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Tony Chong supervises a fantasy factory, where ideas are transformed into solid — and exquisite — objects. (Chad Slattery)

Martial Arts

Memo to bad guys: Wanna know what U.S. warplanes you’ll tangle with in the future? Visit an aerospace model shop.

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.

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.

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