Signed Edition Sweepstakes

From the Authors


Original Essays

Powell's Q&A

Tech Q&A

Kids' Q&A



Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Black Hats and Black Mantas

Engineers working in the "black world" of classified military projects are often referred to in military circles as "black hats." There are a lot of jokes about the difference between "white hats" and their spooky counterparts.

The image below isn't a patch per se. It's a memorial coin whose purpose remains a little bit of a mystery to me. Anyone who's spent some time with my book should be able to decode most of the symbols in the coin below, except one. The crescent-like shape above the cloud is a mystery. Anyone have any theories?

Below is a patch from a black project that I don't know anything about. Rumors have long held that the Air Force built an aircraft nicknamed the "Black Manta" sometime in the 1980s as a companion plane to the F-117A stealth fighter. Supposedly, it flew missions in tandem with F-117As during the first Gulf War, providing laser-targeting information from a very high altitude. The "Black Manta" story, however, is just a rumor, and there isn't very good evidence that the airplane ever existed. On the other hand, there isn't very good evidence for most things going on in the "black world."

I'd love to hear any theories about the symbology in the patch below.

÷ ÷ ÷

Trevor Paglen is an expert on clandestine military installations. He leads expeditions to the secret bases of the American west and is the author, with AC Thompson, of Torture Taxi.

Books mentioned in this post

Trevor Paglen is the author of I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World

38 Responses to "Black Hats and Black Mantas"

    Daria O’Leary February 22nd, 2008 at 10:20 am

    looks like a stingray--maybe it's an australian death patch? was the CIA behind the death of the croc hunter??

    Mark Yedo February 22nd, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    I would say the cloud would represent nuclear death, but it doesn't look like a mushroom cloud to me.

    Jenn Z. February 28th, 2008 at 1:54 am

    Memorial coins like the one above are used by service a drinking game. The story goes, you are supposed to carry a memorial coin with you at all times, even naked in the shower. Usually they identify a person's rank or affiliation or are gifts by higher ups. If you "coin" someone, and they prove they have theirs, you buy them a drink. If they don't have theirs, they are to buy you a drink. Now if someone flashes one in a full bar, the poor guy without a coin is responsible for the bar. There are countless coins in circulation, many with humorous inside jokes.

    Terri Hull February 28th, 2008 at 1:57 am

    I personally couldn't tell you what the symbolism is - maybe the black crescent is the forerunner of the umbrella coporation. However, since it's a military coin (my husband has a large collection) just contact a military heraldry expert. They actually sit around and think these things up, and I'm sure they could tell you exactly what it signifies.

    E.T. February 28th, 2008 at 6:30 am

    The shape above the cloud looks to me like a parasail. I laughed at the manta patch: Indigo Delta Kilo? IDK -- I Don't Know! I think the Stealth itself looks a bit like a manta, albeit without a tail.

    Jim Browning February 28th, 2008 at 6:50 am

    The purpose of a coin in the military today has several uses. It is given as a "thank you" for a job well done, it is given as a souvenir to ranking individuals visiting a command. High ranking officers and the top enlisted
    leaders of the services have a coin that they use in the same manner. The troops call the coins "challenge coins"
    and they way they are used is as follows: a person walks into a bar or
    military club and raps on the bar with his coin challenging everyone there to produce their coin, the person or persons who cannot produce a coin, must buy a round of drinks for the group. If all can produce a coin then the challenger must buy a round for the group. This practice has its roots in the Vietnam War, a story far to long to
    relate here. Needless to say the whole coin thing has really caught on in and out of the military and has become quite a collectable hobby. I have some 20 odd myself. For the full story just
    Google "challenge coin" and you can read
    all about it.
    SKCS(SW)Arthur J Browning, USNR-Ret

    George Escalera February 28th, 2008 at 7:26 am

    Well, now, it looks like the lightning bolt from the Captain Marvel comic books. When Billy Batson would say the magic word "SHAZAM!" a bolt of lightning would appear and sound and young Billy would be transformed into the "The World's Mightiest Mortal!"

    That sounds right, no?

    Natilopan February 28th, 2008 at 7:27 am

    "Anyone who's spent some time with my book should be able to decode most of the symbols in the coin below, except one. The crescent-like shape above the cloud is a mystery."
    I would say, since the other to appear to be silhouettes of stealth aircraft, that the crescent shaped one is also of one (that we have yet to see). Then again, it does resemble the general shape of the Phoenix Lights....hmmmmm......

    George Escalera February 28th, 2008 at 7:28 am

    The Red Star might stand for either Russian military or a bottle of imported beer.

