In 1992, Boeing’s Phantom Works program began development on the Bird of Prey, a project managed by the U.S. Air Force, funded by Boeing, and borrowing the name from the Klingon starship in 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. It pioneered dozens of new technologies that we use in airplanes today, but the Bird of Prey was never meant for production.
Phantom Works is Boeing’s secret(ish) in-house development arm, tasked with engineering, prototyping, and building classified projects, often for the U.S. military. Its vice president is Alan Wiechman, an engineer whose CV includes the Lockheed Have Blue, F-117 Nighthawk, and the Sea Shadow ship. And Wiechman headed up the Bird of Prey’s development and design.
The single-seater jet was developed on the cheap–relatively speaking–coming in at around $67 million. Part of that cost savings came from using off-the-rack components, like the Pratt & Whitney JT15D-5C turbofan engine, nixing the expensive fly-by-wire systems in favor of hydraulics, and by using computer modeling–one of the first applications for an aircraft.
When the time came to build the Bird of Prey, the team used then-novel rapid-prototyping to build components, single-piece composite structures, and disposable tooling. In final spec, it measured 47 feet long, with a wingspan of 23 feet, and a curb weight of about 7,400 pounds.
When it took to the sky on September 11, 1996 for its maiden voyage, the Bird of Prey had a paltry cruising speed of 300 mph and a maximum altitude of 20,000 feet. But the Bird of Prey was never designed to warp time or space. It was about testing technologies, including rumors of active camouflage that would change color and reflection based on its surroundings.
After a total of 38 test flights over Area 51, the Bird of Prey was stashed away in April 1999, and declassified over three years later.Spin. To read more, click here.