Some designers and organizations have a stronger record of creating enduring mutations than others. Europe’s Airbus has prospered by steadily evolving and refining the Boeing-type commercial airliner—and a very good job they have done of it. But the Fort Worth division of General Dynamics—now part of Lockheed Martin—went through a four-decade cycle in which none of its major airplane projects bore any resemblance to its predecessor—or, for that matter, to anything else.
The lumbering, 10-engine B-36 bomber, bristling with retracting gun turrets like a Star Wars cruiser, was followed by the compact, fast, and dangerous B-58 Hustler and the swing-wing F-111—all unique designs. When GD chief designer Harry Hillaker and his team went after an Air Force lightweight-fighter contract in 1970, the world was skeptical. Fort Worth had never produced anything that weighed less than a fully loaded semi-trailer.
Doubts increased when Fort Worth rolled out a fighter shrink-wrapped around one massive engine, with blended wings and an under-body air inlet, an airplane that would not fly straight without computers. Bill Gunston, doyen of British aerospace journalists, observed that some air forces harbored a “cavalry officer mentality…that just wanted a flashy horse that would go faster.” The GD fighter, Gunston wrote, “was like selling the cavalry officer a super horse with six legs.” Four thousand F-16s later, one has to conclude that Hillaker and his team knew more about fighters than they had been given credit for.
Lockheed’s Skunk Works is another organization with a reputation for breaking with tradition. In addition to the U-2 and the Mach 3 SR-71 Blackbird, the Skunk Works was responsible for the first stealth attack fighter: The F-117, without a single curve in its exterior surface, had to be unique, because it was the first airplane designed with reference to two equally important physical environments: the air and the electromagnetic spectrum.
Robert Silverstein, who was a Northrop Grumman executive in the early stages of the B-2 project, has compared the strange world of black projects to Australia: an isolated area where unique species can evolve without being gobbled up by bigger, more established predators. Now, the F-117’s DNA is showing up all over the place. Look at the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, particularly in front view, and then flip it upside down: There is the F-117’s profile, softened only by a few rounded edges and gentle curves. And the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the F-22’s cousin.
Maybe it’s the climate. Maybe it’s radiation leaks. Either way, a lot of strange mutations have sprung up in the Mojave Desert. The place shelters not only the black world’s equivalent of Edwards Air Force Base—the secret Groom Lake, Nevada facility—but also the town of Mojave, home of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites company. If most airplanes evolve by natural means, then Rutan is aviation’s Dr. Frankenstein, fashioning strange asymmetric creatures (Boomerang) and others with so many arms and legs you lose count (Proteus, ATTT).
Sometimes you know it’s all going to end in tears. Take the example of Raytheon, which thought of itself in the early 1980s as a Route 128 Massachusetts technology company. Hoping to revitalize its fuddy-duddy Beech unit in Wichita, Kansas, Raytheon bought Scaled Composites. “It was like asking Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth”—the king of the California hot-rod customizers—“to design the next Cadillac,” Mike Potts, a former Beech executive, observed later. Rutan enlarged his two-place canard VariEze homebuilt into the turboprop-powered Starship. Beech built it and unveiled a full-scale mockup at the National Business Aircraft Association convention in Dallas in 1983. Every Beech dealer was prevailed upon to accept one airplane.
Some said the market wasn’t ready for such a radical departure. Others said the market wasn’t ready for anything. Whatever the case, the Starship production line closed after 53 airplanes had been built.
The risks and rewards of radical change can be huge, but sometimes you end up with something better kept chained in the dungeon—and that is why evolution rules, in aviation as well as in nature.