Tempest in a Toy Box : The Stealth Fighter Is So Secret the Pentagon Won’t Admit It Exists. John Andrews Shocked Everyone by Building a Model of It. To Tell the Truth, He Says, It Wasn’t All That Much Trouble.
Last spring, the Testor model kit company of Rockford, Ill., introduced its model of the super-secret F-19 stealth fighter and immediately created an international sensation. Newspapers around the world ran front-page stories. Dan Rather featured the model on the “CBS Evening News.” An irate congressman held up the kit during testimony from the chairman of Lockheed and demanded to know how a toy company was able to sell plastic models of a plane that members of Congress weren’t allowed to see.
As a result of the publicity, the Testor Corp. expects to sell as many as 500,000 copies of the model by the end of the year, making it the best-selling model plane of all time. Still, to the man who came up with the model, Testor plane designer and airplane buff John Andrews, it was a media orgy and a lot of shouting and hand-waving over what to him was nothing more than sound engineering and common sense.
IT STARTED INJUNE,1985, WHEN THEdirector of marketing for Testor, Gary Cadish, walked to the back of the firm’s small West Coast offices in a San Diego industrial park to use the photocopying machine. As he did so, he passed John Andrews’ drafting table and, as he had every day for the last two weeks, glanced at the sketches on it.
What he saw was a futuristic drawing of a smooth-flowing, long-necked plane that Andrews had prepared in his spare time for the advertising campaign of a local electronics firm.
To Cadish, however, the sketches had the elusive good looks he expected of a stealth fighter--an aircraft that is nearly invisible to radar and infrared detectors.
“Is this something that’s really flying?” Cadish asked Andrews.
“Yeah,” Andrews replied.
“How accurate is this compared to what’s out there?”
“Well, what you’ve got in your hand isn’t very accurate at all,” Andrews said. “I could do a lot better.”
“How much better? Fifty percent accurate?”
Actually, Andrews said, he could probably come up with something that was 90% accurate.
Although Cadish’s first thought was to build a model to sell, his next concern was the possible liabilities. Would it help the Soviets? Would it hurt the company or expose it to criminal prosecution? “What’s the worst thing that can happen if we decide to do a model kit?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Andrews said.
Cadish picked up the telephone and called the company president, Chuck Miller, at Testor headquarters in Illinois. “I think we’ve got a new item for next year.”
“What’s that?” Miller asked.
“I think we should do a model of the stealth fighter.”
“No,” Miller said. Testor was a small but old-line firm that had a reputation for manufacturing accurate scale models based on the blueprints of real aircraft. It wasn’t just kids who bought model planes. Many of Testor’s best and most critical customers were airline pilots, aerospace engineers, military officers and aviation buffs. You didn’t throw away a 60-year reputation for authenticity on an airplane whose existence the Defense Department would neither deny nor confirm.
Cadish refused to give up. “The model industry needs some excitement,” he told Miller. “This would be a really interesting project. I think we’ve got something here.”
As a former Phantom jet pilot for the Marine Corps in Vietnam, the last thing Miller wanted was to hand the Soviets secret data. Still, to be first on the block with the stealth fighter would, in the small world of model airplane manufacturers, be a major coup.
“OK,” said Miller, “write me a memo. Here’s the questions I want answered: How accurate do you think it could be and why? And what are the moral and ethical implications of this model?”
John Andrews sat down and composed a three-page memo answering Miller’s questions, enclosed his original sketches and sent the package to Miller by Federal Express. By the next morning Miller had read the memo and given Andrews his go-ahead.
ANDREWS, 54, IS A SERIOUS, CAREFUL person who reads books about politics for relaxation. When he sat down to design the model of the stealth fighter, he says, he had seen no classified documentation on the plane--no photos, blueprints or specifications. But after three decades of designing and building model planes, he had numerous informed friends and trusted contacts in the Defense Department, the aerospace industry and various branches of the armed forces. He belonged to the Aviation Space Writers Assn., and he had formed an exclusive, by-invitation-only organization of aviation buffs called the Golden Eagle Society. Over the years he had put together a file containing every public mention of stealth technology, starting with a Sept. 9, 1976, item in Aerospace Daily reporting that famed Lockheed aircraft designer Kelly Johnson had come out of retirement to begin work on a stealth aircraft.
