In 1975, Skunk Works founder Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, master designer of aircraft radar and surveillance technologies still used today, picked longtime associate Ben Rich to be his replacement as “Chief Skunk.” This was a worthy choice because Rich was a master aircraft designer with a skillset, ambition, and imagination close to Johnson’s.
F-117 Stealth Fighter
Also in 1975, Rich solicited the U.S. government for permission to develop a super-fast and completely undetectable surveillance aircraft, the F-117. The most revolutionary aspect of his design was “Echo 1”, the computer-operated electromagnetic chamber that ran the craft and rendered it “invisible” to radar. Even Kelly Johnson scoffed at the “stealth” technology when Ben Rich presented it to him in concept. Despite the skepticism, Skunk Works was given the funding necessary to produce two fully operational prototypes. To the amazement of skeptics, the F-117 Stealth Fighter worked.
Kept secret for ten years after the first operational model was produced, the F-117 and “stealth” technology was presented to the public in 1988.
The F-117 Stealth Fighter went into full production in 1991, just in time for Operation Desert Storm. Even more amazing, all F-117s and crew members returned safely from 1,270 sorties.
The stealth technology was such a conceptual breakthrough that it was no surprise that a litany of conspiracy theories was spawned from the lunatic fringe. Chief among these soc-called theories was that the F-117’s technology was based on top-secret alien spacecraft technologies taken from unreported alien close encounters with members of the government and military.
The most popular of all stealth technology conspiracy theory episodes was the so-called “Philadelphia Experiment.” According to “eyewitnesses”, in 1943, the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Eldridge was using a top secret technology that rendered it invisible for brief periods of time. Although the so-called “witness” claims were disproved, “The Philadelphia Experiment” managed to become a Hollywood motion picture with a cult following.
In truth, stealth technology doesn’t really make an aircraft “invisible.” It greatly reduces the distance at which a plane can be detected by enemy radar. Thus, by the time an enemy can target the aircraft, it becomes too late for a deadly response.
If top secret stealth technology can be blamed on anyone or thing, the finger should point at an obscure scientific paper by a Russian (yes, Russian) mathematician who had espoused a theoretical analysis of the strength of radar return in relation to the size of an object (i.e. aircraft) in its path. The result of the analysis stated that objects of any size could be rendered “invisible” to radar.
Ben Rich served at Skunk Works until 1991, long enough to see his F-117 Stealth Fighters at their performance peak during Operation Desert Storm. Rich died in 1995.
“Be quick, be quiet”, Chip Jacobs, Los Angeles Business Journal Lulu Belle, Smithsonian, URL: (http://www.nasm.si.edu/research/aero/aircraft/lockheed_xp80.htm)
“Mach speed product development”, Automotive Design and Production, Christopher A. Sawyer
“Philadelphia Experiment”, Cecil Adams, Straight Dope