Dead Bats and Defective Plans: A Quick The Americans Fact Check
How correct was this episode's Cold War trivia?
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.
Others, though, have tried to debunk those reports:
Bats use ultrasonic signals for echolocation: these are mechanical compression waves not electromagnetic waves, as in case with radars, and have certainly nothing to do with the radar absorbent paint or any geometrical properties of the F-117A. The ultrasonic signals emitted by bats are narrow and highly directional and will reflect from most surfaces, RAM or no RAM. To explain the "dead bats" phenomenon we only need to remember that the F-117As use highly toxic paint and that the aircraft were stored in hot hangars with restricted ventilation. If the maintenance crews have spent as much time in these hangars as bats did, the bodies of bats would not have been the only dead bodies found around F-117As.
The-fumes-killed-'em story is, obviously, the one The Americans telling.
It should be noted, though, that most of the dead-bat accounts online refer to Gulf War-era projects and F-117s, while the show is unfolding in the early '80s and Philip is investigating Lockheed SR-71 Blackbirds. Of course, if the show fudged some details while making use of a real Cold War factoid, it wouldn't be the first time.
For example: A storyline earlier this season involved the Soviets stealing technical documents that the Americans had purposefully planted for purposes of counterespionage. Lo and behold, a report on the CIA website confirms that the U.S. indeed did leak defective plans to the USSR in the '80s.
On the show, this sabotage effort leads to the death of 160 Russians due to a faulty submarine propellor, but the CIA's report doesn't mention any such incident:
Contrived computer chips found their way into Soviet military equipment, flawed turbines were installed on a gas pipeline, and defective plans disrupted the output of chemical plants and a tractor factory. The Pentagon introduced misleading information pertinent to stealth aircraft, space defense, and tactical aircraft. The Soviet Space Shuttle was a rejected NASA design. When Casey told President Reagan of the undertaking, the latter was enthusiastic. In time, the project proved to be a model of interagency cooperation, with the FBI handling domestic requirements and CIA responsible for overseas operations. The program had great success, and it was never detected.
Show creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent, may well be drawing from un-Googleable sources of period details to work into the show. But even if not, he and his writers have plenty of right to remix historical facts for dramatic effect. Think about the dead-bat scene: Here's someone whose work in the stealth business poisons himself and some innocent creatures around him. A pretty compelling metaphor on this show, no?