Recently something strange was seen high over Texas. Size and speed unknown, the small delta-shaped craft was pulling a contrail in the blue skies above. Immediately the world was abuzz with speculation of a new advanced aircraft type and the true purpose behind the legendary ‘Area 51’. Was this the next step forward in aircraft design?
Such sightings are nothing new as test flying of revolutionary designs has been going on for decades. The fact that so much flying has taken place beyond prying eyes is probably a more intriguing phenomenon. Remember the clandestine night raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and the revelation of the stealth Blackhawk helicopter? Had that helicopter not crashed would we know of its existence? Even now, very little is known publicly about its true form and capabilities.
Edwards Air Force Base in California has traditionally been the home to the men and machines pushing the edge of the envelope. It was here that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 and saw the numerous X-Planes that flew ever higher and faster. It was home to the ‘best of the best’ from which the first astronauts were mustered. The aircraft took on all forms from the bullet-like Bell X-1 to the striking, but ill-fated, XB-70 Valkyrie.
One forerunner to the YB-49 had been a one-third scale, 60-foot span flying wing. Designated the N-9M, it was also from Jack Northrop’s, although this smaller, single-seat version was powered by two piston engines. An example of the type still flies at Chino, California and its canary yellow form in flight is something to behold.
The new age also brought new control systems that could counter some of the concerns relating to the YB-49 and the ‘Flying Wing’ grew into the aircraft we now know as the B-2 ‘Spirit’ stealth bomber. Developed over a decade, secrecy had once again been a key element in the B-2 program. The B-2 employed a number of new technologies beyond its low radar profile, ranging from suppressed engine exhausts to a range of lightweight, stealthy materials.
Certainly the computer aided development of new designs has increased in great measures, but still there is the need for the ‘real thing’ to be flown. Consequently, when the slide rules are laid down, someone still needs to strap into the secretive cockpits and take these aircraft into the skies. It is the only way to truly ratify the projected performance and discover the quirks that were not anticipated in the computer model. When this happens, a pilot is still needed to observe and counter the variation away from the forecast flight profile.
A good deal more is now known about both aircraft design and the environment that aircraft operate in. The ‘sound barrier’ is no longer a wall in the air where good aeroplanes go to die; crushed by mysterious forces. Better informed, the battle is now to be smarter and stealthier and generally within the predefined limits that were discovered with the blood and sweat of test pilots from the 1940s onwards. Still, whenever there is an unknown, there is a risk and test flying will never be a ‘simple’ process.
I suspect in time we will learn of the aircraft over Amarillo, Texas. It will grow from secrecy, to ‘Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft’ and ultimately appear on the air show circuit, though not any time soon. And even when that occurs it will still hold a good number of secrets close to its chest. For the moment, the triangular speck and its contrail will remain a mystery, although it is a tangible reminder that progress never ceases. In aviation, there will always be some entity looking for a new edge and taking the limits just that bit further. The spirit of Captain Glen Edwards and his comrades lives on.