Memo to bad guys: Wanna know what U.S. warplanes you’ll tangle with in the future? Visit an aerospace model shop.
- By Chad Slattery
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
(Page 2 of 4)
Johnson would have known about the Model 235 drone built by Teledyne Ryan. In 1974, it set an endurance record, flying unrefueled for 28 hours. The company had hoped to win an Air Force contract, under a program called Compass Cope, for a high-altitude, remotely piloted vehicle to fly long-endurance photographic reconnaissance missions, but the program was canceled. Still, that legacy found its way in 1994 to the desk of configuration designer Alfredo Ramirez. Ryan Aeronautical knew the military was still looking for a pilotless surveillance aircraft, and company managers asked Ramirez to draw something up. “I knew the fundamentals,” Ramirez says. “Put sensors in the air, then relay the information they capture to satellites in real time and back down to the customer. Sensors need to look down, radar needs to scan an area, and the electro-optical unit has to see around any aircraft obstructions. So those needed to go on the belly. They talk to a satellite, so you need another dish on top of the aircraft.”
Ramirez began with a piece of graph paper. “I’m a doodler,” he says. “I drew some bubbles and some squares and a slab tail with two inputs, very similar to Compass Cope. Even though some designs are very radical, they’re usually an evolution. Take pieces from here, from there, and elsewhere, combine them, and it looks like a different plane but it has its genesis in many other things.”
The result would become the Global Hawk project, inherited (along with Ramirez) by Northrop Grumman when it bought Ryan in 1999. Pressed to explain his concepts, Ramirez often uses models. “Some people can visualize a lot quicker than others. When they can’t, with the model, you avoid all that translation.”
Scott Winship likes to use concept models when he’s vetting a design concept with potential customers and combat commanders. With the model, Winship says, he asks: “Does this make sense? Or are we screwing up? Are we just drinking our own bath water? Usually you get your head handed to you the first couple of times,” Winship says.
Again, it was Kelly Johnson who became famous for going to the potential users of his designs to research ideas. In the 1950s, he visited airfields to ask pilots flying North American F-86 Sabres in the Korean War what they wanted in their next fighter. Speed and altitude, they replied, and Johnson set out to design a jet fighter that would, he wrote, “fly higher and faster than anything flying anywhere. There was no formal requirement from the Air Force yet for such a plane.” But Johnson started designing anyway, sketching what would become the Mach 2-plus F-104 Starfighter. “Sometimes it’s awfully difficult to convince the customer of what we think he needs,” Johnson groused.
“Today we’re in a whole different era from that of Kelly Johnson,” says Skunk Works director of communications Dianne M. Knippel. “We rarely design a thing—whether unmanned or manned—to sell to a customer. But because we know we’ll continue to need new intel-reconnaissance technologies, we work on study contracts. We’re currently working on more than 500 program contracts because a customer has said, ‘What would you do to solve this problem?’ ”
At Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Program Center (and at other corporate and independent model shops), engineers use stereolithography, a process by which a computer program directs a laser to shape advanced polymers into valves, sensors, or other parts that are solutions to problems presented by a customer (see “Model Behavior,” Feb./Mar. 2007). “The computer program tells the thing to grow,” Knippel says. She adds: “We’re not just about airplanes anymore.”
And yet: Lockheed Martin also maintains a shop where artisans create concept models, once the process of design is past the “what if” stage.