A tribute to Dr. Franklin Rodgers ’44 (1923-1999)
Declassified documents reveal alum’s key role in stealth technology
Dr. Franklin Rodgers '44 with the SR-71 Blackbird. Photo by David A. Rodgers
When Herb Rodgers visited the home of his brother Dr. Franklin Rodgers ’44 many years ago, Frank pointed to a photograph of a stealth aircraft and quietly said, “This is mine.”
Information about stealth technology, used to make airplanes invisible to radar, was top secret until it was declassified in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. When Herb visited, though, Frank could not talk about his work. A few years ago, the History Channel aired a documentary about stealth technology and gave all the credit to another engineer. Herb decided to seek recognition for his late brother, as well. He explains Kelly Johnson, who led Lockheed’s Skunk Works project, designed the plane to fly, while Frank designed it for stealth capability. From 1956 to 1962, Frank was involved in stealth research, including the research and discovery of the first principles of stealth technology in the U.S.
Herb visited Bradley in 2003 to collect information on Frank’s past. He learned that the Office of Alumni Relations had no record of Frank having attended Bradley, but when he dug deeper, he found that the Registrar’s Office had records showing he had graduated with honors in 1944. When Herb visited the University of Illinois, where Frank had earned a Ph.D. in physics in 1949, he also found Frank’s records were buried. It was then he figured the CIA may have covered Frank’s tracks since he was doing top-secret work.
In 1995, Frank wrote his memoirs about the years he had been involved in stealth research. Herb shared those memoirs, as well as additional background about his brother. He says Frank was a rising star in the radar division of MIT’s research center, Lincoln Labs, in 1956. Edwin Land of Polaroid fame worked there. His cameras and film were used on the U-2 spyplane. Land was instrumental in bringing Frank and the CIA together.
Frank joined a team of radar experts to try to find a way to make the U-2 stealthy. One member of the team was Edward Purcell, Harvard professor and Nobel Laureate in physics, who was highly regarded among radar engineers. The team worked for the next two years but could not come up with an invisible U-2, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted upon after Gary Frances Powers was shot down while flying his U-2 over Russia in 1960.
It was at this time that Dick Bissell, deputy director of the CIA for (Covert) Operations asked Frank if he thought he would be more successful if he could influence the design of an aircraft from its inception rather than working on an existing plane. His reply was the same as when he started the U-2 effort: “I don’t think so, but if you want me to try, I will.”
In his memoirs, Frank wrote, “I had the problem of finding a way to carry out those experiments without raising curiosity, with no equipment and no staff. There happened to be a small wooden shack on the roof of the building in which my radar groups were housed…It showed no evidence of having been occupied since the construction was completed, so I was able to move in with no one the wiser. For the next month, I spent most of my time alone in the shack…where our experimental program had begun. There, I returned to basic research, trying to understand the nature of the radar return from simple geometrical shapes without regard to the aerodynamic practicality of such shape.
My favorite shape was a simple circular aluminum disk. It had the advantage that the pattern of radar return from it was simpler than a shape other than a sphere. After a month of frustrating failure, I adapted to my metal disk a technique developed during World War II for an entirely different configuration. To my complete surprise, the radar return did not just decrease; it disappeared.”
It was the above statement that made Herb believe Frank was truly the father of stealth technology for the U.S. Frank took his ideas to Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works project at Lockheed. Together, they began work on the CIA plane, the A-12. In 1962, the Air Force renamed it the SR-71 Blackbird. Frank’s research led to the discovery of the five principles of stealth design still used today: radar cross-section reductions, such as vehicle shape and radar-absorbing paint; acoustics; visibility; infrared; and reducing radio frequency emissions.
Herb has submitted the memoirs to Bradley University’s Special Collections, housed in the Cullom-Davis Library. Contact Herb Rodgers at email@example.com for more information.