White Sands was located just northeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico, which lay on the intersection of Interstates 10 running east-west and 25 running north-south.
The tests were scheduled to last about a month. Northrop's people would not get a look at Lockheed's, nor would Lockheed's people see what Northrop had to offer.
Paul, Ben, and Steve flew to Las Cruces in a Lear jet owned by Lockheed. They Lockheed stayed in a Howard Johnson's near White Sands, and the location of the Northrop team wasn't disclosed to them. These security measures worked both ways.
Ben had arranged for himself and his two co-workers to stay in Las Cruces the first two or three days, to return to Burbank, and then to spend the last two or three days at White Sands again.
As they rode in a taxi to the test range their first morning at White Sands, Steve sighed deeply. "Well, here we go. This is the whole enchilada."
Paul found himself laughing nervously. "I'll be glad when this is over because we'll know one way or the other."
Ben said quietly: "There will be other contracts. Each one of them is unique and exciting, if you think about itthe SR-71, the U-2, the D-21..." He added: "...Somehow I don't think any of them stacks up against the potential to change history of this one. Just thinkplanes will be able to fly invisibly through the enemy's radar and drop precision bombs right down his shirt collar. If we get the contract, gentlemen, we will change history."
Ben had been wise in scheduling a few days on the front end, Paul thought. Several funny situations came up that required Paul's close attention.
What a boring activity testing was, Paul thought as he looked around. Everywhere you went in New Mexico, it seemed, you were on perfectly flat desert or scrub landalways with purplish mountains in the distance. It was a beautiful country in a unique kind of way, he thought, very empty, scoured, as if there had been an ocean here and it had gone away. Which was actually the truth, he remembered from his reading in geology.
The test activities went forward at a slow, methodical pace. Air Force enlisted personnel did most of the lifting around here, and they were all very proficient, though there was a kind of pacing to itthere would be more of the same tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, until one's enlistment was over, so why rush? The wind blowing in the sage brush at evening, and the dead brush rolling across a deserted street, and the silvery half moon pasted onto a perfect black sky squirming with millions of stars, all seemed to agree.
During the day the heat got up there, and the sky was a translucent blue with frequent contrails that quickly evaporated as their moisture was sucked up by the dry air.
The testing went in stages, and each stage had a Northrop half and a Lockheed half. The Skunk Works was up at bat at the top of the first inning, and Paul had a chance to work with the techsthough of course he was not allowed to touch the model.
The first day, there was a flap because something was wrong with the imaging. Paul stood by as a captain and a master sergeantlike all Air Force personnel around here clad in fatigues and combat bootshad a spirited discussion.
The NCO said: "Sir, we've got their model on the pylon, and the model doesn't show up, but the pylon is glowing like a night light."
The captain said: "Hmm. Are you aiming correctly? Checked your power?"
"Sir, I've run every check in the book. There is something wrong with our setup."
"Sergeant, I'll be happy to call base radar group. We can't stand here like this all day."
"I know, Sir, you're right, we have a full schedule. Maybe if we bring in a different magnetron?"
"Good idea. Call radar group and have them bring a different unitone they know for sure is recertified and working properly."
Paul went to a nearby roach coach and bought coffee and a donut. When he returned, Ben and Steve had returned from a visit to some base brass. "What's going on?" Ben asked."
Paul shrugged. "They think their radar isn't working."
"Any crows around?" Steve quipped.
"I was thinking that," Paul said. He pointed with his donut at the Hopeless Diamond, whose 38-foot silhouette looked majestic and soaring atop a tall pylon under a camouflage net. "They are going to replace their radar equipment. I'm going to wait."
"Yeah, don't say a thing," Ben said. "In fact, let's distance ourselves." They walked away about fifty feet.
A kind of tow motor or tractor arrived, moving slowly across the tarmac with a trailer in tow. On the trailer sat a large rectangular unit resembling a generator. A jeep with four technicians followed. Stenciled in black along the jeep's fenders a legend read: Radar Group A.
Paul had an idea of what was wrong. Sure enough, an hour later, after Group had swapped generators, the situation remained the same. The operators had a fit, holding their heads and walking around in circles. The captain appeared baffled.
"You'd better help them," Ben suggested.
