Six blind men in a zoo: Aviation Week’s mythical Blackstar
“Speedy” and the Valkyrie
One of the three articles is devoted to the spaceplane. It states that “the two-vehicle Blackstar system’s spaceplane has been referred to as ‘Black Magic,’ ‘Speedy’ and ‘XOV’ (experimental orbital vehicle) over the years, but none of these monikers have been confirmed by high-level U.S. government representatives. Intelligence officials called it the XOV, and that designation seems to be the most accepted in ‘black world’ circles.” Once again the intelligence officials are unnamed. But also once again there is no indication, such as a direct quote, that would indicate that the author spoke to them directly.
The spaceplane article contains the most detailed account of a sighting. It states that “A manned XOV was spotted at Holloman AFB, NM, in 1994 by an F-15 crew chief as he prepared a fighter for an early morning flight…” Supposedly the crew chief alerted his pilot, who used a pair of binoculars to watch the spaceplane. Once again, neither person is named.
Around the same time there was reportedly an incident at Kadena Air Base at Okinawa where an “aircraft in distress” reportedly landed at the base and the base was locked down. “A civilian contractor who saw the spaceplane land was ‘debriefed’ and hustled off-base within hours.” But the author does not state that he himself talked to anybody involved, even if he was asked to keep their names anonymous. In fact, after providing what seems like two definitive accounts, the article ends with “Attempts to confirm both the Kadena-area and Holloman incidents have been unsuccessful.” Does that mean that the author heard these accounts second-hand and never talked to the alleged eyewitnesses himself? Or does it mean that he talked to the eyewitnesses, but could not find anybody else who would confirm that they were telling the truth?
The eyewitness accounts mentioned in the article about the mothership aircraft are equally dubious. The XB-70 like aircraft has supposedly been spotted by persons a dozen times and the reports have “found their way to Aviation Week & Space Technology.” The latest report was from a “retired test pilot living in the southern U.S.” Again, the author does not provide a name, nor does he list any of the other supposed eyewitnesses. How can an outsider independently verify this claim?
Besides Mr. Petty (the man who allegedly saw the mothership and spaceplane flying at low altitude over Salt Lake City) the other person named in the article is “Nancy Weitzman,” who lived in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and saw the mothership fly over her home in 1993. It was so close, Weitzman said, that she could actually see the pilot’s helmet. Doylestown is a rural area in the northern outskirts of Philadelphia and west of Trenton.
Once again we are left to ask why a top secret aircraft is flying over a populated area, near a major metropolis, at low altitude and in broad daylight. Weitzman is labeled “an excellent, detail-oriented observer” because she is a “longtime birdwatcher” and was then a medical student (begging the question: was she a good birdwatcher?) But despite the fact that Weitzman admits to knowing nothing about aircraft, she spotted an unknown airplane in the sky and judged its altitude to be 2,500 feet [760 meters] and determined that it was 180–200 feet [55–60 meters] long.
The article then included another statement that falls apart as soon as it is parsed: “Two XB-70-like spaceplane carriers may have been built. One might have crashed, and a second is stored at the USAF’s secret Groom Lake test site in Nevada, says an industry source.” Again, the source is unnamed. But how does one rectify such a clear declaration with words like “may” and “might”? How reliable is the source if the best information “might” be true?
One thing that we have learned from past classified aircraft programs is that they are flown at isolated airbases at night until their existence is declassified and they are flown during daylight and based at less isolated facilities. The F-117 stealth fighter is a perfect example of this. Yet these various eyewitness sightings were all supposedly made during daylight hours at locations that are not isolated, such as Salt Lake City and the outskirts of Philadelphia.
In fact, Holloman Air Force Base—the alleged location of the detailed sighting of the spaceplane—is a very bad place to operate a highly classified aircraft because it is not isolated from civilian observation. A civilian road passes close to the main runway, and airplane buffs with cameras and telephoto lenses regularly take pictures of the planes operating there. Two civilian astronomy observatories are located on peaks nearly a mile above the base, and at one of these observatories there are coin-operated telescopes mounted along a walkway: put a quarter in the machine and you can look straight down at the Holloman flightline, the same flightline where the top secret spaceplane was supposedly being unloaded during daylight hours.
Flying into the void
Collectively, the articles contain many examples of internal inconsistencies, such as the airbreathing aerospike engines and the spaceplane that blocks the landing gear of its carrier aircraft. But the articles also include claims that are externally illogical—that is, they make no sense compared to what we know about the world.
For instance, take this statement: “Overall, a two-stage-to-orbit system wouldn’t have been technologically difficult to develop, according to aerospace veterans.”
