Even top secret aircraft, developed under classified programmes and funded by the “black budget”, may require something as seemingly mundane as a patent. This one from the late 1970s depicts an aircraft resembling the classic “flying wing” design, albeit for a much smaller aircraft than the B2 Stealth Bomber. Rumours persist that such a plane might actually have flown. But separating fact from fiction, or at least speculation, is not a simple task in the highly classified world of black project aircraft.
U.S. Patent 4,019,699 lays out a design by Teledyne Ryan for a low observable aircraft and was issued on April 26, 1977. The rounded surfaces contrast with the faceted appearance of Lockheed’s Have Blue stealth technology demonstrator, which was developed around the same time and made its maiden flight on December 1, 1977. The success of the Have Blue (despite both aircraft crashing and remaining buried to this day near Groom Lake, Nevada, aka Area 51) led to the development of the F-117A stealth fighter.
The abstract for the Teledyne Ryan design reads: An aircraft which has a very low observability visually and to radar, thermal and acoustic detecting devices. The aircraft is designed to have as few edges and surfaces as possible, such as a delta wing type, the edges being straight, or near straight and the vertices rounded. All surfaces are as near flat as possible, within the limits of aerodynamic requirements, and the entire surface of the aircraft is electrically conductive with minimum discontinuity. The propulsion unit is faired into and shielded from radar by the wing. Portions of the aircraft, particularly edges, may be of radar absorbing material, and any essential openings, ducts or protruding fins are similarly shielded to minimize the radar cross section.
Teledyne Ryan’s design has been linked to the TR-3A Black Manta (above), a hypothesised U.S. spyplane that is either highly classified or highly nonexistent. The TR-3A is thought to be a subsonic stealthy reconaissance aircraft capable of operating at low or high altitudes. But in the fascinating and shadowy world of the black projects, the TR-3A would appear to be one of the blackest of them all. Little evidence exists in the public domain, barring press reports and several reported sightings. And as is so often the case, no known photographs exist to back these sightings up.
One theory holds that the Teledyne Ryan patent became a prototype for the B2 Spirit (above). The B2 originated from a 1979 Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) black project, won by Northrop Grumman, and interestingly codenamed “Aurora”. Also of note, Teledyne Ryan was bought by Northrop Grumman in 1999 – more than 20 years after the design was patented. (Some have even posited that the “TR” in “TR-3A” stands for “Teledyne Ryan”. But the more likely explanation – if indeed the aircraft exists – is that “TR” stands for “Tactical Reconnaisance” – a traditional designation.)
Alternatively, a 1991 article in Aviation Week & Space Technology said the TR-3A evolved from a number of classified prototypes that came about between 1976 and 1983:
…the Air to Surface Technology Evaluation and Integration (ASTEI) program; created to develop concepts for an advanced deep interdiction fighter…. the Covert Survivable In-weather Reconnaissance/Strike (CSIRS) program, which was to yield two separate stealth aircraft designs…. A THAP demonstrator, which made its first flight from the secluded Groom Lake, Nev., facility in 1981. The company reportedly received a follow-on Air Force contract in 1982 to build what was to become the TR-3A, based on the THAP concept.
It is hard to know what to make of such claims. Certainly, reports of this nature would not be published lightly in such a well respected aviation magazine, which doubtless has access to numerous sources. But such is the level of disinformation – and confusion, when theories are crafted from various scraps of information – in the world of black projects that only outright proof will win the day.
It has also been suggested that the TR-3A, which reportedly has a range of more than 5,000 kilometers, was used in Operation Desert Storm to transmit near-real-time digital information directly to F-117As. Others counter this by arguing that the F-117As bombed pre-arranged fixed targets, and would have had no need for additional target aquisition support. That’s assuming, of course, the planes weren’t used in other covert missions that haven’t been made public…
Sci Fi fans are fond of telling us that “the truth is out there”, but it’s likely to remain hidden for many years to come. All we can do is continue peeling back the layers of leaked information, disinformation, and the odd UFO sighting, which has to be more fun than knowing every detail! To read more about the TR-3A, click here.