Bird Of Prey

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Boeing makes once-secret, subsonic 'Bird of Prey' public


"Beam me up, Scotty!

The Bird of Prey plane is 47 feet long with a distinctive 23-foot wing at the rear shaped like a "W." The Boeing project ran from 1992 through 1999.

Named after a Klingon spacecraft in "Star Trek," The Boeing Co. yesterday took the wraps off what was once one of its most classified "black" military airplane projects known as the "Bird of Prey."

The plane, which looks like something that should be flying and probably once did at the super-secret Area 51 Nevada test range, helped Boeing pioneer stealth technology and new and more-affordable ways to design and build airplanes.

The classified project ran from 1992 through 1999, and Boeing said it decided to make the aircraft public because the technologies that were demonstrated have become industry standards.

"With this aircraft we changed the rules on how to design and build an aircraft, and what we've learned is enabling us to provide our customers with affordable, high-performing products," said Jim Albaugh, president and chief executive of Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems.

The Bird of Prey was unveiled at a ceremony in St. Louis, home of Boeing's fighter jet programs. Among those attending were Air Force Secretary James Roche and Air Force Chief of Staff John Jumper. A Boeing spokesman said the craft will now go "back under wraps," although Boeing is exploring other "opportunities" of how it might be displayed.

The Bird of Prey plane is named after a Klingon spacecraft in "Star Trek."

"There are restrictions on what we can say," the spokesman said.

The single-seat, subsonic jet made 38 test flights as part of its flight demonstration program, Boeing said.

It was developed by the McDonnell Douglas Phantom Works organization, where many black, or secret, projects for the military ended up, just as they did at the famed Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.

Boeing acquired McDonnell Douglas in 1997, a year after the Bird of Prey made its first flight in the fall of 1996. Even though Boeing Phantom Works still has black programs that the company can't talk about or even reveal, the organization has become a powerful technology research and development arm for the entire company, including commercial airplanes.

The $67 million cost of the Bird of Prey project was paid by McDonnell Douglas and Boeing.

The program was among the first in the industry to initiate the use of large, single-piece composite structures, low-cost disposable tooling and 3-D virtual reality design and assembly processes, Boeing said.

This technology was used by Boeing when it developed its Joint Strike Fighter demonstration jets. The hallmark of that program was affordability developing new design and production methods that would greatly reduce the cost of manned fighters.

Boeing has taken that a step further with the X-45 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle that it is developing with the Air Force. The X-45, which recently made its maiden flight, drew heavily on technology demonstrated by the Bird of Prey, Boeing said.

The Bird of Prey is 47 feet long with a 23-foot wing at the rear that is shaped like a "W." Powered by the same Pratt & Whitney engine used on the Citation business jet, the Bird of Prey has a maximum speed of about 300 mph and a maximum altitude of about 20,000 feet.

The cockpit is located just in front of the jet engine air intake on top of the plane.

More details about the program can be found on Boeing's Web site, Popular Science magazine has additional Boeing-supplied photos, at

Does it bite? The Bird of Prey looks menacing even when safely confined in the Phantom Works' radar-cross-section test chamber, surrounded by radar-absorbing panels. The jagged edges of the cockpit canopy and the landing gear doors are aligned with the edges of the wings and body, so that any tiny radar echoes will be combined with the reflection from the edge. The Bird's plan-view shape comprises 12 straight lines. There's always a small radar reflection when a radar illuminates an edge at right angles: the straight-line shape ensures that this only happens at six well-defined angles. The radar might catch something on one sweep but by the next sweep the angle has changed because the airplane has moved. The jet exhaust is a simple V-shaped slit with no moving parts.

This patch caused a considerable buzz when it surfaced in the mid-1990s, but nobody was able to identify the aircraft associated with it until now. Note the shape of the hilt, compared with the plan-view shape of the Bird of Prey.



Copyright 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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