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The stealth fighter that almost torpedoed a weasel

f117 nighthawk

The research and engineering company I work for really didn’t need Xtreme image processing technology to do boring old science. Computers that could do graphics cost gigantic bucks in the ’80s and, really, the ink-and-vellum we’d used for a hundred and twiddly-two years would do what needed doing just fine. The purpose of all that expensive computer graphics tech was marketing. It was worth a few hundred thousand corporate bucks for pie charts that made prospective clients go, “holy farging shift, what consummate geeks!”

So Weasel got excellent toys to play with.

We started with a turnkey business graphics system. Then, in 1987, when Photoshop was just a gleam in Thomas Knoll‘s eye, they bought me (me! Mine! Mine, I tell you!) a digital image processing system. Um, a thingie that did Photoshoppy stuff.

I had worked with photos for years before that, but even I have trouble remembering now what life was like before Photoshop. It was hard, slow and expensive to alter a photo in any way, and even the most skillful job usually looked like shit. People took for granted the accuracy of photos, because that was the correct thing to do.

All that changed with digital image processing, and I had a blast giving people their first taste of it. My workstation was a standard stop on the company tour. Typically, I would take a snapshot of the man standing in front of me and merrily erase his mustache, give him a third eye and make his ears the size of dinnerplates, in real time. Oh, to see the sweet innocence fade from a middle-aged businessman’s eye!

Another cool thing we could do, because we did all our film processing in-house, was create nifty graphics and produce slides (remember slides?) while a meeting was still in progress. My favorite was the time we captured a picture of the client’s corporate offices from the back page of his annual report, and I used my P’shoppical skills to set the building on fire. I’m told several old guys in rumpled suits leapt up and dashed for the phones when that slide came up. w00t!

So this one time, shortly after we bought the image processor, we were in talks with Lockheed and the salesdude wanted me to make him a nice title slide beforehand. I was given a photo of a plane that was just crap. TOTALLY blurry and out of focus. I couldn’t believe it; it was the shittiest photo I’d ever been given to work with.

Scandalized, I set about cleaning it up. I mean, it was pretty easy to make out what the thing looked like under the blur, if you were a highly trained professional artard like what I am. And so, using my mad illustration skillz, I basically did a light, semi-transparent drawing on top of the photo. It was coming along pretty good, too — downright photorealistic-looking — when my boss walked in and shrieked like he was a little girl and I just dropped a frog down her blouse.

Yeah, see, the F-117 Nighthawk was still highly classified in 1987, and that blurry, deliberately fucked-up photo was the only one that had been officially released — and then only to Lockheed’s technical partners. Who knew? Not this weasel, for sheasel.

So, back in the days when photos never lied, what were my chances of explaining to the nice men from the FBI or the CIA or the Secret Service or whoever how I came by a nice, clean photo of their sooper-secret stealth dingus?


Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 1, 2008, 12:09 pm

The flap was kind of silly, really. The existence of stealth technology had long since leaked, and I believe the appearance had, too. If I recall correctly, this was one of the planes offered by that model plane company which is famous for offering models of things before they are officially acknowledged to exist. They caused quite a stir when they offered a model flying saucer.

Anybody know what I’m talking about? Because I obviously don’t.

Comment from Muslihoon
Time: July 1, 2008, 12:51 pm

Nice story! Thanks!

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 1, 2008, 1:03 pm

Hahaha…that’s exactly what 80% of old comment spams used to say, Musli!

Oof! I just went to the little weasel’s room — my face is peeling. I look positively leprosian.

Comment from Muslihoon
Time: July 1, 2008, 1:13 pm

Hah! Good point on the “nice site thanks!” spamments (spam + comments). Strange how I get those on old, old posts.

The Nighthawk is awesome-looking. Very strange. This bulky thing on a seemingly thin and flat surface. Whereas the B-2 is flat, sleek, etc.

Must have been nice to get a look at the real thing before the public did.

I still can’t believe how much a JDAM costs. We’re using so much money to snuff out no-good-niks. They’re not worth that much money!

Still, it get’s it done, which is worth it.

