Surf Wing

With its 1960’s construction techniques and relatively unchanged form (displacement hull with fin) the modern surfboard might seem like a pretty low-tech piece of equipment. But one spacey, former surfboard builder has a different perspective. Kent Sherwood, founder of Foam Matrix (winner of Boeing’s 2002 Supplier Innovation Award), has Washington’s top brass at attention with his surfboard-inspired, foam wing designs for the Air Force’s X-45, or the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV).

Sherwood, 60, made the jump from surf and sailboards-he developed the Malibu Surf Ski paddle board in the 60’s-to aerospace in the early 1990’s when he started shaping foam fins for, ironically enough, Orbital Sciences Inc.’s Pegasus rocket. “Fins and wings are basically surfboards,” he says, “but they require much higher standards of quality control.” The process to make the UCAV wings, however, is surprisingly simple and, to a surfboard shaper, very familiar. Liquid polyurethane foam is poured into a mold and a “stringer” composed of wiring and electronic components is embedded into the core. As the molding is precise to the ultimate specs of the wing, there is little sanding and fine-tuning going on after it comes out. Such a revolutionary procedure for wing and fin construction dramatically reduces weight, weeks of labor, reams of paperwork and, most importantly, cost. “It eliminates about 20 steps from the process of making a wing with other materials or metals,” says Sherwood. “And it’s much lighter and stronger.”

The attention and work orders at Foam Matrix have been overwhelming and Sherwood, a Hawaiian native, hasn’t paddled out at his home Zuma Beach in a couple years. He’s doing everything he can to change that, though. “I’m not doing as much of the work now,” he says, “so I’ll have more time to get in a few waves before work again.” And no one, not even the Pentagon, can dispute that kind of intelligence.

Carl Friedmann