"I nearly spat my coffee out all over the floor," says the 30-year-old Mr. Gibson of his reaction to finally seeing a design that seemed to explain what he'd seen three years earlier. In a telephone interview from Houston, where he is attending an engineering training program, Mr. Gibson says that while he couldn't make out much detail of the mystery plane's underside, he easily eliminated all other aircraft shapes that might explain planes of the same size, including F-111s with wings in a swept-back position.
According to the Jane's report, the "perfect 75-degree swept triangle" described by Mr. Gibson corresponded "almost exactly" to designs of Mach 5, or hypersonic, aircraft designed but not built over the past 25 years. Mr. Sweetman took his collected data about the size and shape of the plane and descriptions of unidentified aircraft noise reported from such places as Edwards and Beale Air Force bases in California, where secret planes are often held, and presented them to Paul Czysz, an aerospace-engineering professor at St. Louis University for an opinion. Prof. Czysz is quoted as speculating that such a plane could be powered by liquid methane, which could take it to a maximum cruise speed of Mach 8.
As for selecting Lockheed and Rockwell as the likely makers, the Jane's article notes that "Lockheed's financial figures have indicated a continuing, large flow of income for 'classified' and 'special mission' aircraft." The engine responsible for the strange noises that have been heard in California "is closer to a rocket than to a turbojet," the article says. Lockheed and Rockwell worked together on a losing bid to build the bomber that eventually became Northrop Corp.'s B-2, the Jane's article says. And while it isn't noted there, one industry official earlier this year confirmed that the two companies had been involved in a classified project for years.
Figuring that the aircraft would likely be in very low production - only 50 SR-71s or predecessor aircraft were made, beginning in the early 1960s - the article says that "each reconnaissance aircraft could easily cost as much as $1 billion." Lockheed reported sales of aeronautical systems totaling $2.2 billion in 1991, an amount that has steadily fallen from the $4.2 billion recorded in 1987.
Lockheed Aeronautical Systems spokesman Richard Stadler, a veteran of having to decline comment on past classified programs, says the company won't discuss revenues of any classified programs, but adds that at the Skunk Works, "supporting the F-117 is the largest program we've got now as far as active programs go."
A spokesman for the Rockwell Rocketdyne division says the company doesn't build engines for any reconnaissance aircraft, although he adds that Rocketdyne does have some classified programs that it can't discuss.
The speculation about hypersonic aircraft flying over California has special interest for that state's residents, many of whom have felt what they thought were small rumbling earthquakes for nearly a year and a half - only to be told by representatives of the U.S. Geological Survey that some peculiar unreported aircraft were probably responsible. Scientists have referred to the phenomena as "airquakes" and even described the speed and size of the aircraft that might cause them. The Jane's article suggests that the speed and size correspond to those of the mystery spy plane.
As an author, Mr. Sweetman has had considerable experience studying secret aircraft, having written extensively on the Stealth fighter before the Air Force disclosed the existence of that program. He has since written a book on the program. His magazine article engages in heavy speculation of course, calling its findings "a tentative analysis."
When asked about the sightings, a public affairs officer at the Air Force, which for years denied the existence of the plane now known as the F-117 says, "As far as the Air Force is concerned, there is no such program," and satellites are doing all reconnaissance work.
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