There are a few big questions to come out of last night's typically excellent episode of FX's Cold War spy drama The Americans. But only one of them can be answered without waiting for next week's installment: What was with the dialogue about dead bats?
(Mild spoilers for the episode follow for episode 2-11, "Stealth," though you can read ahead without learning any of the really juicy plot developments.)
KGB agent Philip, decked out like a Geico caveman, visits a man who used to work for the U.S. military or one of its contractors. He's trying to find out about the radar-absorbent material the Americans coat their stealth planes with. After being bribed by soup and cash, the cancer-stricken mark rasps out some state secrets:
"RAM didn't work ... It's too heavy, clunky. ... Made out of tiles, hard stuff. It didn't work. So we tried these tiny little balls, microscopic. Iron paint balls. That's what killed 'em."
"Killed who?" Phillip asks.
"The bats. Dead bats all over the floor. From the fumes."
That detail struck me as fascinatingly specific. A quick web search reveals that dead bats are indeed part of stealth-technology lore, though there's some disagreement surrounding why. The FAQ for an F-117a enthusiast website has a whole section dedicated to bats. It says that Ben Rich's book Skunk Works quotes a colonel who'd worked with the planes as saying, "In the mornings we'd find bat corpses littered around our airplanes inside open hangers." And a 1991 Aviation Week and Space Technology article reported,
A reader who works on the stealth fighter in Saudi Arabia says bats (the natural ones) occasionally work their way into F-117 hangars. One night, a hungry bat turned right into an F-117 rudder and fell stunned to the floor. He flew away groggily, leaving behind a heightened impression of the aircraft's stealth. "I don't know what the radar return is for the vertical tails of the F-117 but I always thought it had to be more than an insect's," the reader said. "I guess I was wrong." There may be some "science" in this - the ultrasound wavelengths used by bats are roughly the same as X-band radar.
So stealth technology was dangerous to bats, but according to some accounts, that was because it caused the creatures, who find their way by echolocation, to slam right into the planes.