By Joanna Pater
We all know what an airplane is supposed to look like. A body with wings and a tail attached… and a cockpit at the front. A child could tell you the same.
But Air Force engineers don’t agree. It just takes a single look at the F-35 or the F117 Nighthawk to see that our concept of aircraft has dramatically shifted from what it was during World War II. From jet engines capable of reaching speeds twice that of sound, to even unmanned drones, the aircraft industry continues to evolve.
Recently, an image on the internet caught my attention. It was a side-by-side comparison of the B2 Stealth bomber and a peregrine falcon.
The similarity is striking. But despite its futuristic appearance, this technology is not new. The B2 Bomber is simply one of many tailless, stealth aircraft. In fact, some claim the inspiration for this design dates all the way back to the German prototype Horten 229 of the Second World War.
So, why the distinct shape? As it turns out, it does serve a very specific purpose.
It isn’t just about efficiency. Yes, the bomber’s streamlined build helps to generate lift while reducing drag, but many other aircraft have the same capacity. And, although it can travel for a longer time without refueling, this shape can be difficult to control and generally requires a very experienced pilot.
The B2 was built with long-distance, strategic bombing in mind. Crossing into enemy airspace, and delivering munitions to specified targets is no easy feat. Avoiding anti-aircraft systems, even harder. Of course, it’s much easier to do if one hasn’t been detected.
That is where the design comes in.
The rounded shape of a regular civilian plane makes it very easy to detect by radar. It doesn’t matter at which angle the plane is traveling – some of the signal will always return to the source. A stealth aircraft, however, employs sharply geometric shapes and flat surfaces to reflect the signal at odd angles. As the plane flies over enemy territory, most of the radar is dispersed away from the source; helping it effectively blend in with the ‘background noise’ of its surroundings to counter low-frequency radars designed to detect and track fighters.
It is also quiet – eerily so – and covered with specially engineered composite material, which absorbs much of what would normally be reflected, decreasing its detectability even further.
All this allows this aircrafts radar signature to look less like a plane and more like a bird. Interesting, considering the similarities in their outward appearance.
Today, the B2 is being retired in favor of the B-21 Raider, but its technology is far from obsolete.
Joanna Pater is a first-year chemistry student with a primary interest in medicine. Her hobbies include fencing, figure skating, and playing the flute. She is also passionate about military technology and its historical implications.