Because Andrews had learned from public sources that the stealth fighter used the same General Electric F404 engines as the F-18 Hornet but without afterburners, he knew the plane was subsonic, which was no surprise. If the mission of the stealth fighter is to evade or destroy enemy SAM missile batteries, Andrews says, “you don’t want supersonic aircraft.” Besides, supersonic flight requires greater power, more fuel and, he says, “leaves a sonic-boom trail.”
Figuring out the size of the stealth fighter was less difficult than one would suppose. “We knew that it was air-transportable in a C-5 (the Lockheed C-5A Galaxy),” Andrews says, which meant the plane had to be small, light and not burdened with external fuel tanks. “You wanted to be able to roll it out of the C-5 and fly away.”
Operating on the assumption that the plane, like the C-5, had to be able to take off from unpaved runways gave Andrews a wheel tread--the width of the main landing gear--of 15 1/2 feet. That and the fact that the plane had to have internal fuel tanks dictated a wingspan of 24 feet. Because the cargo bay doors on the C-5 are only 18 to 19 feet wide, Andrews knew that the stealth had to have folding wing tips. The size and weight of the engines determined the center of gravity, which in turn determined the location of the forward landing gear. Other information came in bits and pieces--for instance, the shape and size of the Pitot tube, which measures airspeed. “I know it to be diamond-shaped and 18 inches long because I know the company that makes them,” Andrews says.
For weaponry, he gave the stealth the same AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground laser-guided missiles used by the Air Force and Marines but mounted them internally. Once you start hanging racks and pylons on the outside of a plane, says Andrews, the radar signature balloons.
For cockpit controls, he decided on a short, side-mounted stick like the F-16’s. “A center-mounted stick is great for dogfighting,” says Andrews, but for a low-altitude penetration-type mission where the pilot is going to be bumping around a lot, you need a side-mounted stick with console armrests to steady your wrist and elbow.
To reduce the infrared signature left by exhaust, Andrews says, he added flush-mounted air intakes for adding bypass air to the exhaust and a rectangular nozzle for scattering engine gases.
In deciding on the model’s basic shape, Andrews had a lot to go on. Twenty-five years earlier, Lockheed had built the SR-71 high-altitude reconnaissance plane with its classic sharp-edged, wedge-shaped cross section (“a very stealthy plane,” Andrews says). He had also seen the CIA’s Mach 3.5 D-21 photo reconnaissance drone in an aircraft “boneyard” outside Tucson. Andrews says he combined the primary features of these pre-stealth aircraft with what he already knew, then took the design “to the ultimate.”
He also had one other source--a sketch from an airline pilot who, while flying over Mono Lake at 33,000 feet, saw what he described as a “dumpy” plane cross below him from left to right. But that was of less help than one might expect, Andrews says. For one thing, the pilot’s sketch was perhaps half an inch long and showed no detail, looking more like a truncated toothbrush than an airplane.
As for the super-secret stealth technology, it was, Andrews contends, a lot less secret than one might suppose. “Stealth technology goes back to World War II,” he says. “The Germans used radar-absorbing material on submarine conning towers and periscopes.”
In fact, Plenum Press had, in 1970, published a two-volume study called the “Radar Cross-Section Handbook.” Funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Defense Department, the study had revealed an astounding amount about such things as the deflection and trapping of radar waves and the effects of sponges, foams and the wing configuration on reflected radar pulses.
By August, 1985, Andrews had designed a plane from the ground up, the same way the Lockheed engineers had designed the real thing.
Because the Air Force hadn’t admitted the existence of a stealth fighter, let alone revealed its number designation, Andrews and Cadish solved the problem of what to call the model by following the lead of Newsweek, which in its Nov. 25, 1985, issue had asserted that one or more squadrons of F-19 stealth fighters were being flight-tested at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. “If it’s good enough for Newsweek,” Cadish says, “it’s good enough for us.”
Tooling up to produce the model took the rest of 1985. The model parts were manufactured in Italy and shipped here by freighter. In January, 1986, Testor introduced the F-19 stealth fighter in Chicago at the annual model show.
