Curtis Peebles

Dark Eagles: A History of the Top Secret U.S. Aircraft


On February 3, 1964, Lockheed test pilot James D. Eastham reached a speed of nearly Mach 3.3 at an altitude of 83,000 feet during the test flight of a new aircraft. This was a world's record for a jet-powered aircraft. For ten minutes, the plane held this speed. This epic flight was the culmination of five years of effort, frustration, and, finally, success. There was not one word about this singular achievement in that evening's newspapers. There was no mention of the event on the television news. No articles were published about the flight in the technical press. As far as the larger world knew, it had never happened.

This was because the airplane did not officially exist.

For the past five decades, some of the most significant advances in aerospace technology were made by airplanes that the larger world knew nothing about. Since 1941, the United States has produced a series of 'Black' airplanes — planes developed, tested, and operated in deep secrecy. Years, even a decade or more, would pass before their existence was made public.

Some remain secret still.

The impact of these Dark Eagles has been profound. The first introduced America to the jet age. The next revolutionized the way intelligence was gathered. Another pushed aviation technology to its farthest limits. A series of unmanned reconnaissance drones would venture to places too dangerous for conventional aircraft. One group would change U.S. aerial combat techniques and training. The latest series would fundamentally alter the role of airpower and strategic bombing, leading the way to the Coalition victory in the Gulf War. Each would do things most engineers thought impossible.


The First Black Airplane

The XP-59A Airacomet

… come like the wind, go like the thunder.

Sun Tzu, ca. 400 B.C.

On the cool morning of October 1, 1942, a group of Bell Aircraft Company engineers prepared their new plane for its first flight. Finally, shortly after noon, the XP-59A stood ready. The aircraft had a midposition straight wing and tricycle landing gear. The tail was on a raised boom, while the center section of the fuselage seemed to bulge. The plane was painted dark olive green with dark gray undersides and had the U.S. insignia of a white star in a blue circle. It had no serial number. The XP-59A's design owed much to Bell's earlier P-39 and P-63. But in one aspect, this first Dark Eagle had nothing in common with any aircraft of the previous four decades of American aviation technology. It was the plane that separated all that was from all that would follow.

The XP-59A had no propeller.


The events that set in motion development of the first U.S. Black airplane had begun more than a decade before. In 1928 Royal Air Force (RAF) Pilot Officer Frank Whittle, then only twenty, realized that the conventional propeller engine was Hearing its performance limit. To fly faster, a larger, more powerful engine was needed. Such an engine would burn more fuel, thus requiring a larger, heavier airframe and canceling out any gain. As a plane flew higher, it flew into thinner air. This resulted in a loss of engine power. Propellers, as they approached supersonic speed, also lost efficiency.

The high-speed planes of the 1930s, such as the GeeBee racer, were little more than the biggest possible engine attached to the smallest possible airframe. They flew fast, but, like the GeeBee, often proved lethal.[1]

Whittle proposed the idea of using a gas turbine to power an aircraft.

Incoming air would be compressed, then mixed with fuel and ignited. The hot gas would be vented out an exhaust pipe to produce thrust. This offered speeds and altitudes far beyond the reach of propeller-driven fighters and bombers. Whittle submitted his idea to the British Air Ministry, which promptly rejected it as unattainable. For the next seven years, Whittle struggled to find money to build his 'Whittle Unit.' It was not until 1937 that the Air Ministry agreed to a small study contract, and it was another year before the money was actually provided.

In March 1939, the first Whittle jet engine was making test-bed runs. In the meantime, Nazi Germany had absorbed Austria and taken over Czechoslovakia. With war clouds looming over Europe, a few far-sighted individuals realized the strategic advantages of jet aircraft. In July 1939, Whittle was given a contract to develop the W.I jet engine, which would power the experimental Gloster E28/39 Pioneer aircraft. Two months later, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. By the following summer, Hitler was the master of Europe, and England stood alone. In the sky above London, the RAF and the Luftwaffe fought the Battle of Britain to decide the fate of Western Civilization.

As these monumental events were being played out, Whittle and a small group of engineers were working in an empty factory near Coventry, England. The engine that was built was unlike any power plant ever flown before. A conventional aircraft engine operated at 2,000 rpm. The W.l's turbine spun at 17,750 rpm. The temperatures inside the combustion chambers were also far higher than those of piston engines.

Equally daunting was the political situation. With London in flames and England needing every Spitfire it could produce, Lord Beaverbrook, head of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, stripped the W.I of its priority order.

By this time, however, Whittle had gained powerful supporters who were able to convince Beaverbrook to restore the W.1's priority.[2]

By the spring of 1941, the first E28/39 aircraft was finished and Whittle delivered a 'lash-up' prototype engine, the W.1X. (The X indicated it was not to be flown, but only used for taxi tests.) The taxi tests were made on April 7 and 8, 1941, by Flight Lieutenant P. E. G. Sayer, Gloster's chief test pilot.

In the final series, the aircraft lifted off on three short hops. On May 15, the E28/39 was ready for its first flight. Due to poor weather, it was delayed.

Finally, at 7:35 P.M., Sayer took off for a seventeen-minute flight. It was the culmination of more than a decade of efforts by Whittle. The Air Ministry did not bother to send an official photographer to record the event.[3]


The Battle of Britain had ended in victory for England, but it was clear that the country lacked the industrial capacity to defeat Nazi Germany on its own.

The only option was to share military technology with America, including jet engines. On April 11, 1941, U.S. Army Air Corps Chief Maj. Gen. Harold

'Hap' Arnold arrived in England to examine jet propulsion projects. Arnold quickly realized what Whittle had achieved — the E28/39 could outfly a Spitfire, then the fastest British aircraft. Every aircraft the army air corps and navy were building or planning was about to be made obsolete.

In late May, General Arnold formally requested access to jet engine technology. Initially, the British provided only a nine-page secret memo describing the engine. On July 15, the British agreed to release the Whittle engine to the United States 'subject to special care being taken to safeguard its secrecy.' To meet this requirement, the concept of the 'Black airplane' would be developed.[4]

On September 4, 1941, General Arnold met with senior Army Air Forces (AAF) and War Department officials. Also on hand were four General Electric representatives. Arnold opened a safe and pulled out several reports.

After discussing the recommendation that the United States embark on a crash program to mass-produce the

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