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Pilot with Nighthawk stealth aircraft

Book review: ‘Stealth’ by Peter Westwick

Image credit: Dreamstime

A new account of the secret contest to invent invisible aircraft contradicts the popular image of aerospace engineers as dispassionate and reserved.

Military research and development is a well-established system, in which countermeasures lead to counter-countermeasures ad infinitum. The development of radar to detect enemy aircraft, for example, was countered to some extent by deploying ‘chaff’ to produce multiple, confusing echoes on radar screens. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this prompted the question - especially during the Cold War - of whether aircraft themselves could be made invisible to radar. This was the genesis of ‘stealth’.

The two most familiar manifestations of stealth aircraft are the F-117A Nighthawk ‘stealth fighter’ and B-2 Spirit ‘stealth bomber’. ‘Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft’ (Oxford University Press, £20, ISBN 9780190677442) explains “where those aircraft came from and why they look the way they do”.

It tells the story of engineers at two leading US aerospace companies, Lockheed and Northrop, and the contest to build the two planes in a “fantastically fertile” five-year period in the 1970s. As author Peter Westwick points out, their differing approaches produced two very different engineering solutions to stealth, “clearly evident in the aircraft themselves: the F-117 composed of flat facets, the B-2 of curves”.

Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’ design team devised a computer program, somewhat predictably dubbed ‘ECHO’, to calculate the radar cross-sections of various designs. As it couldn’t handle curved surfaces or edges, this produced the familiar ‘squashed diamond’ shape, which sceptics christened the ‘Hopeless Diamond’ (a play on the famous Hope Diamond).

Despite the scepticism, the utility of the stealth fighter was proved in January 1991, when a dozen aircraft appeared “from nowhere” in the skies over Baghdad. Their angular shape - which Westwick likens to “flying origami” - rendered them virtually undetectable, as the Nighthawk’s radar footprint was “the size of a ball bearing”.

Northrop’s team also started with flat facets because they could be modelled by a computer, but blended the faces together with curves, relying more on what they termed “phenomenology”, which Westwick translates as “highly informed intuition”.

As such, the book offers a fascinating insight into the proverbial different ways to skin a cat, with Lockheed’s reliance on computers and Northrop preferring its physicists’ abilities in “seeing the waves,” as they put it. As a history professor, Westwick is well-placed to draw further comparisons from outside the immediate field to add context by comparing the American labs involved in the design of nuclear weapons, Livermore and Los Alamos: the former relied more on computer code, the latter on “designers’ intuition”.

Illustrated with black-and-white photos and blessed with more than 30 pages of chapter notes and a 15-page index, this book could come across as a tad academic. However, this is no ordinary history text, more a model for making history accessible.

The familiar ‘countermeasures paradigm’ is a useful but necessarily simplistic characterisation of military development. In reality, as the book confirms, developments are made by people under time, budget and personal pressures. Contradicting the popular image of the aerospace engineer as “rational, dispassionate and reserved,” Westwick opines, “These engineers were certainly rational but not at all dispassionate”.

Indeed, it was the engineers' passion that “enabled the invention of Stealth”.

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