Except for a few model buffs, practically no one noticed, although at one point, a TV camera crew came into the Testor model booth and asked what was new. Gary Cadish pointed to both the stealth and to an F-14 Tomcat of the type used in the movie “Top Gun.” Immediately, Cadish says, the camera crew zeroed in on the “Top Gun” models and ignored the stealth.
After all the work they’d put into the model, Cadish was more than a little disappointed. Thinking that perhaps the problem was that people didn’t believe the F-19 was real, he photocopied two articles that testified to the plane’s existence--the Newsweek article and a longer, more detailed piece from the August, 1985, issue of Defense Electronics. In addition, he prepared a specification sheet for hobby-store retailers.
The plane’s unusual design provoked enough interest from K mart and Toys “R” Us buyers at a February toy show that Cadish increased the initial production run from 75,000 models to 125,000. But still nothing much happened until late May, when a model builder and newspaper reporter by the name of Tim Gaffney walked into a hobby shop in Dayton, Ohio, and saw the stealth specification sheet. Immediately realizing the significance of the model, Gaffney wrote a newspaper story that ran on the front page of the Dayton Journal Herald under the headline, “Stealth Fighter Is a Secret, Model Is Not.”
The Associated Press put the story on its news wire, and a media storm descended on the Testor Corp. CBS’s Terry Drinkwater came down to Testor’s San Diego office and ABC filmed the production line in Rockford. Within a few days, the story was on the front pages of newspapers all over the world.
Top officials of the little Testor company, which had started out making glue during the Depression, couldn’t believe their good luck. They had done nothing to promote the plane, outside of advertising in esoteric hobby publications, and now here they were on the evening news with Dan Rather.
And as soon as media interest would start to die down, something else would flare up. On July 11, a plane crashed in Kern River Canyon, 12 miles northeast of Bakersfield, in the pre-dawn hours. That wouldn’t have been extraordinarily newsworthy, but the Air Force surrounded the crash site with guards carrying M-16 rifles. The dead pilot’s father was quoted as saying that his son’s work was so secret that he was required to take a lie-detector test every three months. The press concluded the plane was a stealth fighter, Cadish says. “And every time they had a story on the crash, they showed a picture of our model kit.”
Two weeks later, the chairman of Lockheed, Lawrence O. Kitchen, admitted before a House subcommittee that his company had lost 1,460 classified stealth documents. During the hearing, Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) held up a copy of the F-19 model and asked how a plane that members of Congress weren’t allowed to see was “now ending up in model packages.”
For Testor, it was publicity that money couldn’t buy. And its sales estimate for the $9.50 model went up 600 percent.
Still, to some people, it wasn’t clear whether, as Testor contended, the model was an innocuous hobby item that in no way endangered national security. Andrews says that shortly after the story hit the news, the Soviet Embassy dispatched personnel to buy models at a Washington hobby shop (they were sold out). And engineers from Lockheed’s Palmdale plant, where the plane is allegedly made, were reportedly so taken aback by the model’s resemblance to the real thing that they checked the tail numbers on the model decals against those of an actual stealth fighter. A story going around Palmdale said Lockheed engineers had been told not to buy the model kit because that would imply that the stealth fighter exists.
John Andrews, for one, admits to having no doubts on the national security question. A lot of the information on the plane’s design came right out of the “Radar Cross-Section Handbook.” “How could all this be so secret,” he asks, “when Uncle Sam put it out?”
Besides, Andrews says, he wrote both the Air Force and Lockheed about his plans to market a model of the stealth fighter. If they objected, he says, they had plenty of opportunity to respond but never did. He had done the same thing in 1960 when he was planning a model of the U-2 spy plane. In that case, a Lockheed official called and asked him not to do it. As a result, he delayed the model for 3 1/2 years.
In any case, Andrews contends, you can’t get classified information from a plastic model. The real secrets of the stealth are its construction, coatings and internal electronics, none of which show up in a hollow plastic model.
But even if the plane did give away classified data, Andrews says, the Soviets might not be able to use it. And he quotes Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson, who once said that even if you gave the blueprints of the SR-71 to the Soviets, they wouldn’t have the technology to cut, shape and weld the metals used in the plane.
On the other hand, Johnson believes that the Soviets are catching up fast. This is one reason, Andrews says, that he didn’t try to make the model absolutely “dead nuts accurate.” After all, he says, this is “our country, too.”