It was one of those absolutely clear days in central Montana where the sky seems to go on forever and the blue has a uniform deepness from horizon to horizon. I think it was in 1968 and my father finished knotting his tie and adjusted his hat and headed for the car with the briefcase that never seemed to leave his sight. He was headed for the Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE) facility at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, a nine-story underground building that housed key facilities and personnel to respond to a nuclear attack from Russia. He was one of a handful of Royal Canadian Air Force officers working side-by-side with Americans in the NORAD facility. I don’t know exactly what he did but he worked on the ninth floor.
He said simply to my older brother and I: “I could get shot for this but make sure you’re out here at 1:12 p.m. and look up.” And with that, he closed the massive door on the Olds Delta 88 and snapped on the Comfortron, a thermostatically controlled air conditioning system unique to GM’s upscale brands. Back then, everything futuristic and modern was called something that ended in “tron.” My Dad couldn’t have enough “trons.”
At precisely 1:12 p.m., a contrail appeared on the southwest horizon and arced overhead to the southeast, covering the whole sky in less than a minute. My brother, eight years wiser than me gasped: “That must be the YF-12.”
It was actually more likely an early model of the SR-71, the super secret operational derivative of the YF-12, which had been publicly acknowledged to provide cover for the Blackbird. We peppered Dad with questions when he got home from work but he wouldn’t say a word. He wasn’t kidding about the getting shot part.
Now that I think about it, the midday airshow had to have been a deliberate display, an unnecessarily showy message to someone who was sure to be watching.
I think the military is using the same playbook with a sudden flurry of videos, speeches and other public references to some pretty nifty new weapons. I can think of a half-dozen unexpected announcements in the past few months showing everything from the SR-72 “Son of Blackbird” to the palletized weapons system described in today’s AVwebFlash.
I inherited my Dad’s love of new gadgets so it’s right up my alley to have a job that includes keeping an eye on latest and greatest and there are lots of publications that are dedicated to sniffing this stuff out. But that’s collateral to the real purpose of these broad daylight displays of whizz bang technology.
As Russia and China seem to be testing the West’s resolve, the U.S. and NATO seem to be letting them know that there’s some stuff they’ve never seen before ready and waiting to make them think twice about getting too cocky.
The other part of this is that some of the gear getting a public airing may well be cover for something even better waiting in the wings.
That’s how it was with the YF-12 and the Blackbird. The three YF-12s, all two-seater prototypes, were publicly acknowledged and openly flown while Kelly Johnson and his Skunkworks were put to work developing the SR-71. The logic was that anyone seeing the look-alike SR-71 would think it was just a YF-12, as my worldly teenage brother did. The SR-71 flew hundreds of missions before it was ever officially acknowledged.
So, as we marvel at the airborne lasers, the high-flying drones and the hypersonic this and that being openly discussed, it leaves me wondering what they aren’t showing us.
And that, I suspect, is the whole point.