Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Glory Days: When Grumman Kicked Ass

A recent post on the Astronautix.Com blog laments the "Northrop Curse," which has seen Northrop lose out on some of the largest defense contracts of the past 60 years. The only big win for Northrop was the B-2, where the government hamstrung the competing Lockheed-Rockwell proposal by forcing them to use a low-risk, faceted approach to stealth. The B-2 win would later come back to haunt Northrop, as the selection of the F-22 over the superior F-23 was widely viewed as payback for the B-2 source selection (and the B-2's cost overruns.)

But Northrop Grumman's other namesake, the old Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company, could hardly be called a loser. Leroy Grumman's company practically invented modern naval aviation. Grumman's biplanes were pioneers, even in an age when the biplane was on its way out with most air forces (except for the US Navy, which took an extremely cautious approach.) The Grumman F4F Wildcat was the best naval fighter we had at the start of World War II, and it was one of the first naval aircraft with folding wings. While the superior tactics of American naval aviators made the Wildcat a success, Grumman continued to innovate, and created the F6F Hellcat which became the most successful fighter of the Pacific theater in World War II.

When it came to jets, the Navy was still gripped by the extreme conservatism that slowed the transition from biplanes to monoplanes. Jet planes were slow in coming, and even when they did arrive, the Navy insisted on straight-winged designs that couldn't hold a candle to the Sabre and MiG-15. Grumman came to the rescue with the F9F Panther, the Navy's first successful jet fighter. After observing the MiG-15 in Korea, Grumman turned up the heat another notch by putting swept wings on the Panther and renaming it the Cougar.

The modern Navy owes a lot to Grumman, thanks to aircraft like the Tomcat, Intruder & Prowler, and Hawkeye & Greyhound families. It's no wonder that Grumman's rugged and reliable aircraft created the mythos of "The Grumman Iron Works."

How does the Grumman Iron Works tie into Orion and Northrop's bad fortune there? First off, it should not be lost on us what a wonderful job the Grumman team (led by Tom Kelly) did in designing and building the Apollo Lunar Module. While Boeing may own the assets of McDonnell (Mercury & Gemini) and North American Aviation (X-15, Apollo CM, and Shuttle orbiter,) it asked Northrop Grumman to lead its Orion team because of the Apollo LM experience that it expected Northrop Grumman to retain.

The problem is that the defense giants of the new millennium have fallen greatly since their glory days, many decades ago. The "Grumman" part of Northrop Grumman is just a name that the current company has largely forgotten. The Grumman headquarters at Bethpage and the Grumman factory at Calverton aren't a part of Northrop Grumman anymore. The people who made the Apollo LM great are all retired or dead (Tom Kelly passed in 2004, God rest his soul.)

I've been hard on NASA's Scott Horowitz in many of my rants, but I think he's 110% correct in saying that neither the LockMart team nor the NG-Boeing team has any experience in building manned spacecraft. After all, it's been 15 years since America's last manned spacecraft, Endeavour, was completed.

What is industry to do about its lack of experience? The answer is simple: study what made the Grumman Iron Works so great back in its heyday. Remember the devotion of Tom Kelly and the rest of the Grumman team who made their mission the central focus of their lives between late 1962 and the first LM flight on Apollo 5 during 1968. Display the same ingenuity that Grumman did in shaving the weight of the lander down from the five-legged concept of 1962 to the spider-looking LM that emerged.

When Leroy Grumman founded his company in 1929, he was still building aluminum biplanes and seaplanes. He had no idea that his company would be fighting the Marianas Turkey Shoot, breaking the sound barrier, landing men on the moon, or instilling fear into the Soviet air force (as only the F-14 Tomcat did.) Leroy Grumman lived to see all of these things before he died in the early 1980's. Similarly, what can this industry expect to see in the lifetimes of the engineers who are just entering the business? I'd like to believe that we can all harness the qualities that made the Grumman Iron Works so great, even though these qualities have been seemingly forgotten for the present by the overly-consolidated defense industry. Returning to the moon will be just a start. Where will the journey take us? Much like it was when Leroy Grumman started, I think that our ultimate destination will lie beyond what we can possibly imagine.