Our analysis notwithstanding, a certain measure of agnosticism continues to be appropriate when considering the question of the existence of these various mystery aircraft. Although there is a growing body of evidence that could be interpreted to suggest the existence of one or more advanced aircraft behind the veil of government secrecy, this evidence remains suggestive rather than conclusive.
That this should be the case is not surprising, for while the various stratagems of secrecy used to protect advanced weapons programs are imperfect, they are not entirely in vain. It would be surprising if a concerted and well funded effort to hide or obscure the status of such programs were to fail utterly, though acknowledgement of the success of such a secrecy effort would not necessarily imply endorsement of its continuing wisdom.
While the preponderance of evidence tends to support the hypothesis that one or two classified aircraft development and testing programs are presently being conducted by the US military, several caveats introduce notes of caution in accepting this hypothesis as proven fact.
It cannot escape notice that the primary source the of reporting of details concerning the current crop of mystery aircraft is a single publication, Aviation Week and Space Technology. Although a number of other publications have contributed to the development of this story, the reporting in Aviation Week has been distinguished by its detail, as well as the character of some of the reported characteristics of some of the aircraft, which have ranged from the frankly exotic to the nearly fantastic.
While Aviation Week has an established reputation as the authoritative news magazine of the aerospace industry, it cannot be forgotten on occasions its reporting has led humorists to dub it Aviation Leak and Space Mythology. Though its coverage has been marked by authoritative leaks, mythology has occasionally crept into its pages.
Perhaps the most memorable instance of mythologizing came in December 1958, when Aviation Week claimed that:<1>
"a nuclear-powered bomber is being flight tested in the Soviet Union. Completed about six months ago, this aircraft has been flying in the Moscow area for at least two months. It has been observed both in flight and on the ground by a wide variety of foreign observers from Communist and non-Communist countries." The article further claimed that the aircraft was "not a flying test bed in the sense that earlier US Air Force and Navy programs had called for installing a nuclear powerplant in a conventional airframe such as the B- 36...solely for test purposes. The Soviet aircraft is a prototype of a design to perform a military mission as a continuous airborne alert warning system and missile launching platform..."
Several years later, a prototype of a Soviet conventionally-powered bomber, NATO code-named "Bounder," which never entered production, was found to resemble the schematics given to support the original nuclear airplane revelations. However, this aircraft used conventional propulsion, and to date there is no indication that the Soviets were actually embarked on an aircraft nuclear propulsion program.
The established reputation of Aviation Week makes it impossible to dismiss their reporting based on the fact that innaccuaracies on their part are not without precedent. The fact that other publications have provided similar, if perhaps less detailed, reports, must also be taken into account.
While there may be questions about the existence of mystery aircraft, there is no doubt concerning the existence of reports of their existence. Thus it is useful to consider mystery aircraft not simply as an engineering product, but also as a sociological and epistimological phenomena.
The first problem that confronts the student of the mystery aircraft phenomenon is the embarrassment of riches. Accepting the reality of all of the various vehicles whose existence has been suggested implies a covert aircraft development program that dwarfs the efforts officially acknowledged by the US government. While one might be prepared to accept the existence of one or two such programs, the bewildering array of exotic vehicles reported in the literature surpasses reasonable expectation. Surely at least some of these are the product of mistaken identity or some other sort of mischief.
The entire mystery aircraft phenomenon is characterized by a very low signal to noise ratio. While there may be a signal in there somewhere, there is also clearly a lot of noise. One source of this noise may be honest cases of mistaken identification of conventional phenomena by field observers, or improper interpretation by budget analysts.
But the possible role of active disinformation must also be recognized as a potential source of the noise that seems to obscure the signal. Prior secrecy efforts had only limited success in protecting pertinent details of the F-117A, B-2 and A-12 programs, and essentially failed to protect the fact of the existence of these programs.
Given this poor track record, it is certainly conceivable that those responsible for protecting both the existence and characteristics of ongoing classified aircraft projects have taken a different approach. Rather than trying to protect a single program that actually exists, perhaps they have chosen to create a series of imaginary decoy programs, which would protect the real aircraft projects in much the way decoys protect ballistic missile warheads from interception by anti-missile defenses.
William Scott, whose reports in Aviation Week & Space Technology have provide much of the information on mystery aircraft, concedes:<2>
"You have to be extremely cautious. There are a lot of guys who are good at misinformation."