Comment from skinbad
Time: July 1, 2008, 1:19 pm

Yes. Great site! Very interesting!
It is a good story. And your skills are considerable. I heard a guy who was an engineer for the B-2 a few years ago. He talked about how they sealed the door with some kind of tape and smoothed it all out before missions. He also said they could fly it to the Middle East and back remotely but needed the pilots for take-off and landing.

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: July 1, 2008, 1:34 pm

Yeah I can see how that kind of thing could happen. Personally I prefer the pen and vellum approach myself (Bristol board for me) but I enhance my work afterward with computer coloring and lighting effects. There’s no substitute for a pen and pencil in your hand.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 1, 2008, 1:40 pm

My impression is, that’s pretty common for comics work, Christopher — doing the linework with ink and the coloring digitally. I can’t get the hang of doing linework with the tablet, either. Somehow, the cursor doesn’t QUITE go where I think it’s going to — which isn’t a problem with painting, but is for drawing.

I wonder if that’s because you’re not looking at your hand. I’d love to try a Cintiq and find out.


(That’s going to work some day. I KNOW it!)

Comment from porknbean
Time: July 1, 2008, 1:47 pm

Wow…you roast yourself on a Saturday and shed by Tuesday. That is some kind of renewable skin you got there.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 1, 2008, 1:58 pm

I’m so white, it hurts to look at me in direct sunlight.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: July 1, 2008, 2:00 pm

I look positively leprosian.

Now is when you need your handy-dandy prank rubber fingers. You sneeze and have one fly off your hand – leper-like – into someone’s lap or onto their desk.

Then wait…

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: July 1, 2008, 2:23 pm

I think it’s part not seeing your hand, and part (probably a larger part) that no computer interface has the control and sensitivity your fingertips can impart on a pencil. Some day they might do it, but right now it’s like drawing with two gloves on and using a huge marker.

Comment from porknbean
Time: July 1, 2008, 2:48 pm

I’m so white, it hurts to look at me in direct sunlight.

I bet goths and emos are quite envious. Are you a red-head? Vampire?
Hey McGoo, you can use weasel as goth bait.

Comment from Jill
Time: July 1, 2008, 2:58 pm

Steamboat just brought new meaning to ‘giving someone the finger’. :0)

Comment from Lemur King
Time: July 1, 2008, 4:15 pm

Weas, my guess is that right now you is anything but white, what with your leprosian “glow”.

Funny thing about that there plane. It’s hard to fly because the gosh-darn thing wants to fly upsides down and bass-ackwards. It’s stealth profile is very *very* good at being stealthy but it sucks at being aerodynamical – radar cross-section of an anemic bumblebee. My understanding is that even for TO and landing it requires computer assist.

Comment from Dave in Texas
Time: July 1, 2008, 4:55 pm

Heh. Awesome work.

Your story reminded me of a trip I took to Edwards years ago, and I was riding around with our Contract Maintenance Officer. I looked to the right and saw the weirdest looking airplane I’d ever seen in my life, and it reminded me of Northrop’s old “flying wing”. The conversation was brief:

Me: “What the hell is that?”

CMI: “What?”

Me: “That plane over there.”

CMI: “What plane?”

Me: “That one, right over there!”

CMI (looking at me): “What plane, right over there?”

Me: …

Me: “oh.”

Comment from Hound of Doom
Time: July 1, 2008, 5:07 pm

Weasel, you take me back to the old days @ Rockwell Aerospace, when we got a networked series of DEC workstations to do bomb damage assessment. Good times, good times.

I bow down to your mad p-shop skillz. The only (safe) way to get old men excited.

Comment from XBradTC
Time: July 1, 2008, 5:52 pm


There was a reason the photo was fuzzy. People had seen the bird, so we assumed the bad guys knew about it, so they released the photo. What they didn’t want was people getting a really good look at it for reasons like the angle of the facets and the screens over the intakes.

From the pilots point of view, the 117 flew quite well. But that’s because the computer was twitching the controls 60 times a second. There was no way a human alone could control it. The computer “read” what the pilot was doing with the stick, guessed what he was trying to do, and decided which controls to move.

