1988: Stealth Unveiled

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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.
 

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Unlike everyone else, myself included, Aviation Week came away with an exclusive cover 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.

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.

 

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