McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing acquired in 1998, initiated the Bird of Prey project in 1992. During the 1980s, its combat aircraft division was bested in competition with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop because it had fallen behind in stealth technology. Lockheed had flown its prototype Have Blue, a predecessor to the F-117 Stealth Fighter, in 1977. Lockheed and Boeing were collaborating on the F/A-22 fighter, which will enter service in 2005, and Northrop was building the B-2 bomber. McDonnell Douglas had underestimated the importance of stealth technology to the Pentagon, and in an effort to once again become competitive, it created a single division, Phantom Works, to develop stealth and other cutting-edge technologies.
In 1993, I was the first reporter to tour Phantom Works and-unwittingly-perhaps the first to get a glimpse of the Bird of Prey as it was coming together. The facility was built with partitions and code-locked doors so that several secret projects could be pursued in isolation from one another. Sooty sneaker-prints trailed in and out of one locked room where chemists were developing carbon-loaded radar-absorbing materials. Phantom Works boss Jerry Ennis was keen to talk about the team's innovations in building prototypes. They were testing a laser-guided saw for building large carbon-fiber composite skin panels. Ennis showed me a big, compound-curved pattern built with this technique, 12 feet long and looking like half of an upturned boat hull. He didn't say what it was for-but, in hindsight, it looked like the rear upper fuselage of the Bird of Prey.
McDonnell Douglas used the Bird of Prey program to demonstrate to the Air Force the rapid prototyping skills of Phantom Works as well as its stealth expertise. Performance was not a factor. Joe Felock, one of three pilots on the program, describes the Bird of Prey as "flying well enough to gather data, but it wasn't a rocket." Stealth, the ability to operate undetected either visually or by electronic sensors such as radar, was the primary goal. From head-on, the low-profile cockpit canopy masks the entire jet inlet, normally a hot spot in radar detection, and the aggressive 65-degree sweep angle of the nose and wings bounces any incoming signal far away from the radar receiver. From the side, the turned-down wingtips are stealthier than conventional tails, which meet the body at a sharp corner.