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Tempest in a Toy Box : The Stealth Fighter Is So Secret the Pentagon Won't Admit It Exists. John Andrews Shocked Everyone by Building a Model of It. To Tell the Truth, He Says, It Wasn't All That Much Trouble.

October 19, 1986|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

Last spring, the Testor model kit company of Rockford, Ill., introduced its model of the super-secret F-19 stealth fighter and immediately created an international sensation. Newspapers around the world ran front-page stories. Dan Rather featured the model on the "CBS Evening News." An irate congressman held up the kit during testimony from the chairman of Lockheed and demanded to know how a toy company was able to sell plastic models of a plane that members of Congress weren't allowed to see.

As a result of the publicity, the Testor Corp. expects to sell as many as 500,000 copies of the model by the end of the year, making it the best-selling model plane of all time. Still, to the man who came up with the model, Testor plane designer and airplane buff John Andrews, it was a media orgy and a lot of shouting and hand-waving over what to him was nothing more than sound engineering and common sense.

IT STARTED INJUNE,1985, WHEN THEdirector of marketing for Testor, Gary Cadish, walked to the back of the firm's small West Coast offices in a San Diego industrial park to use the photocopying machine. As he did so, he passed John Andrews' drafting table and, as he had every day for the last two weeks, glanced at the sketches on it.

What he saw was a futuristic drawing of a smooth-flowing, long-necked plane that Andrews had prepared in his spare time for the advertising campaign of a local electronics firm.

To Cadish, however, the sketches had the elusive good looks he expected of a stealth fighter--an aircraft that is nearly invisible to radar and infrared detectors.

"Is this something that's really flying?" Cadish asked Andrews.

"Yeah," Andrews replied.

"How accurate is this compared to what's out there?"

"Well, what you've got in your hand isn't very accurate at all," Andrews said. "I could do a lot better."

"How much better? Fifty percent accurate?"

Actually, Andrews said, he could probably come up with something that was 90% accurate.

Although Cadish's first thought was to build a model to sell, his next concern was the possible liabilities. Would it help the Soviets? Would it hurt the company or expose it to criminal prosecution? "What's the worst thing that can happen if we decide to do a model kit?" he asked.

"Nothing," Andrews said.

Cadish picked up the telephone and called the company president, Chuck Miller, at Testor headquarters in Illinois. "I think we've got a new item for next year."

"What's that?" Miller asked.

"I think we should do a model of the stealth fighter."

"No," Miller said. Testor was a small but old-line firm that had a reputation for manufacturing accurate scale models based on the blueprints of real aircraft. It wasn't just kids who bought model planes. Many of Testor's best and most critical customers were airline pilots, aerospace engineers, military officers and aviation buffs. You didn't throw away a 60-year reputation for authenticity on an airplane whose existence the Defense Department would neither deny nor confirm.

Cadish refused to give up. "The model industry needs some excitement," he told Miller. "This would be a really interesting project. I think we've got something here."

As a former Phantom jet pilot for the Marine Corps in Vietnam, the last thing Miller wanted was to hand the Soviets secret data. Still, to be first on the block with the stealth fighter would, in the small world of model airplane manufacturers, be a major coup.

"OK," said Miller, "write me a memo. Here's the questions I want answered: How accurate do you think it could be and why? And what are the moral and ethical implications of this model?"

John Andrews sat down and composed a three-page memo answering Miller's questions, enclosed his original sketches and sent the package to Miller by Federal Express. By the next morning Miller had read the memo and given Andrews his go-ahead.

ANDREWS, 54, IS A SERIOUS, CAREFUL person who reads books about politics for relaxation. When he sat down to design the model of the stealth fighter, he says, he had seen no classified documentation on the plane--no photos, blueprints or specifications. But after three decades of designing and building model planes, he had numerous informed friends and trusted contacts in the Defense Department, the aerospace industry and various branches of the armed forces. He belonged to the Aviation Space Writers Assn., and he had formed an exclusive, by-invitation-only organization of aviation buffs called the Golden Eagle Society. Over the years he had put together a file containing every public mention of stealth technology, starting with a Sept. 9, 1976, item in Aerospace Daily reporting that famed Lockheed aircraft designer Kelly Johnson had come out of retirement to begin work on a stealth aircraft.

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