This of course raises an obvious question—if it was so easy to do, why hasn’t NASA or the Air Force done it? Why are we still stuck with expensive space shuttles and expensive Atlas and Delta rockets? Even small rockets like the Pegasus are relatively expensive, and in fact the very existence of small rockets undercuts the justification for Blackstar’s use as a satellite launcher. If Blackstar existed, why do we have the Pegasus and Minotaur small launch vehicles? Why has DARPA sponsored the FALCON rocket program? Why did NASA and the Air Force dabble in the X-43A hypersonic vehicle if an operational hypersonic spaceplane already existed?
If Blackstar could have launched small satellites as part of a “responsive space” system, then why is the Air Force currently trying to develop that capability on its own? Certainly something like Blackstar would have been insanely expensive to build, so why would it have been kept classified rather than shared with the rest of the military research community that could benefit from its experience?
Six blind men in a zoo
After reading these articles with a skeptical eye, the reader cannot help but get the sense that the author is basing all of his information on hearsay—somebody told him that somebody else said something, but the author has not collected the information himself, or even tracked down the anonymous sources. In fact, many of the anonymous sources are so anonymous—not even a hint of what company they worked for or where they lived or how they knew something—that they go beyond anonymous; they become vaporous.
Most of the information in the article, including the alleged eyewitness reports, sound like the kinds of stories told among UFO buffs, or spread around the Internet: indirect evidence, anonymous sources, inconsistent facts, and no firm dates or locations. One suspects that William Scott has a circle of mystery aircraft watchers who feed him stories and rumors that he is unable to corroborate himself. One also suspects that his research skills are poor, because the articles include factual mistakes about unclassified subjects, indicating that he is not carefully fact-checking the work. And the overriding impression that one gets from these articles is that Aviation Week has very low editorial standards and that the editors are not forcing Scott to prove anything by presenting them with tape recorded interviews or notes or documents.
At no point does the reporter clearly indicate that he personally has been told anything substantive by a source that has direct knowledge of the program. At no point does he write “a CIA official told this author that…” or “an NRO official stated that…” or “a military officer who worked on the program said that…” or “this reporter has seen documents that clearly indicate that…” Because of this lack of specificity, of solidity, it seems probable that what the author has done is connected the dots between several disparate classified study projects, not an actual operational vehicle, retired or not.
At several points the articles refer to anonymous industry sources who worked on a part of a secret program. None of these anonymous sources, however, provide information on the overall project. They worked on the wings of a classified plane, or they knew about an optical reconnaissance system, or a hypersonic research project. It was the author who connected them, not the people who supposedly worked on the alleged Blackstar.
These stories sound somewhat like the parable of the six blind men describing an elephant—one feels the trunk, another a tail, another a foot, and so on, creating a description that makes no sense. But what is more likely here is that rather than six blind men describing an elephant, we have six blind men in a zoo, each describing a different part of a different animal, and a reporter assuming that these reports all refer to the same very strange beast. William Scott assumed that there was a mothership and a spaceplane back in 1992, six years before anybody reported seeing the two connected. For the next fourteen years he added more dots to the picture, even if they belonged to something else entirely.
But although the Aviation Week articles are based on wild speculation, filled with holes, and do not demonstrate careful fact-checking, there is a possibility that some of the information might be based upon actual aircraft or even spaceplane research programs. Just as William Scott took “Tier-3” and morphed it into “TR-3” back in 1990, he may be taking legitimate but incomplete information, and speculating wildly about spaceplanes and motherships.
A little bit of history regarding secret airplane projects is useful, however. For instance, the Air Force tested the Tacit Blue aircraft from 1982 to 1985. Rumors circulated of an aircraft that amateurs nicknamed “Shamu” for its weird shape. But it was not declassified until 1996 after sitting in storage for eleven years. Similarly, Boeing flew its Bird of Prey stealth demonstrator between 1996 and 1999, and it was not declassified until 2002. Aviation Week did not have stories about the flights of either aircraft, however, until after they were declassified.
The F-117 stealth fighter was different. The first one flew in 1981. Rumors of its existence leaked out by the early 1980s. But because it always flew at night, there were no credible eyewitness reports even though dozens of the aircraft were manufactured. It was not until the plane’s existence was declassified in the late 1980s that the public knew what it looked like.
Compare these examples with the alleged Blackstar. If the Air Force was so effective at keeping Tacit Blue, the Bird of Prey, and the F-117 secret, why would it fly a much larger top secret aircraft during daylight hours over populated areas?
Certainly the U.S. military has developed other classified aircraft programs that have not yet been declassified. But Aviation Week has had fourteen years to produce evidence that this huge mothership and its spaceplane exist. They have not provided that evidence. Then again, they still have not provided evidence of the Soviet nuclear-powered bomber either.