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Joseph Hoeg remembers when the biggest challenge facing engineers at Patuxent River Naval Air Station was developing technology fast enough to keep up with their own ideas. Today, Hoeg said, the only limitation many of the best thinkers face is their imaginations.

Next month, the Navy plans to make innovation more convenient by breaking ground on the second phase of an aircraft prototype facility, expected to cost $44 million and be complete in about 18 months. The center would allow engineers to take a concept, as basic as a conversation and a drawing for modifying an aircraft and, in some cases, get an actual product in the hands of troops in a matter of weeks. That is, in the world of government bureaucracy, comparable to traveling by bullet train versus city bus.

Program managers can walk across the street, talk to a team of engineers and get a project started in a week or two, rather than going through a contracting process that could take two years, said Ed Greer, a former presidential appointee heading military test ranges, and former executive director of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Pax River. “It’s a cultural shift of getting headquarters program managers out of the mind-set of awarding contracts and looking more internally.”

Greer explained that troops might say, “if this helicopter only had a machine gun mounted on it,” the mission would be more successful. “But we need it tomorrow.”

“They expect you to work miracles,” he said. And, an expanded aircraft prototype facility would help programs deliver.

“That’s what rapid prototyping does, and that’s where we shine,” Greer said. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Forty years ago, “at best,” rapid prototyping was considered ancillary at Pax River, said Hoeg, also a former NAWCAD director, and currently a consultant. “Now, it’s part of our corporate strategy.”

Hoeg started in the 1960s at Pax River as an instrumentation technician, then as a flight test engineer, and director of strike aircraft testing and ranges before assuming the role as lead civilian at NAWCAD.

The prototype facility, is sort of “his brainchild,” said Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), who worked with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) to secure funding for both aircraft prototype facilities. The first cost $18 million and was dedicated in 2010.

“This is how we’re going to fight, perform and execute missions moving forward,” Bohanan said. “With modern-day warfare, we’re not hunting legions of Russians or fighting a big Iraqi war. We are, in a lot of cases, doing what some people call manhunting. And it could be anywhere around the world where you’re looking for bad people or cells.”

Special operations teams could work with Pax River, Bohanan said, to modify an aircraft or ground vehicle for a unique mission. That is intended to be good for the fleet. And, it helps diversify work done at Pax River, keeping the base safer when Congress considers realignment and closures, where military programs and jobs could be moved or cut.

The current aircraft prototype facility can hold smaller aircraft, such as a single fighter jet like an F/A-18. But phase two, at about 73,000 square feet, would be able to hold four of them, or any one of the military’s largest aircraft.

The space is, essentially, a classified den for engineers. A series of heavy doors are shut tight in narrow hallways. Visitors must be escorted and show ID, before dropping their cellphones in a wall of lockers before touring the building. Offices and a conference room command some of the layout but, most importantly, there is room for teams to move their desks, computers and 3-D printers inside a hangar, right next to an aircraft, and work shifts day and night to make concepts come to life.

With the right people in one space, and with supporting laboratories nearby at Pax River, production time is cut. And, if the government is building the equipment, money is saved, said Gary Kessler, current NAWCAD executive director, who visited the aircraft prototype facility Monday with Hoeg. “We can tie all these systems together,” he said.

Digital technology is moving at a dizzying pace. It’s paramount, Hoeg said, for Navy engineers to top their best not from just a year ago, but sometimes from month to month and day to day. Those same engineers also are working to stay ahead of enemy forces, who at the same time are working faster and getting more creative.

“You’ve got to be on top of everybody’s game,” Hoeg said. “Or, you’re going to be a loser.”

nclark@somdnews.com