This is the McDonnell-Douglass A-12 Avenger II.
It doesn’t exist. It was supposed to be a carrier-based Close Air Support (CAS) bomber replacement for the A-6 intruder until Dick Cheney killed it in 1990. They built a mock-up. It’s at Veteran’s Memorial Airpark in Fort Worth, and has been since 2013. It was affectionately called “the flying Dorito.”
This is the TR-3B.
It’s such a delightful part of the paranoid UFO conspiracy-sphere that it made the X Files. That’s Mulder, right before Area 51 security hit him with the flashy flashy to wipe his memory in S01E02, “Dreamland.” It’s reverently called “the Black Manta.”
It doesn’t exist, either. Or does it?
Here’s what we know. Something triangular, that isn’t a B-2 and isn’t an RQ-170, has been seen over Texas and Kansas. It has been seen a few times, multiple examples at a time, and the official explanations thereof are lacking. What follows is an exercise in speculation, an Occam’s Razor of tinfoil hattery, a masturbatory adventure in conjecture because I don’t have a blog and because this shit fascinates me. I have no inside knowledge about any of this, much as I might want to, and am probably wrong. But it sure feels right.
PART 1: CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
So a funny thing about the A-12, being that it never existed, is that spare parts have shown up at government auctions. An online salvage fan ended up buying the canopy for an A-12 Avenger II from Purdue University for $2300. Provenance was established - the serial numbers match, the chain of title matches. This is a real canopy for an imaginary plane.
It was sold on eBay for well over half a million dollars. Worthy of note - this is SOP for “classified things” that end up unclassified - they get bought. I have a… book that shouldn’t have been published. It’s a limited run, vanity press, esoteric, and it cost me $70. Depending on the month, I can “buy” a copy of it on Amazon for somewhere between $2500 and $9500. I’ve discovered that when I mention it online the price goes up. It’s far easier to snatch up all the copies extant than get all legal on their owners because that generates news. So “an unnamed bidder” paying $620k for corner-case aviation memorabilia isn’t weird.
The imaginary plane the real canopy belongs to was to be built by McDonnell-Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997 - one year before one of McDonnell’s weirder craft first took to the air:
That’s the Boeing Bird of Prey, a low-cost, secret technology demonstrator built at McD/Boeing’s expense for unspecified reasons. Take a look at the canopy.
…so here’s the thing about stealth technology. There’s one mammer-jammer equation that governs radar reflection, at least as far as RCS (Radar Cross Section) is concerned. A clever Russian by the name of Petr Ufimtsev came up with it back in the ‘60s behind the Iron Curtain but nobody in the USSR really knew what he was talking about. Meanwhile a clever cat at Lockheed Skunk Works (who brought you the SR-71, the F-117, the U-2, the F-104, the P-38 and lots of other nifty technology) by the name of Denys Overholser realized that Ufimtsev’s equation basically says it’s the shape, not the size of a reflective surface that determines the RCS and if you can control the shape properly, the RCS of your stealth pigeon is the same as the RCS of your stealth tennis court assuming they’re the same shape.
Simple shapes are easy to run the numbers on. Complex shapes are not. This is why the F-117A looks like a poorly-rendered vector model from BattleZone -
That’s what the computers of the time (‘70s) were capable of.
So take a look at that F-117 and know that it has the RCS of somewhere between a bumblebee and a golf ball. They actually deploy a little target when they’re coming in for a landing so that they show up to air traffic control. Know also that what RCS it has comes form the air intakes and the cockpit - the reflection from the wings and body is effectively zero.
Which means when you’re developing a stealth prototype, you give a shit about the cockpit, you give a shit about the engine nacelles, you give a shit about the control surfaces… but the majority of the aircraft you can solve by inspection.
The first radar test target for what became the F-117A was referred to as “the Hopeless Diamond” because of its odd shape and the fact that nobody felt very positive about its characteristics in flight. So far as I know, the appearance of the “Hopeless Diamond” has never been declassified. The first flight prototype for the eventual F-117A was called “Have Blue.” It was built at Lockheed’s expense towards an eventual Lockheed sale of the F-117. It was a little smaller than half the size of the F-117… except for the engine nacelles and cockpit.
Have Blue wasn’t the last stealth test mule we know about, either. Here’s the Northrop Tacit Blue:
Ignore, if you will, the control surfaces and pay special attention to the cockpit and engine nacelles. See if they don’t look similar to another Northrop product:
Here’s a timeline:
1977 - Lockheed Have Blue flies
1979 - last Lockheed Have Blue crashes
1981 - Lockheed F-117 first flies
1983 - Lockheed F-117 achieves operational capability
1988 - Lockheed F-117 revealed to the public, Have Blue declassified
Here’s another timeline:
1982 - Northrop Tacit Blue flies
1985 - Northrop Tacit Blue retired
1989 - Northrop B-2 first flies (and is made public - at a unit cost of over a billion dollars each, they’re hard to keep secret)
1996 - Northrop Tacit Blue declassified
1997 - Northrop B-2 achieves operational capability
Here’s another timeline:
1991 - McD A-12 Avenger II cancelled
1996 - McD Bird of Prey first flies
1997 - Boeing buys McD
1999 - Boeing Bird of Prey retires
2003 - Boeing Bird of Prey declassified
2003-2004 - A-12/TR-3 first flies?
2007-2009 - A-12/TR-3 achieves operational capability?
2017-2020 - A-12/TR-3 declassified?
Parts II and III as I get to them