Cloak of secrecy lifted from 'Bird of Prey'
Post-Cold War demonstrator led way to stealth concepts
BY WILLIAM COLE
Boeing Phantom Works sure knows how to keep a secret. On Oct. 18 in St. Louis, the advanced research and development arm of Boeing unveiled the sleek, stealthy "Bird of Prey," a military technology demonstrator that has quietly been taking to the skies since 1996.
The sophisticated single-person plane was part of a highly-classified project that ran from 1992 through 1999. Boeing unveiled it because the technologies and capabilities it developed have become industry standards, making it no longer necessary to conceal the airplane's existence.
In addition to proving many new stealth concepts, the Bird of Prey program demonstrated innovative rapid prototyping techniques. Phantom Works developed the Bird of Prey, which was among the first to use large, single-piece composite structures; low-cost, disposable tooling; and 3-D virtual reality design and assembly processes to ensure the aircraft was affordable to build as well as high-performing.
Boeing's current development of the X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle technology demonstrator draws directly on its Bird of Prey experience. From this project, the company developed some aspects of the UCAV's innovative radar-evading design, such as its shape and inlet. Together, Boeing Phantom Works and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems are developing UCAV for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Air Force.
The Bird of Prey, so named because of its distinctive gull-shaped wings, has a wingspan of approximately 23 feet and a length of 47 feet. It weighs nearly 7,400 pounds. Boeing built only one Bird of Prey and will not mass-produce the airplane.
Boeing fully funded the Bird of Prey project at a cost of $67 million. A subsonic, single-seat technology demonstrator, the aircraft completed 38 test flights as part of its flight-demonstration program. Its first flight took place in fall 1996. A Pratt & Whitney JT15D-5C turbofan engine powers the Bird of Prey, which has an operational speed of 260 knots and a maximum operating altitude of 20,000 feet.
"Early investments in technology demonstration projects such as Bird of Prey have positioned Boeing to help shape our industry's transformation," said Jim Albaugh, president and CEO of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems. "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. Projects such as Bird of Prey have provided the catalyst for integrating speed, agility and reduced cost into the processes we employ to introduce new commercial and military systems to market. This is a tremendous example of what dedication, innovation and persistence can accomplish. Many of the techniques pioneered with this technology demonstrator serve as industry standards today. The low-observable, advanced manufacturing and supportability technologies are what we are going to need for the future."
George Muellner, senior vice president of Air Force Systems for Integrated Defense Systems, said the project was successful not only for its technological contributions; it also demonstrated that the company can achieve quality without great expense.
"The success of the Bird of Prey is a testament to the shared commitment of Boeing and the Air Force to pioneering innovative methods to drive down costs and improve performance," Muellner said. "This project stressed affordability as much as performance and quality, and is one of many that we are using to define the future of aerospace."
U.S. Air Force Secretary James Roche and other military officials were on hand when Phantom Works unveiled the aircraft at an official ceremony. Roche praised the Boeing team for its can-do spirit in producing the aircraft.
"I am here to lead the applause for a fantastic team," Roche said. "It's appropriate that this unveiling should occur close to the Gateway to the West. The Bird of Prey project opens the gateway to new possibilities" not just in aviation but also in government-industry collaboration.
Laura Sturgeon, an integration avionics engineer on the Super Hornet program, was one of thousands of Boeing-St. Louis employees who attended the unveiling.
"It's a whole different aircraft, and it's standing right before us, not just something on paper," Sturgeon said. "I'm always impressed with the way the company unveils these products. It makes me feel proud to be a part of Boeing. It also shows that we have a whole lot of things up our sleeves that people don't know about, and that's encouraging."
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