When Boeing and the Air Force unveiled the once ultra-secret Bird of Prey prototype aircraft on October 18, they were stingy with information. They informed guests that it had made 38 flights between 1996 and 1999, but didn't say where. They identified its test pilots but did not name its designers. They quoted the airplane's maximum speed (300 mph) and altitude (20,000 feet) but came no closer to explaining its purpose than saying it was built to test "very specific low-observables technologies"-stealth, that is.
This is the nature of black-project debuts. Look, but don't touch. Listen, but learn little. Since many of the individual technologies included in the Bird of Prey are still classified, the unveiling at Boeing's Phantom Works facility in St. Louis was a cryptic affair. The aircraft's builders were firmly reminded that they were still obligated to keep their mouths shut.
Black airplanes-as these vehicles are known during their ultrasecret development phase-are used to assess high-risk technologies with a big military payoff. They are usually put through their paces at Area 51, the Air Force's clandestine flight-test center in Nevada. The Bird of Prey, a small plane-about half the size of a typical fighter jet-with a top-mounted engine inlet and distinctively shaped wings that echo its namesake, the Klingon warship from Star Trek, was a testing ground for second-generation stealth technology; it will never enter production itself.