Martial Arts

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

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

The model shop got a new set of locks. 

Contributing editor Chad Slattery photographs airplanes and collects vintage desktop aircraft models. His collection can be viewed at

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