Earlier this month, Northrop Grumman officially unveiled America’s new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, in a carefully controlled event meant to offer a glimpse of the new aircraft while still withholding many of the bomber’s secretive details. The few journalists in attendance were given strict rules to adhere to, limiting the angle in which they could view the bomber from to ensure their audiences, and the world at large, didn’t get to see anything but what Uncle Sam wanted.
In fact, the B-21 Raider wasn’t even rolled all the way out of the hangar for the spectators to see, in contrast to when the B-2 Spirit was unveiled at the very same Palmdale facility in 1988. The B-21’s rollout was a success for both Northrop Grumman and the Air Force as they managed to have the new Raider dominate news cycles around the world and keep much of its design a secret simultaneously.
But why were the restrictions placed on journalists so strict during an unveiling that some have likened to Apple revealing a new iPhone? The simple answer is secrecy. The B-21 Raider promises to be the most advanced aircraft ever flown once it takes to the skies for the first time next year. According to its designers, it boasts a leap in stealth technology that’s at least two generations ahead of the world’s reigning (and only) in-service stealth bomber, the B-2 Spirit.
Despite the common perception people have of stealth as a means of defeating radar detection, stealth is actually a whole slew of design elements, materials, production methodologies, and even combat tactics all meant to delay or prevent detection or targeting from enemy defenses. Among the most important ways platforms, like the B-21, do that is by dissipating the heat produced by the turbofan engines tucked deep within the fuselage — and that means jet outlet designs are extremely important in terms of both radar returns and managing the aircraft’s infrared signature. Of arguably equal or greater importance in the Raider is its saw-tooth tail design, or trailing edge, also meant to confuse ground-based radar arrays.
So, it goes without saying that with China’s H-20 and Russia’s Pak-DA (each nation’s respective stealth bomber programs) in active development, the Air Force wants to keep things like its jet outlet design or its general tail layout pretty close to the chest.
There is another reason, however, why the Air Force was extra cautious. And this reason has to do with the prominent aircraft-centric news outlet Aviation Week, and a crazy scheme enacted by the late Michael A. Dornheim, Aviation Week’s senior engineering editor at the time of the B-2 Spirit’s unveiling in 1988. Fortunately, Aviation Week’s Guy Norris recounted those fateful events to Sandboxx News in a recent piece.
How do you steal a glimpse of a stealth bomber?
In November of 1988, the vast majority of the world had never seen a stealth aircraft. (The F-117 Nighthawk had already been in service for five years at that time, and while it was first acknowledged in November of 1988 by the Pentagon, it wasn’t actually revealed to the public until April of 1990.)
So when Northrop Grumman announced that they’d be wheeling their incredible new stealth bomber out of their Palmdale, California plant on November 22, 1988, the whole world took notice.
Just like the B-21’s unveiling, aviation fans marked their calendars and started counting down the days until they’d get a peek at the future of military aviation — but just like the B-21, Northrop and the Air Force wanted to offer up that satisfying peek… but nothing more. With concerns about revealing the most tantalizing stealth details of the Spirit to the world’s press, the plan was to roll the bomber out of its hangar before a hand-picked crowd of attendees, limiting their view to nothing more than a straight-on perspective.
But Michael Dornheim saw a problem with that idea. In 1988, the Soviet Union was still chugging along, and while financial woes and cultural shifts accelerated by Gorbachev’s glasnost policy would bring America’s Cold War opponent to its knees in just a couple more years, the massive Soviet military and intelligence apparatus was still quite operational. Dornheim knew the Soviets would pull out all the stops to gather intel on America’s new bomber, and he figured it was only fair that the American public got as good a look at the Spirit as he was certain Gorbachev would get.
“One of the driving functions to get us into this mode was, ‘Hey, if they were going to pull this thing out of the hangar into the open, I can guarantee the Russians are going to have a satellite overhead,” William B. Scott, former Aviation Week Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief, recounted about Dornheim’s plan, which he helped to enact.
“And if the powers that be don’t care if the Russians see the trailing edge, why should they care about the American people?’”
The problem was finding a way to get photos of the bomber from another angle other than head-on, which was all Air Force security would allow. Dornheim and Scott both knew they had no chance of sneaking around the press barricades or… really sneaking anywhere in general. Not only were there well-armed security guards swarming the event (just as we saw on the B-21’s unveiling), but on the day-of, there was even a UH-1 Iroquois (Huey) circling the facility with a door-gunner keeping tabs on the crowd.
No, if they were going to get a better look at America’s stealth bomber, they’d need to do it from the sky.
“It sounds crazy, but we talked about renting a hot air balloon and tethering it to the ground on the north side of the fence by Plant 42. But I warned them–if we had a windy day, it could lay us over sideways–or even worse–it could have broken loose and we’d have ended up in Barstow,” recalled Scott.
Securing the photo scoop of the century
As November 22 approached, Dornheim, Scott and Aviation Week’s Los Angeles Bureau Chie Bruce Smith, kept close tabs on official notices released by the FAA about airspace restrictions, waiting to hear that the powers-that-be were barring any aircraft from overflying the event… but none came.
So the week prior, Dornheim and photographer Bill Hartenstein rented a Cessna 172 at a nearby airport and flew it around Northrop’s Palmdale facility, making sure to add some touch-and-go landings and a few sweeping circuits to the flight route to prevent anyone at Air Traffic Control from getting suspicious about their plans. Hartenstein used the opportunity to try out different telephoto lenses pointed directly at the B-2’s hangar — ensuring he’d have the right gear on hand when the classified bomber emerged from within.
On November 22, Scott took his seat in the highly secure spectator area in front of the B-2’s hangar, giddy with secretive anticipation. He, like the rest of the crowd, was kept a solid 200 feet away and directly ahead of where the bomber would be parked once it rolled out. As the event began, Scott’s ear picked up the faint sound of a Cessna’s four-cylinder prop closing in on the ceremony. Dornheim and Hartensteid had arrived.
“I kind of rolled my head pretending like my neck was hurting a bit and glanced up and there was this little Cessna just orbiting around. All I could do was grin to myself as I thought, ‘we’re going to get away with this!’” Scott said.
Inside the Cessna, Dornheim recorded every interaction he had with air traffic control, assuming he’d need it as evidence if and when he and his photographer were arrested.
“It was unbelievable. He told them he would just be in the area and flying around. I guess the tower and everyone didn’t pay attention to him. He was clearly above the airport traffic area but just driving in circles,” Scott recalled.
While everyone in the world was limited to a frontal view of the B-2 Spirit (except, perhaps, Russia’s satellites), Dornheim had secured the scoop of the century. With him flying and Hartenstein snapping away with his camera, Aviation Week now had the only public images of the entire B-2 Spirit in all its majesty, serrated trailing edge and all.
Immediately after the event ended, the team met up and rushed their photographs to Aviation Week’s headquarters, intent on getting them in before the print deadline the following day. They chose to place the incredible overhead image inside the magazine, rather than on the cover.
The following week, Scott got a call from Col. Richard S. Couch, director of the B-2 combined test force at Edwards AFB. Couch asked Scott how they’d managed to snap the photos, and Scott told him everything.
Couch replied that a “bunch of civilians were running around huffing and puffing – and that someone’s head would roll because of this.’”
Fast forward 34 years and both the Air Force and Northrop Grumman hadn’t forgotten Aviation Week’s photo scoop. The B-21 Raider was not pulled all the way out of the hangar… and no aircraft were flying overhead.
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