"This is very clandestine," Pete Bitar whispered, as his red Dodge Caravan idled in the parking lot of a Burger King near Fort Belvoir. "They called last week, and they wanted delivery this week."
It did feel a little clandestine, if a bit unlikely. Yet there, in the Burger King parking lot, a small transaction in America's war on terror was about to take place. In the minivan were Bitar, the president and founder of Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS), Edward Fry, the company's research coordinator, and George Gibbs, of Marine Corps Systems Command, who two years ago plucked Bitar's obscure company out of its paper existence and provided it with more than half a million dollars in Pentagon funding.
They were waiting for Superman.
Bitar had battled start-up disappointments and even ridicule -- not to mention January cold and Beltway rush-hour traffic -- to seal his first Pentagon deal. The procurement order had gone through so quickly that the Indiana-based Bitar, who was in town for a conference, agreed to make his final delivery at the Burger King to avoid the hassle of getting onto the Virginia Army base.
Bitar flipped open a case containing his first sale: the "dazzler," one in a line of about a half-dozen "nonlethal" weapons that XADS is marketing to the military. It looked like an executive pen: slick, green and flecked with gold. But the pen was really a green laser designed to disorient and temporarily blind an enemy. Sale price: $1,100 apiece.
It looked, to use one of Bitar's favorite phrases, really cool.
Bitar glanced up. "There's Superman."
Sure enough, a broad-shouldered man materialized in front of the Caravan. He was wearing a leather jacket embroidered with the familiar "S" emblem and a matching tie.
Superman stuck out his hand and introduced himself: Shane Gilmore. Pentagon folks seem especially fond of quirky nicknames and are not above cultivating that mystique. Asked about the Kryptonian symbols, he'd say only, "I'm Superman." But today he wasn't saving the world, just trying to protect it as part of an Army task force buying equipment for troops in Iraq. They had placed an order for 13 of Bitar's dazzlers. Supercharged versions of commercial laser pointers, dazzlers are the lowest-tech of Bitar's weapons, and they're not what initially caught the Pentagon's eye. Rather, it was his concept for a gun that could shoot bolts of artificial lightning to paralyze, but not kill, an enemy, like a "Star Trek" phaser set on stun.
After handing over the goods, Bitar explained his unusual entry into the high-tech weapons market as he headed into Arlington for dinner. The lightning gun began, literally, as a daydream when Bitar was running a Styrofoam recycling business in the early 1990s. Watching the machinery that cut up the used material, he noticed sparks shooting into the air. He began to wonder, at first idly and then more intensely, if there was a way to extend the sparks' range.
But he had no engineering or technical expertise, and his speculation went nowhere.
A decade later, Bitar was no closer to becoming an experimental weapons entrepreneur. But he did have a new business, founded largely to fund an "extreme" hobby of his, powered paragliding. The idea was to turn enthusiasts of the sport -- who strap motors to their backs, take off running, then yank open a parachute -- into flying billboards. He called it XADS -- for "Xtreme Ads," as in advertising.