VIDEO: Oxcart/SR-71 – History as indictment of today’s aerospace industry?



Could the modern US aerospace industry build an aircraft today that is as ambitious as the A-12 Oxcart/SR-71 was for its time? Could the industry build an aircraft today that could beat the performance of the CIA’s Oxcart and the Air Force’s Blackbird?

If you ask the people who built it, I think they would probably say no.

The Air & Space Museum held such a discussion on 24 September, which was unfortunately sold-out before I could buy a ticket. But the museum kindly posted a nearly 90-minute video of the panel yesterday. The panel includes original members of the Oxcart development teams from Lockheed’s Skunk Works and Pratt & Whitney. Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich are no longer alive, but their subordinates tell some good stories.

Former Skunk Works manufacturing director Bob Murphy says 100 engineers were assigned to the SR-71 program. Rockwell hired 5,000 engineers to design the B-1 bomber. “I don’t know how you coordinate 5,000 engineers,” Murphy grumbles. Pratt & Whitney J58 engineer Dennis Nordquist Bob Abernathy also remembers:

“Today there are layers and layers of oversight committees. Inthose days I could walk into Bill Brown’s office and he’d pick up the phone andcall Kelly. And there wasn’t any of this — more or less, the Air Force let KellyJohnson and Bill Brown build the U-2, which they did, and then they built theBlackbird together as partners without the oversight that we have today.”

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19 Responses to VIDEO: Oxcart/SR-71 – History as indictment of today’s aerospace industry?

  1. John S. 6 October, 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    If industry tried to design the SR-71/A-12 today, it would have fly-by-wire controls, and the flight law software alone would take 3 years to write and validate.

  2. RobH 6 October, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    Lack of bureaucracy was the very essence of Skunkworks: anything else is just an airplane factory.

    And did anyone at this conference mention that the op tempo at Groom Lake is at an all-time high?

  3. onederboy 6 October, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    And just think none of today’s 8 hour weekly PowerPoint reviews with 350+ charts for the hundreds of Government engineers who have never designed or coded squat on what the indutry team did last week and why they did it the way they did. No EVM either, No debate about the nuances on how to develop and present a schedule that is linked to the WBS, SOW, organization, skill code, risk item ID, mother’s maiden name, etc. Just sound engineering with good old school blocking and tackling and results focus.

  4. Jimmy 6 October, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    So it is the software that drives up the manning and associated overhead of modern aircrafts? Maybe we should stick with hypersonic, inherently stable airplanes. The sensor fusion and weapon control should be modular additions rather than built-in.

    And if we build lots of prototypes, then we wouldn’t need the simulation staff. The design engineers can double up as test engineers!

  5. Jetcal1 6 October, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    The problem is multifaceted,
    1. S/W complexity
    2. Lack of coherent gov’t managers (they change jobs every few years)
    3. Lack of continuity within corporate design teams
    4. Optimistic design specs by the customer
    5. Optimistic pricing
    6. Better is not the enemy of good enough
    7. Increased complexity driven by the desire for the airframe to self diagnose in an attempt to reduce the logistics’ foot print
    8. Increased complexity driven by the need to test new stealth or structural materials

  6. alloycowboy 6 October, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    Thanks Stephen for posting that,it was a real interesting program.

  7. SMSgt Mac 7 October, 2010 at 5:05 am #

    Want it done now and not a decade from now? Anyone can do it – all you need is:
    a. A straghtforward and limited list of top-level requirements
    b. Probably a dozen or fewer key Congressional Chairmen and Ranking Minority members briefed for oversight without bringing all the ‘micromanagement’ and rice bowl issues into the picture.
    c. Have the price = budget and don’t turn the cash spigot off and on to stretch out the effort.

    In short… Do it in the ‘Dark’.

  8. Gene poteat 7 October, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    Consider this: the air force has now been trying to buy a fleet of tankers for over 18 years. The birders now include French and Russian airplanes. When Japan wanted tankers, they simply went to Boeing, sole source, and had their tankers flying in a matter of months.

  9. K 7 October, 2010 at 7:07 am #

    @SMSgt Mac: Exactly right.

    I might add, however, that it would be still be difficult because with so few programs (or too many companies to keep fed) the stretched out decade long schedules for suppliers and design teams make for every program having to re-invent the wheel. In the early 60s, they had a massive supplier base which was super experienced due to WW2 and the cold war defense build ups. That no longer exists.

  10. Jetcal1 7 October, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    @SMSgt Mac,
    Good point…I completely forgot about our elected representatives who in conjunction with the lobbyists who have been “having congress with the taxpayer” for quite some time now.

  11. Joe Daley 7 October, 2010 at 11:38 pm #

    All engineering talent on program(design, metallurgy,manufacturing,test(at FRDC,Hartford,Groom Lake)by my financial records was maxed out at 274 bodies,in 1966 we flew over ASIA

  12. onederboy 8 October, 2010 at 6:45 am #

    Or it a philosophical question of what the role of the Government employee should be in a free market environment and a capitalist society. Is it the role of the Government employee to be an astute buyer and definer of capability-based requirements and allow industry to handle the higher level engineering and design efforts with the Government witnessing any development testing and requirements compliance — or continue to duplicate these roles. Seems we and our kids can no longer afford to duplicate the engineering functions that add even more time, money and complexity to developing and fielding systems the soldiers need during a current war or even a possible conflict.

  13. Adam 8 October, 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    The video doesn’t seem to be working anymore. I was half-way through watching it yesterday and now it’s tagged as private. What happened?

  14. Stephen Trimble 8 October, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    Hmmm … You are correct. How disappointing. The video had obviously been selected as public originally, but was apparently changed in the last 24 hours. That seems unusual, so I am checking it out. Unfortunately, the press contact at the Udvar Hazy center is not in the office until next week. But I want to get to the bottom of this. Perhaps somebody said something they shouldn’t have?

  15. Bob Davenport 8 October, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    I tried to open and view the video this morning and review the entire video and find that it has changed to a “private video” and I can’t open it up. I viewed a portion yesterday(Oct. 7) but now can’t. What happened?

  16. Ryan 8 October, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    Bummer! I’d really like to watch the video.

  17. Jake 11 October, 2010 at 10:21 pm #

    How many of the schedule delays come from a lack of urgency? With no enemy on the scale of the USSR, there are no real negative effects from the incredibly drawn out tanker procurement or from the massive delays in the JSF. In cases where a true urgent need is identified we seem to move fairly quickly – weaponizing Predators and buying a bunch of FLKAs both happened in a hurry.

  18. Adam 15 October, 2010 at 3:05 am #

    According to the splash screen the video has been moved. I still get an error message at the new URL but it’s different this time: now it implies simply that the video hasn’t finished the standard post-upload processing yet, so I’m hopeful.

    If and when this new link begins to work perhaps our trusty blog owner will update the embedded link up top.

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