In the dead of night, a stealthy U.S. military transport plane discreetly weaves its way past dense enemy air defenses to get to a small landing zone deep inside a country in the throes of a coup by a faction violently opposed to the United States. As they get closer to their objective, the crew switches the plane into a vertical takeoff and landing mode, setting it down in a confined area without the need for any sort of traditional runway.
Special operators, which the plane had inserted the same way 24 hours earlier, quickly race onboard. They've just rescued diplomats and a handful of other American citizens, some of who are in need of desperate medical attention, who had found themselves trapped inside the country's capital. After a very short takeoff roll, the transport aircraft leaps into the air before entering into horizontal flight mode. It then disappears back into the night sky as it makes another 1,000-mile trip through the same air defense gauntlet it had overcome just minutes earlier.
This may sound like the climactic finale from a Hollywood blockbuster involving a plane that could have been ripped straight out of a Marvel comic book, but the U.S. military has spent very real time and resources on developing stealthy transport aircraft with short- and vertical takeoff and landing capabilities over the past four decades. In exploring this topic in depth, we here at The War Zone have identified more than a dozen named programs since 1980, as well as numerous additional design studies that private firms have carried out in the intervening years – and these are just the ones that we were able to uncover.
When paired with major historical events and technological developments over the last four decades, a fascinating story materializes that leaves open a very real possibility, if not an outright probability, that one or more of these programs produced flying aircraft and that those machines remain highly classified to this very day.