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 3 of 4)
Northrop Grumman’s model shop sits on a quiet corner of the sprawling Integrated Systems plant in El Segundo, California. The interior resembles a sculptor’s atelier—except that the traditional chisels, rasps, tin snips, and mallets share crowded workspace with computer monitors displaying templates for laser cutting. Models along the wall offer tantalizing glimpses into combat aviation’s future: an unmanned aerial vehicle with sawtooth edges, hypersonic spaceplanes, a needle-nose NASA concept, and an eerie surveillance drone called a “SensorCraft.”
These and other concept models find their way to trade shows, the Pentagon, DARPA, Congressional offices, and VIPs: When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base in July 1991 to sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, he was given a B-2 model with his name under the cockpit.
To make a new concept model for display, the shop staff follows a multi-step process that begins with assembling precise drawings and includes making the pattern, producing a mold, casting and finishing the blank—the shape of the model without markings or color—and mating it to a custom display stand. Chong assigns tasks based on each of his four-man crew’s unique skills: “Todd [Jameson] knows computer graphics and design, plus calligraphy. Jack has experience as a prototype mechanic. Manny has a sheet metal background, and Gary was a carpenter.” All are experienced craftsmen, using traditional hand tools and shop equipment to produce stealthy shapes with flowing curves.
“It’s not just cutting to the line,” notes Chong. “It’s knowing how lines will merge together and sweep, how to feel the shape and any imperfections. If you don’t have it in your fingers, you won’t be a good model maker. It’s not something you can teach.”
The results are beautiful, but they are expensive. A 1/48-scale display model typically requires 60 to 80 hours to produce, billed internally at a minimum of $60 an hour. For that money, Northrop Grumman buys fast turnaround and impeccable quality. When a company program manager is given 48 hours to be in Washington to defend a $100 million Air Force black project, a $4,000 design proposal suddenly seems reasonable.
Paul Meyer refers to a model of the company’s long-range supersonic strike concept, a huge tail-less arrowhead with two crew members. “It’s very Ferrari-looking,” he says. “The submerged inlets and cockpit tell you this airplane was designed for speed. You see the placement of the inlets and the exhaust tailored for [a low radar] signature and some significant speed ranges.” A “Ferrari-looking” model will do more than suggest speed. Like fashion models—beautiful, perfect, and high-priced—they help with a sale.
“I call it Chong’s Hierarchy of Visceral Impact,” Tony Chong says with a grin. “The more complex and tactile a presentation is, the greater the visceral impact will be on the viewer.” A drawing has more impact than words; a photo beats a drawing; a painting impresses more than a computer rendering; and a desktop model trumps them all.
Federal security clearances are not required to work in the shop, but all employees receive recurrent training designed to prevent proprietary information from leaking to competitors; the program they lose could be their own.
Program security is a sensitive matter with Chong, who has been with the company long enough to be considered its de facto historian. Pausing at an old cabinet, he pulls out a dusty, vaguely familiar model. It’s the eBay FB-23. Quick action by him and Northrop Grumman investigators had led to its recovery, and to the arrest of the thief, a facilities subcontractor whose job replacing sprinkler heads gave him a set of keys and trusted access. Chong reports that the thief was convicted, put on probation, and ordered to make restitution. He never did, and got some prison time.