Comment from LemurKing
Time: July 2, 2008, 12:34 am

Yes, XBradTC, that is exactly how it flies, which, when you ponder on it, makes it one HELL of an impressive piece of engineering and control algorithms.

All those angles to get rid of retroreflections is great from an engineering challege standpoint (if that is your goal) but actually building things that look like a hellspawn offspring from a union of Escher and Picasso is a real nutcracker.

Comment from Muslihoon
Time: July 2, 2008, 12:00 pm

Question: to what degree are people becoming replaced by remote-controlled stuff in the warfront?

It seems more emphasis is being paid on wartech that is remote-controlled. Is this a good move? Is RC better than human-in-the-plane-controlled?

Comment from XBradTC
Time: July 2, 2008, 12:11 pm

Lemur, if you are interested in the 117, go read Ben Rich’s book Skunk Works. They did it on the cheap, really. One reason why the 117 is “diamond cut” and the B-2 is smooth is computer power. They just didn’t have the horsepower to smooth out the 117.

Muslihoon, that’s actually a big argument in the services today. Where do you go autonomous, or remote, and where do you need to keeps the peeps. There’s a lot of places where it is still easier to use people, but then you risk getting them killed. Changing that costs money. You talk about how much a JDAM costs. Well, as far as the services are concerned, they are dirt cheap. Especially compared to paying in blood. But there is a cost to being remote. People sometimes forget that virtual reality isn’t real reality. Nothing is going to replace a squad of soldiers walking down the street and talking with the folks that live there.

Comment from Muslihoon
Time: July 2, 2008, 12:36 pm

Nothing is going to replace a squad of soldiers walking down the street and talking with the folks that live there.

I used to follow the US intelligence services, and a rather significant change that occured as a result of September 11, 2001, was the change of focus from gathering intel through tech to gathering intel through humans. Human intel, the intel community realized, was far more reliable than signals tech. While the latter is crucial and important (it’s simply mind boggling how chatty our enemies are), it’s the former that will get us far more. Plus, having contacts helps us infiltrate, sabotage, etc.

So, recently, the intel services have ratcheted up their human intel corps. Problem is that is much more difficult to conduct human intel. Eavesdropping is much easier than actually cultivating contacts, getting info, keeping agents in the field, etc. Interviewing with A Certain TLA Org made me appreciate much more what one has to go through to conduct human intel. And how difficult and risky it is.

I never realized similar considerations applied to the military. Thanks for the explanations.

Comment from Muslihoon
Time: July 2, 2008, 12:54 pm

Ace mentioned Bernadine Dohrn. She now teaches, kinda, at my alma mater.

When I found out, during my senior year, I called the FBI. I told them there was a wanted person teaching at my alma mater. What’s the FBI doing about it?

The person’s response. “We know about it.” After a brief silence, “And why would we tell you what we’re going to do?”

Stupid me.

But, really, I was so shocked that she was allowed to roam free that I chalked it up to FBI incompetence.

Comment from Lokki
Time: July 2, 2008, 1:34 pm

Back in the days before the GPS satellites were in place, the front wheel of every F111 fighter had a specific box on the runway from which all its missions started.

The planes then calculated their positions above the planet by calculating speed direction, etc.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 2, 2008, 1:36 pm

Wow! No kidding? It must have been a narrow window of time between when little on-board computers were sophisticated enough to do that and when sat-nav came online.

Comment from XBradTC
Time: July 2, 2008, 4:11 pm

Actually, weas, inertail navigation (what lokki is talking about) lasted from the late 50’s and is in fact, still in use. When we say GPS for airplanes (and JDAMs) what we really mean is inertial navigation that checks in with GPS to make sure nothings wrong.

Comment from Steamboat McGoo
Time: July 2, 2008, 4:32 pm

What Brad said. Many of the cruise missiles and other systems used a combination inertial&gps info to get where they were going. Inertial guidance got them in the neighborhood, and GPS pinned the tail on the donkey, so-to-speak.

Inertial works damned well all by itself. It’s pretty astonishing.

Also, GPS went from ManPack – which was a big backpack of electronics and (oof!) batteries – to handheld in about 10-15 years (1981-1995?). Thats well within the development/deployment window of a typical weapon system.

