The aircraft known in popular culture as the stealth bomber was built with nearly a decade of work, billions of dollars, and total secrecy from the U.S. government. Even the contractors who worked on it didn't always know what it was. So how did a Japanese carmaker reveal it before the Air Force?
By now, that famous triangular black wedge is so famous that any little kid could identify it on sight. But it wasn't always that way.
The project that created the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit was so deeply hidden in the shadows that for years the government denied it was even in development. Even today, we rarely tell anyone where we have them deployed for fear of scaring the piss out of other countries.
Planning for the project began in the late 1970s when the U.S. needed a replacement for its aging B-52. Defense officials had high expectations for the plane — it would need to fly a payload of nuclear bombs to the Soviet Union in just a few hours while remaining nearly invisible to radar.
Development was officially underway in 1981. The Advanced Technology Bomber program was one of the largest and most secretive military endeavors since the Manhattan Project. The bomber was a radically high tech plane in nearly every way, from its use of composite materials to its sophisticated electronics suite, radar deflecting shape, containment of its own radio signals and tiny heat signature. Here's what Global Security said about what it was designed to do:
With massed bomber attacks a thing of the past, the ATB would have to be capable of carrying out its mission alone and without fighter escort: one airplane, carrying out precision attacks, in the absence of many.
Kind of scary when you think about it, especially if you're the Kremlin.
So it's pretty easy to see why the government wanted to keep the lid on even the smallest details of the project. According to the Los Angeles Times, most suppliers had no idea what they were working on, and the government set up dummy corporations to order the parts, which were sometimes picked up in the dead of night by unmarked trucks. For years, both Northrop and the Air Force denied that the plane even existed at all.
The shroud was lifted in late November 1988 when the plane was finally unveiled to the public — sort of, anyway. At a press conference in California, reporters and other spectators were kept 200 feet away to keep from learning too much about how it worked, according to an Associated Press story at the time.
The thing is, America had already seen it weeks earlier, and they had Honda to thank for that.
In October, Honda debuted this ad for the 1989 CRX Si which featured the most accurate representation of the stealth bomber that the public had ever seen to that point. It featured stealth bomber preparing for launch with Top Gun-esque music in the background; the plane has the starring role until the CRX Si pulls up in front of it.
The ad even makes fun of the bomber's classified status: "Shrouded in secrecy for years, the stealth bomber will soon be introduced to the public," the announcer says. "For the record, we introduced ours first."
No, the Air Force didn't give Honda permission to film a commercial with their new superplane just because they were fans of the CRX. The plane in that ad is actually a nearly full-size mockup of the bomber commissioned by Honda's ad agency Rubin Postaer & Associates.
Today, this kind of thing would probably be done with computer graphics. But RPA, to their credit, went all out by building a massive and extremely convincing model of the plane that was used in both that TV commercial and print ads.
The New York Times said the mockup was 3/5 the size of the real thing, weighed 20,000 pounds, measured 100 feet from wing tip to wing tip, and was made of sheet metal built on a steel frame. The mockup was built in California, shipped in pieces to Florida, then assembled on a 2-mile runway in the Everglades designed for the Concorde. The model itself cost about $200,000 to construct.
It's actually a rather fitting ad campaign when you think about it. The CRX looked like any old hatchback, but in reality, it was more fun to drive than many of the dedicated and more ostentatious sports cars of the 1980s. The Si may have been front-wheel drive with only 110 horsepower, but it provided a riotous good time with great reliability and mileage to boot.
Like Honda themselves in the 1980s and 1990s, RPA was an ad agency that knew risks could have big payoffs. According to Automotive News, they signed off on the $9 million "stealth" campaign without monitoring the costs along the way. They must have been vindicated when the print ad won a Clio — the ad world's most coveted prize — in 1989.
Not bad at all, considering they also managed to unveil the stealth bomber to the world before the government did. From a 1989 Los Angeles Times story:
A Northrop spokesman said the Honda campaign did not affect the timing of the stealth introduction. "But we did get a good chuckle out of it," said Tony Cantafio, vice president of public relations at Northrop.
So how did Honda manage to put together a gigantic model of the stealth bomber while it was still wrapped in secrecy? Did they hack into Pentagon computers? Intercept U.S. military communications? Send a team of highly-trained Prelude-driving ninjas onto a base to to steal the blueprints and kill any witnesses?
Nothing that exciting, but news stories from the time aren't too clear on where RPA and Honda saw it. The LA Times and Advertising Age say it came from available Northrop sketches, including one that was used in a recruitment ad in a newspaper. Newsday wrote that it came from a drawing released by the U.S. Air Force earlier that year. That New York Times story also said the design came the recruiting ad, as well as from a plastic model of the plane sold by Revell.
An article on the B-2 on Wikipedia, that wonderfully useful but sometimes questionable source of information, claims that "the mock-up was close enough to the B-2's design to arouse suspicion that Honda had intercepted classified, top secret information, as the B-2 project was still officially classified in 1988."
The article does not cite a source on that bit of info, and in checking old news clips for this story, I could find no evidence that this was the case. Quite the opposite, according to an Oct. 1988 story in Newsday:
The Air Force sees no harm in the commercial. "It does not appear any security was violated," a spokesman in Washington said. But he refused to say if the design was right. And [RPA ad writer Bob] Coburn couldn't swear to it. "We don't know," he said. "It's our interpretation."
At any rate, it doesn't look like Honda got hauled before Congress to explain the bomber or anything like that.
Regardless of where they got it from, RPA's mockup was good enough to land in a museum. In 1989 the firm donated it to the Strategic Air Command Museum near Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, South Dakota, where it stayed until 2004.
Sadly, it was destroyed that year so that an actual B-1B Lancer could be put on display, according to the Rapid City Journal. Honda's agreement with the museum stipulated that the faux bomber be dismantled if the museum ever got an actual aircraft, and they did. The mockup was sliced into scrap pieces and hauled off for recycling.
As for the actual B-2 stealth bomber, it's had a bit of a mixed record since the end of the Cold War.
The U.S. originally wanted 132 of them, but at a staggering total cost of $2.1 billion per plane — as well as steep $60 million routine maintenance that must be done every seven years — the Pentagon only currently has 20 in their fleet.
While it has been seen action in a multitude of conflicts, some have also questioned its strategic usefulness against America's modern enemies. From the LA Times again:
"It's the ultimate hangar queen," said Winslow T. Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a Pentagon watchdog group. The bomber, he said, is not useful for waging the kind of warfare being fought today against low-tech enemies. "It's irrelevant in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Somewhat humorously, it could be argued that the CRX met the exact opposite fate.
No one will ever accuse that car of being a "garage queen," and it's extremely hard to find any example that hasn't been raced, modified, rebuilt, raced again, crashed, stolen, hooned half to death in parking lots, or just generally abused in the normal course of its lifespan. Cherry, unmolested CRXes are the unicorns of the Honda world, and somehow, the CRX's connection to the stealth bomber now makes it even cooler in our eyes.
Regardless of the bomber's record, it's still an incredible technological achievement and a force to be reckoned with. But if you're ever fortunate enough to see a B-2 in person — at a base, an air show, or, before it drops its payload on your town — feel free to smile and say, "That's nice. But Honda did it first."
Photos credit RPA, Honda, AP, Getty Images
Hat tip to Dan!