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Region Still a Launch Point in Aircraft Design

Aviation: Northrop's new facility is another sign of the industry's comeback after the dark days of the '90s.

February 20, 2001|PETER PAE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A kite-shaped aircraft with smooth silver skin--easily mistaken for an alien space vehicle--was parked last week inside an El Segundo hangar that resembled a sterile operating room.

From behind a glass-encased observation room, aerospace engineer David Mazur explained that the craft was actually a demonstration model for a military aircraft that he really couldn't say much about.

Little, too, has been said about Northrop Grumman Corp.'s new facility, where the company has been quietly assembling a team of about 500 top-notch engineers. The facility is the latest in advanced aircraft design centers to open in Southern California, where the industry's brain trust continues to swell.

In the darkest days of the aerospace bust in the early 1990s, many experts figured that Southern California's aircraft industry would slowly die, the victim of high business costs and unfriendly government regulations.

Although local aircraft manufacturing has dropped sharply, with tens of thousands of jobs lost during the 1990s, the region is regaining influence as one of the most vibrant centers for aircraft research and design in the world. More than 50,000 people are employed in the local aircraft industry, just a part of the larger aerospace and defense complex here.

Los Angeles aircraft engineers are pioneering a broad range of aircraft: unmanned solar-powered airplanes, blended-wing passenger liners and unmanned aircraft that might someday dominate battles, for example. Many of the big advances in aerospace technology were born in laboratories scattered throughout Southern California, from the first jet fighter in 1944 to radar-evading aircraft and reusable space vehicles.

Indeed, many if not most of the airplane designs currently operated by the Air Force originated in Los Angeles, including the B-1, B-2, C-17, C-5, U-2 and F-117. The Air Force's next-generation fighter, the F-22, was designed here and is being tested here, although plans call for it to be built in Georgia.

To be sure, Southern California no longer plays any significant role in the commercial aircraft business. At one time, three manufacturers turned out planes in Burbank, Long Beach and San Diego. But even in that sector, innovation continues.

"One of the things that people don't realize is the level of competence that is still here," said Gilbert Speed, publisher of L.A.-based aerospace industry newsletter SpeedNews. "You just can't get that anywhere else."

Some of the nation's top engineering talent remains in Southern California, an invaluable resource that has kept aerospace companies from moving their research-and-development departments elsewhere.

In addition to a network of prestigious universities tied to government-funded research centers such as Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Southern California has the nation's best weather for flight testing. Virtually all new military aircraft are tested at Edwards Air Force Base, near Palmdale.

Lon Hatamiya, the state secretary for technology, trade and commerce, said he was pleased with the opening of Northrop's center--which will be formally dedicated later this month--but not surprised considering California's long dominance of aerospace research.

"We have always believed, and I think it's been obvious, that California has been the intellectual center for high-tech development, especially in aerospace," Hatamiya said.

The research facilities can draw upon the nation's biggest aerospace supplier base to construct high-tech equipment or parts for a newly designed aircraft, state officials said. There are about 42,000 aerospace suppliers in the state.

Aerospace companies also can tap several leading think tanks, such as Santa Monica-based Rand Corp., which has a staff of 260 researchers who study and assess advances in aerospace technology.

With the new center, Northrop is hoping to join an elite group of the world's top aerospace research laboratories based in Southern California, including Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Skunk Works in Palmdale, Boeing Co.'s Phantom Works and NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Skunk Works developed America's first operational jet fighter, the XP-80, which completed its first flight in January 1944. The center, which has about 4,000 employees, also designed the XF-104, the first operational fighter capable of flying at twice the speed of sound; the U-2, the venerable spy plane built in the 1950s that continues to be the nation's workhorse for reconnaissance; and the F-117, the first operational stealth fighter.

McDonnell Douglas Corp., which was acquired by Boeing in 1997, sought to create a similar environment by forming the so-called Phantom Works, in reference to the F-4 Phantom fighter it developed in the late 1950s.

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