Customer: DARPA / U.S. Air Force
Type: secret subsonic stealth assault troop transport
Program: SENIOR CITIZEN
First flight: circa 1988 (alleged)
SENIOR CITIZEN was an advanced tactical theater transport program run through the Air Force Advanced Systems Center at Wright-Patterson AFB. It was the follow-up to the DARPA/Scaled Composites AT³ (Advanced Technology Tactical Transport), a program which enabled the construction of a scaled-down troop transport prototype designated Scaled Composites Model 133, also known as the SMUT (Special-Mission Utility Transport) and flown between 1987 and 1989. The general idea was to develop an aircraft halfway between a helicopter and a C-130 Hercules. The aim was to land on a very short distance (initially 304 meters) and to transport 14 troops and 2 tons of material.
Under the CREDIBLE SPORT program, Lockheed had developed the heavily-modified YMC-130H prototype in the early 80s, which was able to take-off in only a few meters and land inside a football fields using booster rockets and retro-rockets, for use in a possible rescue attempt of the Americans held hostage in Iran in 1981. The plane now required by DARPA and the USAF represented a radical departure from such designs, and was to incorporate a sytem of airflow vectoring previously developed by DARPA. Northrop is said to have received a joint order from DARPA and the USAF as early as 1983 (Boeing was the other competitor and may have been awarded a parallel DARPA ACTD contract). The first flight of Northrop's SENIOR CITIZEN aircraft is said to have taken place in 1988 at the secret Groom Lake AFB, only a year after that of the Scaled SMUT. It is likely that Northrop developed a scaled down version of ASALT as a proof-of-concept vehicle, possibly unmanned.
As it had to be invisible to radar, infrared and acoustic sensors (even to the naked eye), the ASALT/SENIOR CITIZEN is something of a technological challenge. The aircraft is of triangular shape and fitted with three lights of variable intensity, positioned on each of the three angles. Their purpose may be to conceal the aircraft's true shape at night. In daytime, other lights may be used in greater number to hide the plane, making it invisible beyond 3 kilometers. More recent information has transpired about SENIOR CITIZEN. In 1990, additional flight testing is said to have taken place in Tehachapi Mountains, near Northrop's Tejon Canyon microwave research center. Witnesses describe a flat, triangular aircraft with rounded nose and leading edge. The example observed presented a black area in its middle.
The ASALT uses the so-called « improved Coanda effect » which enables it to take off and land over extremely short distances. The upper surface is typical of Northrop's other jetwing designs. Speed is still unknown to this day; however the ASALT is said to be able to fly at relatively low speeds. Dr. Henri Coanda, born in Romania, discovered the « Coanda effect » in 1910 and devoted 20 years of research to it. The basic principle enables every plane to fly thanks to the curved shape of its airfoil. The « improved Coanda effect » is about pneumo-dynamics, in other words the control of airflow.
SENIOR CITIZEN's wing is said to contain pipes which allow air to run through the leading edge all the way to the trailing edge. Apparently, compressors blow air through tiny holes positioned all along the wing. The B-2A bomber and YF-23A fighter are said to feature the selfsame device, which photographers has never been allowed to take pictures of, but the ASALT takes the concept further, as the top surface of the aircraft features thousands of such holes, enabling it to take off vertically, hover and even fly backwards. Flight testing is said to have been completed by 1988.
SENIOR CITIZEN is said to be in operational use since 1989, and almost always in conjunction with F-117A attack planes, flying behind them only minutes away. In August 1990, the type was seen in England, on the Alconbury RAF base. Twelve separate witnesses testify to its taking part in the Gulf War, one of them being parachuted from a SENIOR CITIZEN on the way to Baghdad. Renowned aviation journalist (and ufologist) Steve Douglass allegedly filmed the type on an exercise flight in Roswell. An RAF source also confirmed its presence on Machrihanish RAF base in Scotland. SENIOR CITIZEN aircraft are now said to be based at Camp Mackall in North Carolina. Their numbers are unknown. Many UFO buffs and secret plane enthusiasts have tried to associate the ASALT with the wave of black triangles that were seen over Belgium in the late 1980s. However, what is currently known of the type does not allow for the extremely high speed manoeuver capabilities that were observed by Belgian Air Force pilots.
The plane has also been called "Manta", "Black Manta" and "Astra", but it can either be seen as a for some way to scramble the tracks, or simply as confusion on the part of those who eavesdropped on the project. Indeed, there does exist a "Manta" aircraft that also uses pneumodynamics, but it is a Lockheed program; as for the "Astra", it is said to be another secret Northrop type. In 1992, the SENIOR CITIZEN codename is said to have been changed for GOTCHA by USAF. However, the quoted "C41SR" designation for GOTCHA is deeply inaccurate, as the "SR" suffix not only is non-standard DoD, but also doesn't fit in the time sequence.
Most likely, it is simply the often found misprint of the C4ISR acronym, which stands for "commandment, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance". The real designation of the ASALT could very well be something like 'AC-30A' or, even more in line with usual DoD practice, 'ACV-24A' (see insert on the left for a development on likely and unlikely designations). Mention of the SENIOR CITIZEN program in the House & Senate reports for the "National Defense Authorization Act" (under Defense Program Element 0401316F) ceased as of 1994.
Population: existence unconfirmed
What DoD designator for SENIOR CITIZEN?
Assuming the SENIOR CITIZEN demonstrator existed and flew, there is no guarantee that it would have been granted an official DoD designation. But let's suppose it did. What would the most likely candidates be?
As the DoD's C-16 designator was applied temporarily five times before being dropped, and since the next "missing" designation was C-30, (which conveniently followed right after the 1988 C-29A Hawker in chronological order), it is highly possible that if the ASALT / SENIOR CITIZEN / GOTCHA type ever received a DoD designation, it could have been something like YAC-30A, being both an armed assault and tactical transport type.
If the assault mission had been considered more central than the transport one, the type could have received an A-for-Attack designation instead, but with A-12 already assigned to the Avenger II project, A-13 dropped for superstitious reasons, A-14/A-15 perhaps reserved for possible attack versions of the F-14/F-15, and A-16/A-18 assigned to such versions of the F-16/F-18, it leaves only the ambiguous A-11 (said to have been dropped for fear of confusion with Lockheed's AI-1/A-11 Blackbird ancestor) and anything from A-19 up. However, the SENIOR CITIZEN looks more like an armed transport than an attack plane modified for transport, so the possibility of finding it in the A-for-attack series in unlikely—unless the type exists both as the C-30A and the A-30A, depending on the craft's primary mission (similar out-of-sequence designations have already been given to planes such as the A-16A, F/A-18A and F-35A).
Perhaps the best contender for the type's designation can be found in the V-for-V/STOL series. Indeed, the Bell-Boeing Osprey, despite its being proposed in USAF transport (CV-22), USMC minesweeper (MV-22) and USN Rescue (HV-22) versions, basically retains "V-22" as its core designation. As V-23 has already been used for the Skytrader Scout in the late 1980s, the VTOL prototype could have been designated as the YV-24A, YAV-24A or YCV-24A, even ACV-24A if both missions are deemed equally important.