Issue 24 Shadows Winter 2006/07
Shades of Black
Military culture is filled with symbols and insignia, a rich visual
language that signifies everything from various unit and command
affiliations to significant events and note-worthy programs. There are
memorial coins, flags, and t-shirts to commemorate significant events,
patches to designate one’s affiliation with different military units,
and totemic mascots for different weapons systems and job descriptions.
This is a program patch from the National Reconnaissance Office, the
United States’ "black" space agency whose existence was a secret until
the early 1990s (the agency was formed in the early 1960s).
A National Reconnaissance Office program patch, whose referent remains
entirely obscure. The Latin inscription translates as "Never before,
TENCAP is an acronym for Tactical Exploitation of National
Capabilities, a collection of programs that involve developing tactical
(battlefield) applications out of reconnaissance satellite capabilities
(which are normally thought of as strategic).
The text of this patch roughly translates as "A Secret Squadron / From
Deep in the Night / Don’t Ask Any Questions." This patch is or was
probably worn by an obscure unit, operating out of a secret Air Force
Base near Groom Lake, Nevada, called the "Ghost Squadron." The single
star in the southwest United States presumably designates the group’s
Also based at Groom Lake, the Special Projects Flight Test Squadron is
the Air Force’s premier "black" squadron for testing classified
prototype aircraft. The squadron’s mascot is a wizard. A collection of
six stars (five plus one) on the patch is a reference to the unit’s
operating location: the secret base known as Area 51. The sigma symbol
in the wizard’s right hand is a reference to the ideal radar signature
of a stealth aircraft: zero. On the right side of the patch, the
falling globe references aluminum balls dropped from the sky to
calibrate radar equipment. Lightning bolts, such as the one emanating
from the wizard’s staff, often refer to electronic warfare. The
aircraft in the lower right is probably a generic symbol representing
flight testing. The sword at the bottom of the image refers to a
recently declassified Boeing stealth demonstrator known as the "Bird of
Prey": the handle on the sword approximates the shape of this prototype.
This commemorative patch for a classified flight test of an F-22 Raptor
aircraft at Groom Lake shares many symbols with the Special Projects
Flight Test Squadron. The mascot here is a Raptor clothed in the
garments of a wizard, with a sigma symbol hanging from the figure’s
neck. The collection of six stars is again a reference to Area 51. The
phrase "1dB" may reference either the intended or actual radar
cross-section measurement of the aircraft.
This was the original version of a patch commemorating a test flight of
a B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber. The sigma symbol on the test shape’s
outline signifies invisibility. The number "509" refers to the 509th
Bomb Wing, which operates the United States’ stealth bombers from
Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The alien is probably a reference
to the 509th’s lineage. In 1947, the 509th was based at Roswell, New
Mexico, home of the infamous "Roswell incident," which ensued after the
509th’s commander, Col. William Blanchard, issued a press release whose
headline stated: "Roswell Army Airfield Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch
in Roswell Region." The dog-Latin phrase Gustatus Similis Pullus
translates as "Tastes like chicken." The shapes on either side of the
alien head seem to signify a fork and knife, which would be consistent
with the patch’s theme of eating.
This patch signifies a "black" project conducted by the Navy’s VX-9 Air
Test and Evaluation Unit, based at Point Mugu, California. VX-9’s
mission is to test strike aircraft, conventional weapons, electronic
warfare equipment, and to develop tactics involving said weapons
systems. The Latin phrase Si Ego Certiorem Faciam … Mihi Tu Delendus Eris
roughly translates into a cliché commonly heard in the vicinity of
"black" programs: "I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you."
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© 2007 Cabinet Magazine