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Will the Dragon Fly? : L.B. Aerospace Mavericks Say They Are Designing Jet of the Future

September 29, 1985|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

As a teen-ager during the 1940s, Bill Moody built model airplanes, carefully cutting balsa wood and piecing together a tiny frame that he then covered with tissue paper and painted to resemble warplanes of the era.

Today, Moody dreams of building aircraft of a different sort.

In a remote hangar at Long Beach Airport, the 52-year-old graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has assembled a small, tightly knit band of engineers and declared war on the giants of the aerospace industry. Their mission: to design and build a delta-wing jet called the Dragon.

As Moody envisions it, the Dragon would one day replace the helicopter in military arsenals throughout the world while winning a spot in the jet fleets of innumerable corporations.

The highly sophisticated aircraft wouldn't need a runway. Instead, the Dragon would use jet nozzles on its underbelly to vertically take off and land as well as hover like a hummingbird. In addition, the aircraft would do something no mere helicopter could match: With its twin jet engines at full throttle, the Dragon could accelerate to speeds exceeding Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound.

Perhaps best of all, Moody says his Long Beach-based firm, the Phalanx Organization Inc., will eventually deliver a flight-ready Dragon for as little as $1.75 million, making the plane a virtual steal in the high-priced world of military and corporate aircraft.

There's only one catch. So far, the Dragon exists only on paper.

Nonetheless, Moody and his maverick pack of engineers have pressed forward, fueled by visions of a sky abuzz with Dragons.

In hopes of setting loose such a swarm, the firm has entered the aircraft in the Army's high-stakes competition to select its 21st-Century superchopper, a showdown that pits the Dragon against helicopters being designed by such industry giants as Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. No firm selection date has been set.

The Dragon has been greeted with some interest by the Army. Although military officials doubt the aircraft will be able to meet the performance objectives Moody has set, the aircraft "sufficiently intrigues us," said Maj. Philip Soucey, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.

"Any marginal achievement will increase our intrigue," Soucey said. "We are monitoring his project with interest."

Soucey said the Army received Moody's entry as an "unsolicited proposal" but will give it full consideration.

Taken Seriously

"Our opinion is that it would have been as wrong to tell Mr. Moody to go away as it was when they decided to close the U.S. Patent Office around the turn of the century because everything had been invented," Soucey said.

The military's willingness to take Moody seriously comes as little surprise given the man's aerospace credentials.

After graduating from MIT with degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering, Moody worked with some of the legends of the aircraft industry, including Germany's Willy Messerschmitt. A one-time employee of Douglas Aircraft in El Segundo, Moody has been involved in the aerospace industry for nearly two decades, taking part in the design of numerous aircraft while serving as president of both the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences and the Rocket Society.

Before establishing the Phalanx Organization in 1984, Moody founded several other firms, including an ongoing concern that uses plastic-like composite materials to manufacture architectural ornamentation for buildings.

A bespectacled man with a slight paunch and a penchant for puffing on a pipe, Moody has the look of an absent-minded professor. But when the veteran aerospace engineer spreads blueprints of the Dragon on a table in his cluttered office, it becomes apparent he means business.

Moody recruited several friends and former associates to aid him in his quest. Among them is H. W. Jamieson, a founder and former executive at Litton Industries who is president of Phalanx. Others are Patrick Hillings, a former U.S. congressman from Arcadia who is acting as Phalanx's corporate attorney, and Leo Windecker, who developed the first U.S. military aircraft constructed of composite materials.

Moody said he was able to attract such aerospace talent as Jamieson and Windecker because they became frustrated with the bureaucratic roadblocks at the aircraft giants. Such firms, Moody said, design aircraft "by committee."

In contrast, the Phalanx Organization is "lean and aggressive," with each of its 30 full-time employees playing a pivotal role, Moody said. Phalanx has also been aided by half a dozen part-time employees moonlighting from their jobs at larger aircraft firms, he said.

While Moody gushes about the Dragon's potential, skeptics question whether the project will ever get off the ground.

Christopher Demisch, a vice president and aerospace analyst with the New York-based investment banking firm of First Boston Corp., said he saw mock-ups of the Dragon on display at the recent Paris Air Show and came away "doubting that this is a better mousetrap."

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