Paul nodded. He walked over to the NCO. "Hello, Sarge. What's the trouble?"
The NCO, whose name tag read Marchant, shook his head. "We've never imaged our pylon before. It's strangelike a complete reversal. Before, we'd stick a test subject up there and shootand get the test subject; no pylon except maybe a faint smudge at about minus 20 decibels. Now we're seeing the pylon lit up like a Christmas tree, but no test subject."
Paul offered: "Can I make a suggestion? Take down the mockup and shoot the pylon. I think you'll get the same result."
The captain had heard this and stepped up somewhat heatedly. "What's the point? We don't have time to fool around here."
"It's not working," Paul reminded him. "I think the problem is that our radar signature is virtually zero. Before, you had objects with a signature big as a locomotive, and it drowned out the pylon. Our technology is so good that it makes your pylon look like flash bulbs going off."
The captain looked as if he'd swallowed a frog.
The NCO said: "I think you have a point there."
An hour later, a senior colonel told Ben Rich: "If you guys are so damned smart, why don't you build us a pylon that's as stealthy as you say your technology is."
Ben talked this over with Paul. "I don't see any harm in it. Northrop will see our new pylon but they won't be able to figure our technology. It's too late for them to steal anything. If we lose here, we lose. But if we win here, the world is ours."
"I'll design them a pylon," Paul said.
"I'd like you to stay here and honcho this whole business for me," Ben said. "Steve and I have to get back to Burbank, because we have a lot to do."
That afternoon, before leaving in the taxi with Steve, Ben told Paul: "I've worked out a deal with the Air Force, and they're working something out with Northrop. These tests are going to be meaningless unless the Air Force can quantify our radar signature within a tenth of a decibel. I threw out a quick and dirty estimate that a new pylon will cost $500,000."
"And the Air Force won't pay it," Steve added, one foot up on in the open door of the cab, ready to leave.
Ben said: "So Lockheed and Northrop will each pay half. They've agreed to let you develop the pylon right here in their labs, using whatever resources you need, and we'll help from Burbank."
"I'll need computer time down there," Paul said. He was warming up to the challenge. In a way, it was a blessed relief to have this take up his time, rather than face the agonizing tension of this do-or-die sudden death competition, plus the whole business of putting back together a personal life for himself, which had been on hold, and looming at the periphery of his consciousness.
"You'll get whatever you need," Ben promised. Then he and Steve were whisked away in a jeep across the tarmac to the airfield.
Paul sat up in the hotel room late into the night. The table was strewn with papers. He'd borrowed a slide rule and a pocket calculator, and a couple of pens and mechanical pencils.
The design should be able to comfortably hold a five ton weightthat was in the one page spec hammered out between Northrop's engineers and White Sands production range engineering. It must not sway in a wind up to 25 knots, nor must the angle of deflection in a 50-knot gale for a five ton weight be more than ten degrees.
Maybe he'd go for a double wedge pylon, he thought. Two wedges would be stable versus the ground, and along the top use the structural integrity of the model to gain some stiffness. He'd need Baldy or someone at the Skunk Works to work out the specs for the inner steel frame. They might have to get Bill Schroeder to come in for a few days to do the math and run the computer programs to figure out the most stealthy configuration of triangles or facets.
In the morning, Paul called Burbank and told them what he needed. Rather than talk on the phone, he send a set of hand-drawn impromptu designs by registered mail to Ben Rich.
Then he waited. He went to the base library and checked out some books on math and engineering. He also checked out a stack of paperback novels, for the moment making sure to avoid ones that might have too much romance in themhe was up for reading about war and history, but not the interactions between a man and a woman.
The sameness of the days added to the lingering uncertainty and the aching dread that he'd made a mistake somehow. But he managed to remember that he was usually a fairly self-assured man. The events of the past few months had thrown him sorely for a loop.
Within a week, the folks back in Burbank had finished their design work and air freighted a rolled up tube, registered mail, containing the plans. Paul reviewed them and sent back a memo authorizing the constructionhis largest responsibility to date, because he was responsible for a half million dollars of work.
And this was nearly untested! They had done some very successful miniature testing on wooden models, but not a full scale mockup.
