|This article was written by The Wall Street Journal's staff reporter Roy J. Harris, Jr. and was printed in the December 4, 1992 edition of the newspaper:|
| Magazine Suggests Aircraft Has Flown Mach 8 for Years
New evidence suggests that the U.S. is operating secret spy planes, possibly cruising as fast as eight times the speed of sound, and that such aircraft may have been flying for over three years.
An article prepared for Jane's Defence Weekly, a British military-affairs journal, suggests strongly that a $1 billion plane capable of far greater speed than the current world record-holding SR-71 spy plane is indeed in service globally. The speculation is based in part on a trained aircraft observer's recently reported 1989 sighting of a mysterious wedge-shaped aircraft, flying over the North Sea in a formation with two U.S.-built F-111 bombers and a KC-135 tanker.
The description of the plane given by British oil-drilling engineer and trained aircraft spotter Chris Gibson is sketchy--little more, in fact, than an unfamiliar aircraft shape he says he watched from his remote North Sea oil rig for about 90 seconds one hazy August day three years ago.
But in an intriguing analysis for Jane's, made available to The Wall Street Journal in advance of next week's scheduled publication, the stealth technology expert who wrote the article uses the sighting as the missing link in a chain of events he believes may explain a number of U.S. military mysteries.
Citing other experts in so-called hypersonic aviation, author Bill Sweetman paints a picture of the hush-hush reconnaissance plane that he believes replaced Lockheed Corp.'s SR-71 Blackbird when the U.S. took it out of service in early 1990. That jet, which holds the official speed record of 2,193 mph, about Mach 3.3, would be a slow-poke compared to the Mach 8 aircraft (5,280 mph) that Mr. Sweetman suggests flew over Mr. Gibson that day in the North Sea.
The Pieces Fall Into Place
His article proposes that the new plane -- rumored for years to be called Aurora because that name mysteriously popped up as an unexplained defense budget line item in 1984 next to the SR-71 -- is also built by Lockheed, with engines by Rockwell International Corp.'s Rocketdyne division. The Jane's report suggests: The planes cost about $1 billion each; they first flew in about 1985; and they have been the source of a series of strange earthquake-like rumbles still occurring in Southern California and other areas of the world.
With "this last piece" of information, Mr. Sweetman says in an interview, "there are so many things that fall into place." The most important, he says, may be the mystery of why the U.S. retired its last SR-71 spy plane in 1990 with the explanation that it would rely instead on satellites to meet the reconnaissance needs once satisfied by the aircraft, believed capable of operations well above 100,000 feet.
The Jane's article, echoing others' suggestions that the statement about satellites was intended as a cover for development of a new spy plane, notes that aircraft have a certain reconnaissance usefulness that orbiting cameras can't match.
"The satellite system is believed to be capable of producing imagery within 24 hours of a request: at Mach 8, however, the flight time to any point on Earth is under three hours," the article says. "Unlike a satellite, the aircraft can be scheduled to pass over a target at any desired time of the day," and flies closer to the target.
The 'Skunk Works' Legacy
Lockheed won't comment on any secret programs it has going, and refers questions about reconnaissance to the Air Force. But Lockheed Advanced Development Co., the unit popularly known as the "Skunk Works," long has been considered the shop likely to be producing any future spy planes because it developed the last two generations of U-2 and SR-71 planes in the 1950s and 1960s. Both planes flew spy missions in total secrecy for years before being acknowledged -- in the U-2's case only after pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in one in 1960. The California Skunk Works also produced the F-117 Stealth fighter, which also flew secretly before its existence was acknowledged.
The explanation of what he'd seen didn't become clear to Mr. Gibson, a veteran of the now-disbanded Royal Observer Corps ot volunteer aircraft spotters, until he recently saw a drawing in an aircraft magazine of a putative hypersonic aircraft design that matched the perfect triangle shape with its 75-degree nose.
"I nearly spat my coffee out all over the floor," says the 30-year-old Mr. Gibson of his reaction to finally seeing a design that seemed to explain what he'd seen three years earlier. In a telephone interview from Houston, where he is attending an engineering training program, Mr. Gibson says that while he couldn't make out much detail of the mystery plane's underside, he easily eliminated all other aircraft shapes that might explain planes of the same size, including F-111s with wings in a swept-back position.
According to the Jane's report, the "perfect 75-degree swept triangle" described by Mr. Gibson corresponded "almost exactly" to designs of Mach 5, or hypersonic, aircraft designed but not built over the past 25 years. Mr. Sweetman took his collected data about the size and shape of the plane and descriptions of unidentified aircraft noise reported from such places as Edwards and Beale Air Force bases in California, where secret planes are often held, and presented them to Paul Czysz, an aerospace-engineering professor at St. Louis University for an opinion. Prof. Czysz is quoted as speculating that such a plane could be powered by liquid methane, which could take it to a maximum cruise speed of Mach 8.
As for selecting Lockheed and Rockwell as the likely makers, the Jane's article notes that "Lockheed's financial figures have indicated a continuing, large flow of income for 'classified' and 'special mission' aircraft." The engine responsible for the strange noises that have been heard in California "is closer to a rocket than to a turbojet," the article says. Lockheed and Rockwell worked together on a losing bid to build the bomber that eventually became Northrop Corp.'s B-2, the Jane's article says. And while it isn't noted there, one industry official earlier this year confirmed that the two companies had been involved in a classified project for years.
Figuring that the aircraft would likely be in very low production -- only 50 SR-71s or predecessor aircraft were made, beginning in the early 1960s -- the article says that "each reconnaissance aircraft could easily cost as much as $1 billion." Lockheed reported sales of aeronautical systems totaling $2.2 billion in 1991, an amount that has steadily fallen from the $4.2 billion recorded in 1987.
Lockheed Aeronautical Systems spokesman Richard Stadler, a veteran of having to decline comment on past classified programs, says the company won't discuss revenues of any classified programs, but adds that at the Skunk Works, "supporting the F-117 is the largest program we've got now, as far as active programs go."
A spokesman for the Rockwell Rocketdyne division says the company doesn't build engines for any reconnaissance aircraft, although he adds that Rocketdyne does have some classified programs that it can't discuss.
The speculation about hypersonic aircraft flying over California has special interest for that state's residents, many of whom have felt what they thought were small rumbling earthquakes for nearly a year and a half -- only to be told by representatives of the U.S. Geological Survey that some peculiar, unreported aircraft were probably responsible. Scientists have referred to the phenomena as "airquakes," and even described the speed and size of aircraft that might cause them. The Jane's article suggests that the speed and size correspond to those of the mystery spy plane.
As an author, Mr. Sweetman has had considerable experience studying secret aircraft, having written extensively on the Stealth fighter before the Air Force disclosed the existence of that program. He has since written a book on the program. His magazine article engages in heavy speculation, of course, calling its findings "a tentative analysis."
When asked about the sightings, a public affairs officer at the Air Force, which for years denied the existence of the plane now known as the F-117, says, "As far as the Air Force is concerned, there is no such program," and satellites are doing all reconnaissance work.
Copyright 1992 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Others have speculated that the fuel is atomic hydrogen.
"In the early 1970s Gerald Rosen, a professor of physics at Philadelphia's Drexel University and one of the highest paid theoretical physicists in the United States, was contracted by NASA to determine whether it would be possible to store hydrogen as individual atoms rather than as molecules. His calculations predicted it was not only possible, but that so much fuel could be stored in a small space that the Apollo astronauts could have traveled to the moon in a rocket the size of a pickup truck."
Jim Wilson, "Skunk Works Magic", Popular Mechanics, Sep. 1999