Alone and Without Stealth, John Andrews Makes Child's Play of the Pentagon's Most Secret Weapon

updated 10/13/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 01:00AM

He answers to the name of John Andrews, which is not an alias, and he isn't a spy. Nor is there anything sneaky about the way he works. "I'm one of those people who sits around the house and deduces," says Andrews, 54. These days, Andrews can be forgiven a smug grin or two while he sits at his house in San Diego. As a technological sleuth, he has scored a coup that has upset the Pentagon and caused dismay in Congress.

Andrews designs scale-model kits of cars and airplanes. His latest creation for the Testor Corp. of Rockford, Ill. is a plastic replica, about a foot long, of the F-19 Stealth jet fighter. A plane intended to be all but invisible to enemy radar, the F-19 is so hush-hush that, despite the rumored crash of a prototype in the Nevada desert this summer, the U.S. Air Force has never acknowledged that the aircraft even exists. Yet squadrons of Andrews' miniversion, at $9.50 a kit, have been flying off hobby shop shelves since January. Testor expects to sell close to half a million units by year's end. This combination of official secrecy and toy store availability has raised eyebrows in Congress. Complained Oregon Democrat Ronald Wyden, holding up an Andrews kit during a House subcommittee hearing: "What I, as a member of Congress, am not even allowed to see is ending up in model packages."

Andrews, however, denies that he violated national security. He insists that his work merely combines research material easily obtainable by the public, his own engineering training (from Northwestern University), his long experience in studying military aircraft—and a bit of luck. Starting more than a decade ago, he methodically assembled a file on the Stealth, beginning with vague references in trade publications such as Aviation Week. Even the U.S. government printing office lent him a helping hand when it sold him a two-volume set titled Radar Cross-Section Handbook.

Andrews knew the Stealth concept involved a plane built in a shape that deflects radar waves and that would be small enough to fit inside a C-5 transport plane. He was familiar with "stealthy" designs previously produced by Lockheed, the prime contractor. "I took these parameters and just kept interpolating," he explains, suggesting that the work was somewhat like doing a police composite sketch for a wanted poster. He got an unexpected break when an airline-pilot friend spotted a speeding black object airborne over California's Mono Lake area in 1983. A drawing sent by him, though crude, was enough to reassure Andrews that he was on the right track.

The final design of his Stealth model looks something like a high-tech water beetle, and he believes it is "80 percent accurate." The undisguised interest of people in the aerospace industry confirms that there must be something right about his kit. In Lancaster, Calif., a remote desert community where Lockheed has a production facility, a hobby shop sold 250 kits. "I assume I'm right about Stealth," says Andrews, "until someone comes along with a real one and says mine is wrong."

He takes umbrage at the suggestion that his work is a boon to Soviet intelligence. For one thing, he says, much of the magic of Stealth lies in the special materials from which the plane is built and in its electronics, neither of which can be duplicated in a polystyrene model. Besides, the Russians hardly need his help. "If I can do it," says Andrews, "then Ivan, with his vast scientific resources, can do it better."

While he concedes that military secrecy is often necessary, Andrews recalls that a kit-maker he worked for in 1958 was persuaded by Lockheed not to market a model of the then supersecret U-2 spy plane. Two years later a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union, causing a Cold War crisis. It dawned on Andrews that the Soviet government certainly knew of the U-2 while the American public, which paid for the aircraft with tax dollars, was kept in the dark. "Since then, I've done my own checking," he says. "This country was built as an open society."

Andrews, who has been model-building since his childhood in Chicago, views hobby kits as learning tools rather than toys. Working out of his San Diego home, which he shares with his wife of 29 years, Darleen (they have two grown children), he is vague about his current projects, allowing only that he is designing other models. Beyond that, he'd just as soon keep mum.

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