Monday, November 8, 2010

Discovery: Hitlers Stealth Fighter

Modern stealth aircraft design did not start until the 1970s, but this documentary aims to find out if Nazis Germany developed stealth techniques three decades earlier.

In the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940, the Luftwaffe's advantage in numbers was matched only by Britain's use of radar technology. The Nazis knew of Britain's radar development, albeit not how far developed it was, and needed to re-gain their advantage.

Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Göring came into contact with aircraft builders and enthusiasts Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers, as they are known, wanted to build an aircraft that could fly with the "elegant efficiency of birds". They developed the 2-29 (also known as the HO IX), a tailless "wing flyer" that revolutionarily incorporated the engines within the fuselage, rather than have them protrude below wings.

This futuristic aircraft is described as being the "most exotic piece of machinery in Germany at the time" and having an "unearthly shape".

With the engines buried in the fuselage, exterior surfaces blended together, and plane constructed almost entirely out of wood (possibly to prevent radar from penetrating the skin, or possibly because Germany was facing a resource shortage), it's easy to look back on the 2-29 with hindsight and say the Horten brothers were developing a stealth fighter to subvert British radar, but we don't know for sure.

"Were they thinking of radar?" a Northrop Grumman employee asks. Northrop, best known for highly capable and ultra-modern defence products like its B-2 stealth bomber, decided to find out.

Teaming up with documentary producer Michael Jorgensen--who was fascinated by the 2-29--engineers in Northrop's model shop spent three months in 2008 building a full-scale model of the 2-29 to conduct the first ever radar deflection test. Of the two aircraft constructed during the war, one was never finished and the other crashed during a test flight.

At one hour with commercials, the documentary has a few repetitive moments. While the information and various interviews are excellent, it barely skims the surface of an aircraft it acknowledges could have had major consequences for the world. Those not aviation-inclined will likely find the program sufficient while others will want to know more.

The documentary follows the Northrop engineers build the model, almost entirely out of wood, true to the original. It is ironic to watch these engineers, who normally work on projects they "can't talk about", build a plane out of wood using primarily glue and nails to hold it together. You could be forgiven for starting the documentary mid-way and thinking it was about seventeenth-century shipbuilding.

But therein lies the fascinating part: this relatively unknown aircraft had the potential to change history. The Nazis planned to have an atomic bomb by 1946 and wanted to use it to strike America. Based on the 2-29's design, the Horten brothers developed the 18, an aircraft that would have six jet engines across its 142-foot wingspan (a 757's wingspan is only 124 feet). The 18 would presumably have been Germany's Enola Gay; the documentary's only farfetched moment is when it depicts a mushroom cloud erupting next to the Statue of Liberty.

The team finally takes the model to Northrop's radar cross-section test range in Tejon, California. Propped up on a five-story tall pole, the model is rotated while exposed to the same type of radar used by Britain during World War II.

The results (spoiler alert!) are scary. From the time most Luftwaffe planes appeared on British radar they could reach their target in 19 minutes. The 2-29, aided by its speed and stealth, could reach its target in only 8 minutes. "It would have been a game changer," one Northrop engineer says. The 2-29 would have permitted just 2.5 minutes to respond.

While the documentary's conclusion that the 2-29 pre-dated modern stealth capabilities by three decades is fascinating, equally so is the insight to so-called black programs and the people who work on them. "After 28 years working in the dark, it's nice to spend one day in the light," one engineer says of his time working on the 2-29 model. At the classified radar base, a man who tows the 2-29 model out of its hangar says without the slightest bit of laughter, "I've moved a lot of stuff, but I've never moved a German stealth fighter."

Presumably the "stuff" he has moved is top-secret and highly classified, the pride of the most sophisticated engineering programs in the world, the same programs that were thought to develop stealth technology.