Flight patches for an experimental aircraft known as ATOP, the Advanced Technology Observation Platform, have been making ripples in the world of the black aircraft enthusiasts.Both patches, seen above, seem to hint that the ATOP possessed an optical camouflage capability: one shows only the dotted outline of the craft against a night sky, while the other has the craft flying in front of the US flag, part of which is visible through its fuselage, as if the craft was becoming transparent. The airstream behind the aircraft also seems to be erasing the flag, making it invisible.
Optical stealth on aircraft dates back to the Second World War when the RAF and the US Navy, under the codename Project Yehudi, mounted lights on to the wings of bomber planes used at sea. Using dimmers, the lights could be matched to the luminance of the sky, softening the sharp outlines of the planes’ wings and fuselage on a bombing approach and reducing the range at which they could be targeted from about twelve miles to under two. Yehudi was made redundant by the introduction of radar, but the shapes and colour schemes of today’s radar-evading drones are carefully optimised to avoid casting shadows and to blend in with the sky.
Meanwhile, more advanced technologies may make aircraft invisible to the naked eye. In 1996 Boeing unveiled its striking, wingless Bird of Prey (left), a piloted stealth aircraft whose very name was a wink and a nudge towards the Klingon warships form Star Trek, famed for the cloaking abilities that rendered them invisible. It was rumoured that the Bird of Prey featured so-called ‘active camouflage’ that allowed it to adapt visually to its surroundings in an advanced form of the priniciple behind Yeheudi.
So was ATOP part of an ongoing programme to render aircraft invisible not just to radar, but also to the naked eye, making invincible – and so perfect UFOs?
A Flickr set uploaded by ‘Atophome’ in 2009 may have the answer. It reveals the ATOP JTV-1 (perhaps Joint Test Vehicle, ie shared by more than one of the forces) to be a small, pilotless drone with a 7ft wingspan that was tested in the 1990 and 1991. A photograph of ATOP in flight over the Navy’s China Lake testing range (below) shows that the outline on the patch was see-through because the plane’s tail section and rear aerofoil were extended from the main body, creating a see-through gap. And the black, starlit patch? Well in one of the images the test vehicle is shown to be jet black, while the 5 stars, one red as opposed to white, probably means that the craft was tested at Area 51 (5/1 geddit?). The Latin translates as ‘vigilance through stealth’. (The patch also features in Trevor Paglin’s excellent book If I Told You, You Would Have to be Destroyed By Me)
Mystery solved? You would think so, but the black aircraft crowd are a suspicious bunch, and some of them believe that the Flickr set is a hasty fabrication to divert attention from the accidental release of a patch for an advanced black project. It is perhaps odd that the ATOP images are the only ones on Atophome’s Flickr account, but I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
For more discussion on ATOP see this 2008 article by Bill Sweetman.