The Story Behind Aviation Week’s B-2 Rollout Photo Scoop
William B. Scott, who retired from Aviation Week as Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief in 2006, talked to Guy Norris about the story behind late senior engineering editor Michael A. Dornheim’s legendary overhead photo scoop at the rollout of the B-2 bomber at Northrop’s facilities in Palmdale, California, in November 1988.
In the weeks leading up to the rollout, Scott, Dornheim and Los Angeles Bureau Chief Bruce Smith discussed the challenge of how to take good views of the B-2’s trailing edge–a novel feature of the stealthy aircraft disclosed by the U.S. Air Force in a rendering that April which they knew would be kept away from the direct line-of-sight of the official viewing area. “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. And if the powers that be don’t care if the Russians see the trailing edge, why should they care about the American people?’”
“We knew we’d take hits,” Scott said, “but that was our logic.”
One of the initial ideas was to hire a hot air balloon. “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.
As the weeks and days passed toward the rollout, the three kept a watch on the NOTAMs (notice to airmen), alerts issued by the FAA to potential hazards or airspace restrictions for the day of the ceremony. “We slowly realized the airspace was not going to be restricted above 1,000 ft. over the area,” he said.
The weekend before the Nov. 22 event, Dornheim and photographer Bill Hartenstein flew in a rented Cessna 172 to Palmdale Airport for a stealthy practice run of their own. Dornheim performed several circuits and touch-and-gos to allay any potential suspicions from air traffic control, while Hartenstein tried out various telephoto lenses to guarantee he would have the best images of the day.
On the day of the rollout, Scott duly appeared to take his place in the tightly controlled seating area in front of the aircraft, in the meantime noticing the heavy security presence with U.S. Air Force police patrols on the ground and a low-flying UH-1 Huey with machine-gun-toting personnel in the doorways. To ensure as few details as possible were visible to the press, the crowd was kept a minimum of 200 ft. from the front of the aircraft, though Scott observed that TV crews were present with big camera lenses.
As the event got underway, the low background droning sound of a light aircraft could soon be heard in the California afternoon air. Scott, who was sitting by a friend of his–Gene Gleeson, a TV reporter from LA’s Channel 7–recalled what happened next. “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!’”
Dornheim, meanwhile, was so concerned about potentially incurring an FAA violation that he had tape recorded every exchange with air traffic control to make sure there was proof that he had been given permission for everything he did. “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.
As the event came to a close, Scott jumped into his car and raced 14 mi. up Highway 14 and Avenue G to General William J. Fox Airfield to the north of Lancaster where Dornheim had landed. “He and Bill were just giddy. They hadn’t got hollered at in any way by ATC and I told them I hadn’t noticed anyone even looking up!”
Scott passed the film from his camera to Dornheim and Hartenstein, who then took off to fly down to Los Angeles, where the rolls were developed in a local 1-hr. processing lab. “It was pretty tight. They threw them into a Fedex package and got it on an overnight flight to New York,” he adds. The timing was critical because the rollout took place just two days before the Thanksgiving holiday and Aviation Week was on a short schedule. Wednesday was therefore deadline day.
Bob McAuley, the art director, and Don Fink, then the editor of Aviation Week, collected the package at New York’s La Guardia Airport. “They opened the envelope and looked at the photos right there and–having already seen the official Northrop head-on image of the B-2–decided on the spot to make the handout shot a foldout cover–double-wide. At the time we thought that might be the first in the magazine’s history. But it was all horizontal, so it made sense.”
The decision to go low key and use the now-famous look-down photo on the inside rather than the cover turned out to be an advantage, recalled Scott. “A lot of the mainstream media went crazy as soon as the magazine came out and they said, ‘typical Aviation Week–they just kind of shrugged it off and rather than sticking it in your face said kind of quietly, ‘we got these pictures, and you didn’t.’ People wondered why we didn’t use it on the cover.”
The following Monday, Scott took a call from Gleeson at Channel 7. “How the hell did you guys get those look downs?” he asked. “When I told him you could almost hear him pound his head on the desk. He said ‘you’ve got to be kidding! Bill, I had a helicopter sitting 50-ft. behind where you and I were sitting. I just ‘assumed’ you weren’t allowed to do that!’”
Scott also got a call later that week from Col. Richard S. Couch, director of the B-2 combined test force at Edwards AFB, California, who–along with Northrop chief test pilot Bruce Hinds in the left seat, would take the bomber on its first flight on July 17, 1989. “He asked me how did we get the photos and I told him. I said what’s the reaction out there at Edwards?” Couch replied that a “bunch of civilians were running around huffing and puffing–and that someone’s head would roll because of this.’”
Couch then said, “I told them to just get over it. We figured you guys at Aviation Week would do something like that anyway!’ I’ll never forget that,” laughed Scott.