    Margie February 28th, 2008 at 7:29 am

    On the memorial coin, two things come to mind with the crescent shape:

    1. Looks like an American Indian bow

    2. Folk wisdom holds that if the crescent moon's tips are pointed up, there will be no rain or other moisture; if the tips are pointed downward, there will be rain or other moisture. Since they are fully down, bad storms are really coming.

    As for the patch, did Dracula mate with a rat? Looks like a bat with a rat's tail.

    deborahj February 28th, 2008 at 8:03 am

    It's funny that he goes on to talk about stealth craft in the next paragraph, because what he describes as a "crescent shape" above the cloud on the coin looks like a representation of a stealth craft to me. (At least, with as much detail as one can get onto an enameled coin...) I've seen the stealth bomber in flight and when it leveled out, it approximated this shape.

    George February 28th, 2008 at 8:16 am

    On the coin, since the black outlines on either side of the one face of the coin represent outlines of aircraft that we have seen, I would imagine that the top one is an experimental aircraft that hasn't been publicized.

    Bill Wickart February 28th, 2008 at 8:24 am

    That black crescent shape looks like the front view of a stealth craft, corresponding somewhat to the two craft on the sides.

    For the Black Manta, note that the phonetic alphabet letters are "IDK", perhaps for "I don't know"?
    The stars are the development or deployment sites in the US. For instance, the upper-left could be Seattle, the upper-right in Maine, with the bottom one in Houston.

    I haven't been able to translate the motto; perhaps "Entrance is good; how satisfying!"

    Perhaps the stars denote places the project intends to infiltrate?

    Steven Davis February 28th, 2008 at 8:40 am

    It seems fairly obvious that the crescent shape is the manta. The marine manta seen headon has the same sort of thin crescent shape, with slightly down curved tips.

    The relative position of the crescent on the medallion seems to support this as well since the manta provided "laser-targeting information from a very high altitude". Thus, it appears high above both the clouds and the other stealth planes.

    Janice February 28th, 2008 at 9:12 am

    Maybe the cloud and the crescent are a symbol of a covert conspiracy to control the weather...ok, it's out there, I know.
    Or maybe it's "striking like lightning under a black sky...

    Matthew Keenan February 28th, 2008 at 9:28 am

    The object above the cloud to which you refer is a "Manta Ray" drone. It was launched at the start of the war in Iraq and functions as the "top secret, high priority digital observation platform for President Bush." It weighs just under 1.06 lbs. It houses a set of twin mounted electronically sophisticated telephoto cameras. They are positioned at the lead-edge where the object furls under, replicating the sensory globes of the manta ray found in nature. It's primary function today is to keep an eye on the secret documents passed from one Alqida subversive agent to another. Obviously, this is the instrument through which the President gets the information that no one else seems to have. In fact, it gives him the right to the title of not only "The Descider", but to the title of "The Know-It-All."

    Maggie February 28th, 2008 at 10:14 am

    The crescent shape is the shape of the Manta looking straight at it as it comes towards you. Reference the patch shown titled "Black Manta".

    Dan McCain February 28th, 2008 at 10:37 am

    The crescent-shaped object above the cloud on the coin in a front-view image of the stealth. As you can "see", it's practically unitentifiable as a bomber from this view and, I suppose a rear view. Two other views are clearly identifiable.

    sarah February 28th, 2008 at 10:42 am

    well, anyone else notice that "indigo delta kilo" could be represented as "idk" in, I Don't Know.
    Maybe it was just so top secret that *no one* knew what it was...

    Jack LaSalle February 28th, 2008 at 10:42 am

    My theory is: that image is the frontal view of the Black Manta when flying,i.e., what you would see if it were flying directly at you at the same

    W.A. Barton February 28th, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Looks like a semi-saucer-shaped UFO, or perhaps the craft shown in the patch to the left from the front rather than the side. Since it's atop the stealth plane at the bottom right and the black triangle at the left (another frequently reported UFO shape that's almost certainly a black ops project), it would seem to indicate a man-made flying saucer-like aircraft(rumored to have existed for years now). At least that would be my guess. (It also resembles the manta-like craft in the George Pal movie version of War of the Worlds, seen from the front, without the heat ray stalk. Somehow, however, I doubt it's a Martian fighting machine.)

    ern February 28th, 2008 at 11:39 am

    I'm with Natilopan... it's the head on view of the plane.

    Lesley February 28th, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    The "Crescent thingy" above the mountains is a head-on view of the delta-wing plane shown to the left and right of the mountains... (top and profile views I'm guessing).