I saw ManPack demo’ed at the PLANS (Position, Location and Navigation) conference in San Diego back in about 1980. The poor sergeant who had to wear the fucking thing (along with his dress uniform) outside the hotel in the pool area (in the summer) was sweating like a condemned prisoner by the end of the day.

GPS technology happened FAST, mainly because of the semiconductor device advancements (RF front-ends) and the microprocessor advances (fast number-crunching). It all kind of came together all at once.

1980 to about 1995 was a stunning period of time, technologically speaking.

Comment from Lokki
Time: July 2, 2008, 4:35 pm

As has aleady been posted while I was writing this, inertial navigation systems (based on gyroscopes) had been around for a long time time but hadn’t been as sophisticated as the F111’s. That system was amazing.

The F111 also had very cool terrain-following radar. The plane could fly itself at close to 600 mph just 50 feet or so above the ground.

I know all this, because in 1969 (I think) my father didn’t come home for four days. The Viet Cong had shot down something like seven planes in 14 days (I don’t recall exactly, but I’m sure it’s somewhere on the net). All the F111’s were immediately grounded and every company involved with any system that could be at fault was called in. My dad’s company handmade special electronics components that were suspect, apparently.

In the end though the problem turned out not to be an electronic/mechanical problem at all. The planes were getting shot down because the Viet Cong were smart.

The Cong could see the planes coming on the long-range radar and could figure out what the target location was going to be, but couldn’t train the guns on the planes because the planes went over the target too fast get the short-range radar locked in.

Well….. the Cong could see the plane coming on the long range radar. So, They would then guess the destination by reading the speed and bearings, and calculate the moment the plane would come over the target.

Now the cleverness: They’d set up a row of mortars – filled with tin foil. As the plane came screaming in at 600 mph, they’d fire the mortars, filling the sky with tin foil. The terrain following radar would see the foil and electronically scream
( “Oh my holy Christ!!!! A frigging Mountain!!!!!!”

The plane would then pull the stick straight back and fly straight UP the “wall”. The Cong, knowing the speed of the plane, and the location of the “wall” would have aimed the guns at a precalculated point. They’d get ‘count to three’ and pull the trigger on their AA guns and “POP!” down goes another F111 – a multi-million dollar plane stuffed with the latest technology shot down with $1000 worth of mortar shells and a bunch of tin foil.

Ingenious, yes? This story and the story about how the Afghans rebels destroyed columns of Russian tanks have convinced me that Humans will ultimately defeat any alien invaders…..

The Afghans destroyed Russian tank columns by digging big holes in the road, and then covering up the holes just like the holes they dug to trap mastadons a hundred thousand years ago. They’d set the trap in a road at the bottom of a narrow valley. When the first tank fell in the hole (surprise, surprise, surprise!) They’d roll big rocks down the mountain behind the last tank.

Then it was just a simple matter of waiting… Sooner or later, the crews gotta come out of the tanks. So a dozen tanks destroyed with shovels, big rocks and rifle slugs.

God! Humans are almost as clever and sneaky as weasels! Take THAT space aliens!

Comment from Muslihoon
Time: July 2, 2008, 6:26 pm

Lokki, we’re not going to infect the mothership with a computer virus?

Warfare is becoming more and more interesting…thanks to the commenters on this site and others (IB and The Hostages). I might have to start reading books on warfare and past wars.

Any suggestions on good books to start with?

Comment from XBradTC
Time: July 2, 2008, 7:24 pm

Mulishoon, I’ve got a post on EFPs that I’ve updated to show a countermeasure. Thought you might like it.

I would say start with a book about the M-1 Tank.

It is a great history of the development of a weapon, how doctrine influences the choices of technology and design, and how the choices of design and technology in turn influence doctrine.

Comment from Muslihoon
Time: July 2, 2008, 8:51 pm

Thank you, sir!

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: July 2, 2008, 9:04 pm

…when my boss walked in and shrieked like he was a little girl and I just dropped a frog down her blouse.

Wait…. so you’re saying girls don’t like that? I thought that’s what it takes to love them.

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