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Battle of the X-Planes

Designing for Stealth
by Lauren Aguirre

 

X-Planes homepage

Although there are significant design trade-offs between stealth and aircraft flight performance, it's obvious that being able to enter enemy territory without early detection offers great tactical advantages—so much so that stealth was one of the key requirements of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), America's next-generation fighter plane. Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing designed their X-Planes to be much stealthier than the aircraft the JSF will replace. Although Lockheed Martin's X-35 ultimately won out over Boeing's X-32, Boeing unveiled its own ultra-secret and ultra-stealthy Bird of Prey prototype fighter to much fanfare.

Achieving stealth means minimizing all the ways that an enemy can detect a plane, whether by sight, noise, heat, or radar waves. Avoiding radar detection in particular demands a great deal of sophisticated engineering and manufacturing savvy, and the results sometimes seem just short of miraculous: In the late 1980s in an experimental stealth project, a plane sitting on the tarmac prior to take-off was completely invisible to personnel looking through a radarscope. The only reason they detected the plane was because a bird had landed on top and appeared to be floating in midair.

The bottom line for stealth—as it is for all good combat aircraft—is that designers must assess all mission requirements and make intelligent design tradeoffs to achieve the best balance of overall combat capabilities. Attempting to be totally invisible to all conceivable enemy threats in all potential scenarios is impossible and can lead to disastrous compromises that may result in ineffective combat performance. Here, take a closer look at Boeing's Bird of Prey and learn some of the ways that aircraft designers can achieve stealth.


Designing for Stealth

Designing for Stealth (146k)
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Further Reading

Aircraft Design: A Conceptual Approach, by Daniel P. Raymer. Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1999.

Popular Science's First Look at Bird of Prey
http://www.popsci.com/popsci/
aviation/article/
0,12543,365576,00.html

Fifteen Minutes of Stealth
http://www.aoe.vt.edu/
aoe/faculty/
Mason_f/ConfigAeroStealth.pdf

Stealth Technology
http://allsands.com/Science/
stealthtechnolo_voz_gn.html

F22Fighter.com—the Site of the 21st Century Fighter
http://www.f22fighter.com/
stealth.htm


Lauren Aguirre is executive editor of NOVA online.


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