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Stealth technology:

Flying with radar invisibility:

In the late 1950's the American CIA began sending Lockheed U2 'spy-planes' over the Soviet Union to take intelligence photographs. The U2's flew at 80,000ft (24,000m) to be out of range of anti-aircraft fire, but it then became clear that radar was not detecting them.

These extraordinary planes were little more than jet-powered gliders built of plastic and plywood. On takeoff they jettisoned their small outrigger wheels from the ends of their wings and they landed on their main retractable wheels in the center.

It was not until May 1960, after more than four years of overflights, that the Russians shot one down using new radar equipment belonging to SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. And even then the U-2 did not receive a direct hit. A missile exploded close enough to put the fragile aircraft into an uncontrollable dive, and the pilot, Gary Powers, had to eject.

The success of the U-2s led to highly classified research work in the US, known as 'Stealth', to create a military aircraft that was invisible to radar. The U-2 had gone undetected for so long because it was made of non-metallic materials which absorbed radar waves rather than reflecting them back to the radar ground station, as normally happens.

The Stealth program aimed at designing high-performance military aircraft incorporating, among other features, a minimum of metal and with the exterior clad in highly absorbent tiles. The aircraft would be almost invisible to radar and could make most radar-controlled anti-aircraft systems obsolete.

After being developed under a blanket of secrecy, the high-tech B-2 Stealth bomber was unveiled at the Northrop company's manufacturing plant in Palmdale, California, in November 1988. An audience of invited guests and journalists was kept well away from the plane which was designed to slip through enemy radar defenses without being detected and then drop up to 16 nuclear bombs on key targets.

To help achieve radar invisibility, the bomber is coated with radar-absorbent paint on its leading edge. A similar technology is used underwater to foil sonar detection. Modern submarines are coated in a thick layer of a top-secret resin which is highly absorbent acoustically, and reflects only a minute amount of the energy transmitted by sonar detectors.

Another technique used by aircraft to avoid radar is to fly at very low levels where there is a great deal of 'ground clutter' ... radar reflections given off by buildings and other objects. Low-level aircraft can go undetected by most radar systems. But the latest, most sophisticated ground-defence systems are designed to discriminate between ground-clutter and hostile planes. In addition, ground-clutter is partly avoided by using 'look down' radar systems, which track aircraft from other aircraft flying above.

In the Gulf War, you may have seen on TV, the Baghdad AAA - they were getting bombed, but they didn't know by what, they were shooting all over the sky hoping for a hit.

The skeleton of the F-117 is made mainly of aluminum. The aircrafts skin, by contrast, is mostly composite RAM (Radar Absorbent Material). The twin butterfly (\/) tail obscures the exhaust plume from infrared sensors aboard pursuing fighters. The idea of an unstable V-tail was first tested on the Tacit Blue stealth aircraft. The Nighthawk's twin General Electric engines are buried deep in the fuselage. That have shallow "platypus" exhausts, which cool and deflect the exhaust gases upward to minimize heat emissions. The edges of the F-117's cockpit canopy, like all surfaces, have no right angles (right angles are strong radar reflectors). The Stealth can be refueled in flight. But rumors about the handling of the F-117, said it was somewhat 'erratic', especially when refueling. As a result, one of the first nicknames for the plane was "Wobblin' Goblin".

Forty F-117's were deployed to the Gulf. Only 59 production F-117s were built, yet the total cost of the program is over six billion dollars!

The latest addition to make use of stealth technology is Sikorsky's RAH-66 Comanche helicopter. The most advanced helicopter in the world, due to enter service in 2006, emphasizing low emission rotor designs and sophisticated retracting gear and weapons bay systems.

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This page was last updated on February 16, 2001.