Shortly after 9 p.m. on a rainy February night in Los Angeles, Tony Chong switched on his home computer, logged into eBay, and began his nightly aircraft hunt. For more than two decades, Chong had been making exquisite aircraft models at Northrop Grumman’s display model shop—and collecting the rare desktop models his company and other U.S. airplane makers distributed to promote their programs. Often the listings on eBay were for castoffs, but that night in 2005 one model gave him a jolt: Painted in mottled camouflage and balanced on a familiar pentagon base, it was an 18-inch-long concept model of a Northrop Grumman FB-23 advanced bomber.
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Chong recognized it immediately. It had come from his shop—and it was one of his company’s most closely guarded secrets. Somebody was punching a big hole into the black world of Northrop Grumman’s classified aircraft projects.
“Competitors could tell a lot from a model like that,” muses aviation historian Jay Miller. “It would tip them off that Northrop was determined to build on its YF-23 experience.” The YF-23 was Northrop Grumman’s entry in the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition, which Lockheed Martin won in 1991 with a design that became the F-22 Raptor. “[The bomber model has] bigger wings, a faired-in second crew station, redesigned intakes, revised fixed-geometry exhaust nozzles, an extended nose cone—this would have been a very viable candidate for an interim light bomber around 2015.”
In the secret world of advanced aircraft studies, concept models are the harbingers of combat aircraft that will be flying 20 years from now.
Paul Meyer oversees Northrop Grumman’s advanced aerospace programs, and it’s his job to see the future. “We look decades down the road, read studies, talk to think tank people in Washington,” says Meyer, who discusses future needs with people working at the Institute for Defense Analyses, RAND, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “We look at what the world might look like, what the enemy might be considering—protecting the oil-rich Spratly Islands, or defending Antarctica from oil exploration. That begins to shape an environment that the vehicle needs to operate in.”
With the twin challenges of speed and stealth largely met—the F-22 can cruise at Mach 1 and above, and today’s frontline fighters have ultra-low observability—Northrop Grumman is betting that future military needs will center on smart, autonomous aircraft that can wait and listen—then fire when ready. “The issue today is persistent surveillance,” explains Meyer. “In the past, it was ‘I’ve got to get to the target fast.’ Now I want to get to the target and I want to stay there.”
“You want to anticipate the most stressing situation first and back off from that,” says Scott Winship, program manager for Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, an unmanned combat aircraft demonstrator to be flown from an aircraft carrier. “The most stressing situation is a denied area, so [the airplane] has to be stealthy. And if you want a global surveillance and attack system, with long range and long endurance, having a pilot in it is the limiting criterion.”
Anyone observing the trends in combat aircraft today can see that the future belongs to the pilotless. At least one industry insider predicted that direction 25 years ago. Famed Lockheed Skunk Works designer Kelly Johnson wrote in his 1985 autobiography that “with the price of fighter aircraft now running more than $30 million per plane with all the equipment, not including pilot costs, I can foresee the day when the fighter pilot will be on the ground, flying an unmanned fighter with a missile in it. With the latest electronic advances, I think this can be done remotely at a great saving in aircraft costs.”
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.”