He signed it off, and sent the memo back to Ben, who would copy everyone involved including Northrop Corporation.
Then he waited again. Unlike the usual hurry up and wait, however, there were fires lit under various personalities in the chain of command, and the Commandant at White Sands was anxious to get his HST behind him.
A construction crew installed the pylon on an unused concrete pad near the old pylon. The crew also installed several wooden telephone poles in a semicircle, over which camouflage netting would be draped. The twin-wedge pylons were slightly over 50 feet tall, and, with the full scale mockup on top, would be an imposing monument to aviation.
While the concrete hardened, Air Force technicians began testing the pole, from their 50,000-watt magnetron dish and shed 1500 feet from the target.
Paul waited with trembling knees, pacing back and forth.
One technician said: "Man, there's something wrong here. I don't see the pylon."
"Shoot the old pylon," an NCO said.
Ten minutes later, the tech said: "Geez, Sarge, what an ugly sight. The old pylon looks like it's on fire under water."
"Shoot the new pylon."
"Okay." A few minutes later, the tech said: "There's a little blip here the size of a bumblebee."
Paul's knees began to shake from a new reason: elation.
"Holy shit," the NCO said. "If they can do that with a frigging pole, imagine what they can do with their model."
Every day, Ben called at least once to find out the latest. Paul told him what he'd overheard that day. Ben was ecstatic.
The next day, Air Force technicians resumed the planned testing.
The Hopeless Diamond sat on its pylons like a boy's model science fiction rocket. The design, Paul thought, was rather pleasing in a startling way. The Hopeless Diamond might be an ugly duckling on the ground, but it would be a hawk in the air. He trusted Baldy and the other designers to engineer a brick that flew like an arrow, and sing at the same time.
In the initial tests, the model had a radar cross-section about the size of a golf ball. Paul could tell that the testers were impressed. A number of senior colonels and one or two generals showed up now and then to look at the design and nod. They were all pilots, from the look of them, and Paul imagined they were eyeballing a future plane that they might be flying. They came in twos and threes, in relays it looked like, and they did not look dejected when they left. Or was it that they were pleased with both test candidates and just waiting for one to edge the other out?
The heat, the birds, other environmental stresses sent the tests one way or the other.
Birds began leaving their signatures, and they significantly increased the radar return. Up to twelve birds at once decided that they too would like to fly this new gizmo, and came to inspect and leave their opinions. The radar cross section doubled from 1.5 decibels to 3 decibels before the mockup could be carefully washed clean by young enlisted men on ladders, with soft sponges and pails of warm water containing ordinary, mild dishwashing detergent that should not harm the paints.
The cross section came back down to 1.5.
Then the heat set in, during day after day of testing at various frequencies and ranges. The heat could actually bend the signal, so that it missed the target entirely or partially. On one reading, the signature was four decibels off in the minus direction, which was better than the Hopeless Diamond could do.
Paul considered the implications and said nothing. No sense helping Northropthey were probably experiencing the same effects. If the technicians did not catch their own errors, so be itunless, of course, it went against Lockheed's favor. But it didn't.
Ben called every day on a secure line, and Paul filled him in.
"How big are the cross-sections," he would ask.
"As small as an eagle's eyeball," Paul would say.
Then one day, Paul said: "The size of a small ball bearing."
Ben was very excited. "Can you get me a reliable average? I mean really reliable, because this will be quite important."
So the next day Paul recorded the diameter of every reading taken, and took their average.
When Ben called, Paul read him the measurement. "Why that is tiny indeed. I was thinking of using a marble, but that's too big."
"For what, Ben?"
"Well, I'm going to sell our pet by rolling a ball bearing across the desk of every relevant military or civilian officer and telling himhere is the answer to all your problems!"
"Oh wow." Paul laughed. He understood Ben's careful wordingeven on a secure line there could be problems, and this project was too potentially enormous in importance to risk it. Ben planned to scour the halls of the Pentagon, button holing any colonel or general in a blue uniform who was willing to listen. He'd roll a ball bearing across that officer's desk and tell him: "That's how big your stealth plane will be if you let us build it for you and support our efforts to get the contract or fill in the blanks."
Then the testing was done.
The answer would come in a few days: who had won the contract?