    Phil D February 28th, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    The crescent if turned sideways and the star below it is the flag of Saudi Arabia and therefore Islam. This could be the targets of the two planes. Just speculating.

    Herman February 28th, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    I am in agreement with Daria O'Leary, with the suggestion that it is the manta ray of the accompanying patch. As the narrative intimates, "the Air Force built an aircraft nicknamed the "Black Manta" sometime in the 1980s as a companion plane to the F-117A stealth fighter."

    The iconography represents a classic, head-on silhouette view of a ray in "flight" in its marine domain. (Air is nothing more than a gaseous environment, not unlike the sea.) The fact that it is placed at the top of the coin would tend to corroborate the speculation that said aircraft "providing laser-targeting information from a very high altitude." Since both the B-2 and F-177 are represented as well, there seems to be agreement.

    Herman February 28th, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    er, make that the F-117.

    George Escalera February 28th, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    The stars around the Manta figure on the patch look a lot like those making up the Capricorn constellation.

    George Escalera February 29th, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    On the coin, the two aircraft depicted opposite of one another are seen from a bird's eye view, that is, from overhead. Why would the aircraft -- if it is an aircraft -- over the cloud be viewed head on? Perhaps it is also seen from above.

    There are five small arrowhead shapes.
    Downed aircraft?

    The other side of the coin with the blob-like aircraft coming from out of a mountain range are hard to figure out because the image is so small.

    The cactus would indicate that the mountains are somewhere in America -- New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona -- who knows? The mountains are strange.
    The one on the right looks like a mesa but the one on the left looks like the Parmamount Pictures logo.

    The white swirls on the bottom look like some sort of backwash. Again, hard to say since the image is so small.

    George Escalera March 2nd, 2008 at 11:23 am

    The Black Manta on the patch and the crescent shaped object on the coin may be the same gadget.

    I doubt that it is unmanned, because, no matter how beneficial those sort of things may be, they would not hold such a high place, certainly not above the manned aircraft depicted (apparently The B-2 and F-117).

    That would be like elevating a good hunting dog over the hunter. No matter how good that pooch may be at flushing out prey or pointing or retrieving, it will never get more credit than the hunter.

    I'd guess that object represents a manned aircraft as well.

    Suzle March 2nd, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I think Stephen Davis has the crescent shaped image right-on; at least that's what my first thoughts were, too.

    Hahaha! Took me a few minutes to figure out that the image on the other side is the roadrunner ("beep-beep!") outfitted with a black hat.

    George Escalera March 3rd, 2008 at 8:02 am

    The Road Runner, yes. Heh -- I suppose too much can be made out of something simple. Sometimes a Road Runner is just a Road Runner!

    Some of the artwork painted on F-117 (on the bomb bay walls) features the Road Runner, the Coyote and other cartoon, comic book, and fantasy creatures.

    Some kids never grow up.

    Thanks for that!

    manuel gonzalez March 4th, 2008 at 7:05 am

    This could be the aurora spy plane that along withthe stealth aircraft targeted the missions for the b2 and f117.

    Tina March 4th, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Maybe the cloud is wearing a black hat too?

    Just a thought.

    bryan March 6th, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    The third symbol is the stealth ship

    George Escalera March 7th, 2008 at 9:48 am

    On the patch, I believe the motto in Latin translates to something like
    "It's better to be Brave than ordinary (or OK)"

    Nighthawk September 20th, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    The side of the coin with the stealth aircrafts on are quite weird because the one to the left that resembles a F-117 A is not exactly the right shape, there is no tail fins and the one to the right that resembles a B-2 Spirit is not the right shape either, at the rear of the B-2 it has a double w (ww) type of shape, the cloud at the top looks similar to the very first sighting of a UFO whereas the term "UFO" was coined,

    not only that but the coin's date is 1966?????

    The badge below has a Manta Ray on it and says something something(I don't understand the language) GUAM, GUAM has some B-2's stationed there! maybe secret advanced aircrafts are housed there too?

    JHKD November 27th, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Phil D - You're an imbecile. Find a new hobby.

    TOP ClHTtBT January 27th, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Black Hats are a communication squadron at Area 51. They're a group that got started back in the days of PROJECT OXCART and the 1129th Special Activities Squadron.

Post a comment:

Get Your Gravatar

  1. Please note:
  2. All comments require moderation by staff.
  3. Comments submitted on weekends might take until Monday to appear.
PowellsBooks.Blog uses Gravatar to allow you to personalize the icon that appears beside your name when you post. If you don't have one already, get your Gravatar today!
  • back to top
Follow us on...

Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at