1988: B-2 Stealth Unveiled


The rollout of the Northrop B-2 bomber on November 22, 1988, was a big deal. Fourteen years after the word "stealth" first crept into print, nobody had seen what a stealth aircraft looked like, without having signed a scary non-disclosure agreement -- with the exception of a single horrible quality photo of the F-117 that had been released two weeks earlier, and a single (even uglier) artist's concept of the B-2 itself. The list of rules for media attending the rollout was long and restrictive but most of us were glad to attend.

Aviation Week's West Coast technical editor, Mike Dornheim -- at the time, my frequent and annoyingly well-connected competitor -- was not impressed by all the restrictions. The media at Palmdale would see the aircraft from only one angle and would be confined to the bleachers. Details of the exhaust system and the exact plan view of the aircraft would be concealed. On the day, the security perimeter around Air Vehicle 1 would be patrolled by lean, mean-looking guard dogs.

But the security was tight in only two dimensions. Mike's recreations were motorcycling and flying small airplanes, and it was through the second of these that he realized that nobody had thought to close the airspace over Palmdale.

So it came to pass that the rest of us were gathered at Palmdale in a holding area, before being led to the rollout site, and I recall someone asking "Where's Dornheim?" The answer would have been plain to anyone who looked upwards during the ceremony to spot a Cessna 172 orbiting in lazy circles, with Mike in the left seat and photographer Bill Hartenstein acting as Reconnaissance Systems Operator on the right.

Unlike everyone else, myself included, Aviation Week came away with an exclusive photo. The photo also made it clear that the B-2's edges were aligned -- that is, every edge on the aircraft was parallel with one or other of the long leading edges -- which was a pivotal moment in public, unclassified understanding of stealth.

Read Dornheim's story: USAF, Northrop Unveil B-2 Next Generation Bomber in Aviation Week's digital archive - free to access until December 31, 2016.

I was fortunate to count Mike as a good friend, until we lost him to an auto accident in 2006. However, my inner Dornheim -- skeptical and firmly, one might say rigidly fact based -- remains active, although perhaps not as much as it was in him. Thanks for the history, Mike.


Discuss this Blog Entry 13

on Nov 26, 2014

Actually, the Cessna overflight was not necessary. The star in the foreground comprises five B-2 top views. I noticed it at the time and was surprised that it has apparently never been mentioned since.

on Aug 4, 2016

edwisch, I respectfully disagree. What the photo showed from that overflight that you could not see from the "star" or the frontal view of the B-2 outside the hanger was the flight controls and the engine exhaust area. I remember it was consider quite the coup at the time to get that photo. It helped to provide more perspective on the design. It was a brilliant idea that no one else had thought of doing.

on Aug 4, 2016

I remember reading in AvWk that the 5-plane star was actually outside the plant all along in the employee eating area and used as a design motif for all Russian satellites to see. No one ever considered the design to be any more than a "star". It was under everyone's noses all along. Sometimes the best way to hide something is in plain site while having fun with your enemies.

on Nov 26, 2014

Bill, I remember. Good example of why we look to you guys to get the story! Thanks.

on Nov 27, 2014

Thanks for the effort.
My brother and i sat around off the road in the trees North of the unveiling that day, able to see a little.
When I got a copy of Aviation Week, it took me an extra hour to calculate the /5 0r 72/108 degree common denominator of what was probably man's first 100% CAD aircraft. Printing distortions mask the simplicity.
How did Mike Antonivich get a classified clearance?
Why would the president of Northrup arrive in a Cessna?

on Aug 4, 2016

Once we heard that the B-2 would actually be rolled out of its Palmdale hangar, Mike Dornheim, Bruce Smith (LA Bureau Chief, at the time) and I (then-Senior Engineering Editor) discussed how we might get an overhead shot of the bomber's planform. One screwball idea was to tether a hot air balloon just off the airport's north perimeter. When I noted that "wind was invented and perfected in the Mojave Desert" and strong "blows" were near-daily events, we abandoned the balloon idea, fearing that our perch might wind up in Barstow, before the B-2 was rolled out.

Finally, either Mike or I checked the FAA NOTAMS and were stunned to find that, although the Palmdale airfield was closed to landings and takeoffs, during the ceremony, airspace ABOVE the airport's control zone would NOT be closed. Overflights were permitted. We then decided to rent a Cessna 172, hire Bill Hartenstein to shoot the photos, and merely fly overhead. The weekend prior to rollout, Mike and Bill H. made a trial flight over Palmdale to make sure Bill would have the right lenses on hand.

