese hackers stole blueprints for the F-35. China almost certainly used this stolen data for its J-21 and J-31 stealth fighters, which resemble the F-35.
Despite the secrecy surrounding the B-21, it wouldn’t be surprising if China and Russia know more about the $700 million bomber than the American taxpayers who fund it.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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