As a warm-up for the real thing, Ben and Steve wanted to test a ten-foot wooden model of the Hopeless Diamond on an outdoor test range near Palmdale, on the Mojave Desert.
The range belonged to competitor McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed made an arrangement to use their facility for a day or two.
As always, strict security had to be observed. For one thing, the Hopeless Diamond must never be visible to Soviet satellites that prowled in orbit above, devouring eye detail of any kind.
The ten-foot model was too long to fit into a standard van, and so Steve had to requisition a U-Haul van and a tower of blankets. Paul stressed over and over to everyone who'd listen that it was worth getting the largest transport vehicle available, to leave room for plenty of padding. The mockup must not be scratched or dented in any fashion or it would be a waste of time to take it to the range. The model was lifted by hand by a dozen technicians, carefully, slowly, onto a bed of blankets prepared in the van. It was covered with blankets, one blanket at a time, each blanket rolled so that its edges could not mar the matte black composite finish on the surfaces. Technicians then filled empty floor space around the model with cardboard boxes stuffed with styro packing peanuts.
Paul and Steve worriedly lowered the tailgate of the truck and made sure it was tightly locked.
"We'll have to drive real carefully to avoid getting in an accident," one of the engineers said.
Steve lit a cigarette and shrugged. "Buddy, at some time you gotta let go and hope for the best. We could worry this thing to the point that we fail for worrying."
Paul said: "I do want the truck parked under cover. I don't want it to sit there and bake in the desert heat because I'm afraid the wood might dry further and the paint might crack."
"Good point," Steve said. "You know, I think we can get the Air Force to provide us with one of those big camouflage nets that they drape over planes."
"Okay, I think we're ready to roll," Ben said. He tapped the back of the van, and the technician driving waved.
"I'll ride with him," Paul volunteered.
Ben grinned. "You're more nervous than I am."
"You better believe it."
It was a long, tedious, and enervating ride for Steve. The driver did not volunteer much conversation, and Paul in any case wanted him to concentrate on his driving. Their one luxury was that the driver chose a country western station that played softly much of the way to Palmdale, about three hours northeast of Los Angeles.
They arrived on the range around noon. Ben and Steve and the others had flown up in a DeHavilland Twin Otter from Burbank Airport and were waiting at the test pylon when Paul and his companion drove the van up, after getting lost twice and bumping around on side roads at five miles per hour. Once there was a thump from the back that had Paul ready to claw his way through the metal wall to check the model's condition.
The pylon already had a camouflage net draped over poles, so that it was invisible from the air. Steve waved for the driver to back the van up close to the pylon under the net.
Paul was the first on board to peel the blankets back. He breathed a sigh of relief. Not a mar or scratch in sight.
Gingerly, a group of eight men pulled the model out, including Ben and Steve and four Air Force technicians.
"Let's not put it down," Ben said as the model's tail section hung partially out over the concrete floor. "Let's do a smooth lift, walk about eight steps, and place the hole at the bottom of the model right onto the pylon. We must not drag the underbelly over the point, or it will be damaged. Got that?"
After a short rest, they said "one, two, three, lift" and wrested the heavy pound load through the air, then down, down, gingerly, gently, and it fit perfectly onto the pylon with a mere sigh of air escaping.
After an exchange of signals between the Air Force techs, there was a hydraulic whirr as the pylon rose up into its full 12 foot height.
"Looks beautiful," Steve said. "Looks like she's flying already."
"Good work!" Ben said. He asked the Air Force officer in charge, a young blond lieutenant with sunglasses, "Can we do this today?"
"Oh, absolutely, Sir. We can start right now if you wish."
Ben nodded. "Let's do it and see how it goes." He gave Paul a wink and crossed his fingers. Paul answered with a thumbs up, but his stomach was in butterflies.
"This is just our private Skunk Works test to rehearse for the real thing," Ben reminded everyone.
The lieutenant spoke by portable radio with the operator in a small building about 1500 feet away. A white radar dish turned slowly and aimed at the Hopeless Diamond.
The lieutenant spoke into the radio and gave a wave up-range. "Go!"
Paul, Ben, and Steve turned pale and hung on in the light desert breeze as one could have heard a cactus needle fall.
The lieutenant said to Ben: "There is something wrong, Sir. He's not getting any return at all."
Ben got a crafty expression on his face. He pointed gently at the Hopeless Diamond and said: "It can't be our modelshe's right there."
The lieutenant seemed distressed. "I'm really sorry, Sir. I hope we're not having trouble with our megatron." He spoke into the radio again. "What do you mean it's on max? You're not seeing a thing? Not even at full power?"
Just then, a crow flew by. Losing its way slightly, it landing slowly, flapping its wings, on top of the mockup.
The lieutenant brightened. "Okay, Sir, it's working. He's getting a nice fat signal."
Ben cleared his throat and looked utterly innocent.
Steve's eyes burned in silent triumph, while his facial muscles rippled at the effort he was making to restrain loud laughter and howling.
Paul ran over and clapped his hands.
The crow flew away, leaving a deposit.
The lieutenant started looking baffled again.
Ben whispered: "When we get back, I'm buying."