On rollout day, I was the lone Aviation Week reporter onsite, charged with taking head-on photos and taking notes about comments made by DOD, Air Force and Northrop officials. Several times, I leaned back to steal a glance skyward and was jazzed to see that little Cessna flying in lazy circles.

Concerned that he'd be "violated" for the overflight, Mike tape-recorded all radio exchanges with the local air traffic controllers. Nobody ever challenged him.

When our story--and those look-down photos--appeared in the following Monday's magazine, I received a call from Gene Gleason, a fellow pilot and a great reporter for ABC's LA affiliate, Channel 7. He said, "How did you guys get those photos?" I explained...and could hear him practically banging his forehead, saying, "I had a helicopter sitting 20 feet behind the grandstands! I just assumed the airspace was closed!"

I replied, "Well, Gene, you know what 'assume' does for 'u" and 'me.'"

Bill Scott

on Aug 5, 2016

But will they disclose the electro-gravitic propulsion system designed by GE and Northrop? The plane itself is not very impressive, but the idea of a flame jet generator that ionizes the air up stream with positive charged ions and creating negative ions in the back from the probe in the exhaust of the plane is impressive.

on Dec 1, 2016

Thanks AWST for those histories!

on Dec 1, 2016

The issue reads more like current events than an archive.
Articles on the Air Force and Pentagon unable to agree on a CAS replacement aircraft for the A-10, a GAO study warning that increasing deficits will spur cuts in defence spending, NASA pushing a lunar base and accelerated manned Mars mission. The Editorial on a brand new aircraft that had an almost 20-year design/development history.
Nearly 30 years and nothing has changed!

on Dec 1, 2016

And then we wonder why POTUS Elect wants to keep secrets from the press???!!!

on Dec 3, 2016

"I remember reading in AvWk that the 5-plane star was actually outside the plant all along in the employee eating area and used as a design motif for all Russian satellites to see. No one ever considered the design to be any more than a "star". It was under everyone's noses all along. Sometimes the best way to hide something is in plain site while having fun with your enemies."
- repv@comcast.net

More an example of what twaddle most "secrecy" is.

Back in 1958 AvLeak carried the letter below.

Treasured Secrets

I read with much interest your editorial entitled "Hope of the Nation" (W Jan. 6). I'm sorry I was not present to witness you and your staff coping with Langford. Although he scares me stiff, the episode is one of the nicest things I've read about in some time.
It reminded me of another anecdote which you ought to add to your voluminous files on security. It was told to a group of Naval air intelligence officers who in 1943, were receiving instruction in the art of air combat intelligence from an RAF officer who looked , complete with walrus mustache, exactly as every RAF officer ought to look. His subject for the day was overt intelligence, the case of a new British bomber to illustrate his point.The bomber to illustrate his point.
The bomber -- I believe it was the Lancaster -- was one of Britain's most treasured military secrets during it's development stage.
Naturally, it was shrouded, as we always say, in the deepest of secrecy. So you can imagine the migraine in RAF intelligence when that august group received from the north of England the copy of a small school newspaper which contained a terribly comprehensive and frightfully accurate description of the new bomber.
Parties of intelligence officers were dispatched to investigate the breach in security. The author of the article was a small boy -- well 12 years or so. After all sorts of indirect approaches had failed to trap him into revealing the source of information, the direct question was asked. How had he got the information about the bomber?
Why hadn't they told him that was they wanted to know he inquired reasonably. And he took them up to his room.
It was filled with technical and trade publications -- all easily available to the public -- on aviation matters. The boy was an aviation hobbyist, and a good one. According to my RAF instructor, he had pieced his whole picture together -- and correctly -- simply by noting and correlating minor items in the press.
- Willis Player, Vice President, American Airlines, New York, NY

Aviation Week, Letters, March 24, 1958, page 94

on Dec 3, 2016

"And then we wonder why POTUS Elect wants to keep secrets from the press???!!!"
- m4tim@msn.com

So he may reveal them at a rally or in a tweet.

on Dec 5, 2016

This fine publication isnt called "Aviation Leak" for nothing you know.

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