The disinformation campaigns launched to persuade Sadam Hussein that the Marines would launch an amphibious assault on Kuwait, or to persuade Hitler that General Patton would launch the main Allied invasion against Callais are notable examples of this venerable gambit.
The bewildering array of reports of mystery aircraft complicate the separation of the wheat from the chaff, and suggest the possibility that the abundance of smoke may hide an absence of fire.
What is to be made of the various publications in trade journals of analyses of aircraft that seem to all intents and purposes to be Aurora? A number of interpretations seems equally plausible:
Perhaps Aurora was indeed canceled in 1985, and these are merely the product of continuing low-level paper studies.
Perhaps these are the outward and visible manifestation of an ongoing large-scale development effort that includes flight testing of Aurora aircraft. The Timberwind nuclear rocket program provides precedent for this, with the publication of a number of unclassified technical reports describing the particle-bed reactor development effort, while failing to acknowledge that these were part of the ambitious Timberwind project. This overt activity would provide a useful cover story for any aspects of the covert program that might inadvertently come to public attention.
Or perhaps Aurora was indeed canceled in 1985, and these studies have been continued to sustain suspicions to the contrary, thereby obscuring the reality of some other unrelated program.
Or possibly these low-level paper studies were the genesis of the entire Aurora story, with this modest effort having been inadvertently confused with reality of some other unrelated program.
There is no exit from this wilderness of mirrors. By definition, a successful deception or disinformation effort remains undetected and unsuspected.
The distinction between the existence of mystery aircraft and the existence of reports of their existence derives from the distinction between the existence of flying saucers, and the existence of reports of Unidentified Flying Objects. While few accept the existence of flying saucers, none can deny the existence of reports of Unidentified Flying Objects.
An understanding of the mystery aircraft phenomena is impossible outside the context of the UFO phenomena, for mystery aircraft remain, despite the best efforts of investigators, reporters, and analysis, Unidentified Flying Objects. Indeed, considered as a sociological and epistemological phenomena. the parallels between reports of flying saucers and reports of mystery aircraft are striking.
First, reports of observations of mystery aircraft have coincided with reports of observations of flying saucers. The state of Nevada has been the site of a major UFO flap for the past several years. Indeed, the question of whether an Unidentified Flying Object is reported as a sighting of a mystery aircraft or a flying saucer may have more to do with the predisposition of the individual observer than with the nature of the observed phenomena. Thematic apperception -- "I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it" -- is a well established element of the psychology of human perception.
Second, the nature of many of the mystery aircraft reports are strikingly similar to other UFO reports. Strange lights seen moving erratically or at high speed in the sky have long been core elements of the UFO phenomena. Investigations of flying saucer reports have consistently demonstrated how even experienced and trained observers can misinterpret familiar phenomena seen under unfamiliar (or even familiar) circumstances. Although this precedent cannot exclude the existence of novel aircraft, it does suggest caution in interpreting such reports.
Similarly, reports of radars tracking high speed targets were a staple of the early flying saucer literature, though these were subsequently dismissed as resulting from anomalous radar propagation or operator inexperience. The incidence of such reports has declined with the availability of improved equipment and greater operator experience. But anomalous propagation of radar signals, creating false targets on radar screens, is an abiding problem.
Reports of intercepted radio conversations that are alleged to emanate from high- performance aircraft, such as Aurora, may instead emanate from pranksters. Such mischief makers have actively propagated flying saucer sightings, and were a major source of the Crop Circle phenomenon in the United Kingdom.
Finally, one is struck by the similarity between the cultural significance of the mystery aircraft phenomenon and that of the other Unidentified Flying Object phenomenon, claims of sightings of flying saucers. Carl Jung noted that belief in flying saucers was a response to the deep cultural anxieties of a society threatened with sudden nuclear annihilation.
Belief in the existence of marvelously capable and highly secret aircraft resonates with some of the deeper anxieties of contemporary American society. Aviation has long been one of the distinguishing attributes of American greatness, from Kitty Hawk to Desert Storm. But the economic challenge of Japan, coupled with the declining fortunes of the military aerospace industry, has created growing uncertainties about the future. It would be comforting to belief that the decline of America and American aerospace was more apparent than real. It would be reassuring to believe that concealed in the most hidden recesses of the American technostructure were devices of such miraculous capabilities that they will astound the world when at last they are revealed, and will restore America to its rightful station of leadership.
<1> Aviation Week, "Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber," 1 December 1958, page 27.
<2> Marshal, Jonathan, "In Plane Sight? Washington City Paper, 3 July 1992, page 12-13.