With technology that had never been seen before, the U.S. Air Force went to amazing lengths to keep the stealth F-117 Nighthawk program under tight wraps during the 1980s. As the program matured into an operational force, deploying F-117s in small numbers became a real possibility. But maintaining the aircraft’s veil of secrecy while doing so was uncharted territory. Enter the “Klingon Cloaking Device,” a ruse that would help prove such deployments could work.
The F-117 program, code named Senior Trend, resulted in the world’s first operational stealth aircraft, but it would be almost a decade until the aircraft’s existence was publicly acknowledged.
During that time, the F-117 force only flew only at night out of its home at the very remote Tonopah Test Range Airport. Only those who absolutely had to know were read into the top secret program, and once indoctrinated, even sharing any details about your job with your spouse became absolutely prohibited.
Read all about the F-117's secret like at Tonopah Test Range Airport here:
As part of the F-117's cover, another much more humble aircraft had to be assigned to F-117s units under the 4450th Tactical Group’s umbrella.
This aircraft would not only help justify all the action at the “Black Jet’s” remote air base, becoming boring fodder for prying soviet satellites, but it would also be necessary to keep up pilot proficiency in a platform that performed similarly to the F-117 itself.
The aging A-7 Corsair II, nicknamed the SLUF as in Short Little Ugly Fucker, was chosen for this role, and it became the “official” jet assigned to the shadowy 4450th Tactical Group.
The cover story was that these humble A-7s and their crews worked as avionics development testers for the Air Force. That was a total fabrication. Once the sun went down, A-7 pilots were flying the world’s only stealth jet.
These aircraft, with their unique purple and green paint schemes and “LV” tail codes eventually became the last Corsairs IIs in service with the USAF.
By the very end of the 1980s, just as the F-117 program was beginning to emerge out of the highly classified “black” world, they were replaced by the T-38 Talon.
Yet even when the vampire-like F-117 crews were operating their seemingly very benign A-7s, they were under the piercing watch of the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to make sure their true mission could not be identified by enemy (aka Soviet) intelligence operatives. That meant actually doing things with all those A-7s, including deployments.
Retired Air Force Col. Doug Robinson, who wrote for one of the Stealth Fighter Association’s newsletters, picks up the story of how the Klingon Cloaking Device came to be from here:
“We began to stretch our legs and plan deployments using the A-7s as a surrogate for the F-117. We planned the deployment of a few aircraft to Homestead AFB, Florida, and learned from our actions. The OSI was specifically charged with finding out what was going on. We captured them before they got to our perimeter fence at Homestead AFB. The only outward signs that there was something out of the ordinary going on at Homestead was an OSI notation that there were some folks at a nearby motel wearing cowboy boots and other western apparel. We took note of that and were more careful of our “western” markings on later deployments.
We used the A-7 in our deployments to Young Tiger in South Korea and then to Great Britain. It was under our cover story for the A-7 of advanced avionics testing that the Klingon Cloaking Device was developed. We needed some purpose for the A-7s to be so special, and have all the attention and security that seemed to accompany the 4450th wherever we went.
It was in this vein that TSgt’s. Phillip Barta and Charles Baggerly took a BLU-27 napalm bomb shell, reinforced it according to Tactical Air Command instructions for a baggage pod, and constructed the Klingon Cloaking Device.
In case you’re not a Star Trek fan, the cloaking device was a key component of the vessels of two key alien races in the franchise. Both the Klingons, who were foes in the original series before becoming allies in Star Trek: The Next Generation an beyond, as well as the warlike Romulans, used the device to make their ships disappear. Similar to a submarine submerging below the ocean’s surface, this made detecting their presence incredibly difficult and gave them the advantage of surprise.
As a staple of Star Trek lore for over 50 years, the term cloaking device is often used as slang for something that makes another thing disappear.
Back to Col. Robinson, who explains what the “device” looked like, and how they mounted it on the A-7.
It has the front lens from an electro-optically guided glide bomb on the nose with a red light that had a soft pulsing glow showing through a ground glass lens. It had numerous blade antennas from the UHF and VHF frequency spectrum and several faux blowout ports similar to those used as exhaust ports for gas grain generators on early generation nuclear weapons. It was truly an awesome looking thing when mounted under the wing of an A-7.”
“The picture was taken of the device at its special resting place in maintenance training at the 49th TFW. The security police detachment’s performance was nothing short of outstanding in their support of the “special” A-7 aircraft of the 4450th. I’m sure that they left memorable impressions on anyone that wandered within close proximity of our A-7s. Chief Ralph Panzarino trained and equipped his security personnel well. Rumor had it that by the third day of Young Tiger exercises at Kunsan AB, when our A-7s approached the end of the runway “last chance inspection area,” with a security police escort, the local end of runway crews would go inside the shelter and voluntarily face the wall until the A-7s had taken the active runway.
These deployments led the way to the preparations that contributed to the successes of the F-117 in Panama, the first Gulf War and all subsequent combat operations.
The inside jokes didn’t end with the crazy “Top Secret” decoy pod carried by the A-7s. The few visitors allowed to tour Tonopah Test Range Airport during the F-117's tenure there would be told that they will be shown the “invisible aircraft.”
Ground crews would set up an elaborate scene in advance in one of Tonopah’s dimly lit hangars. Wheels, chocks, an air hose, and even a pilot’s helmet would be arrayed as if there were an invisible F-117 right there, with some of the components suspended in air by nearly invisible fishing line.
Add a few ground crewmen working around the cloaked jet just as if they were servicing a real material aircraft and it was a convincing vision, even if for just a brief moment. The visitors would enter the hangar and be totally stunned with what they were seeing, Here are some photos of what this bizarre prank looked like:
It is amazing how something akin to just a movie prop could have allowed the 4450th Tactical Group to blaze the trail for what would become the future of F-117 deployed operations—and that’s just one story we know about. One of history’s most notorious aircraft programs undoubtedly has many more to tell.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Photo credits: Top shot foreground-USAF, background via Captain Yeo/Shutterstock, Photos of the “cloaking device” pod used with permission of the Stealth Fighter Association. All other photos via DoD.
Special thanks to the Stealth Fighter Association and Chris Webb