Tag Archives: Kelly Johnson

Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Innovation and Secrecy

Lockheed Advanced Development Program Subverted Normal Channels On The Way to Innovation.

The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the D-21 supersonic drone, the F-117 Stealth Jet, the still secretive SR-72. No one outside of its very opaque walls knows how many projects the secretive Lockheed “Skunk Works” have developed, and how many flops they’ve had. But everyone in defense and aerospace knows the Lockheed Skunk Works broke barriers in innovation and defense acquisition that changed the world and toppled superpowers. It likely continues to do so today, behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Founded in the mid 1940s at the height of WWII when defense acquisitions needed to be fast-tracked to remain ahead of Axis adversaries, especially Germany and their secret weapons program headquartered at Peenemunde, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was tasked with developing ground-breaking aerospace technology and weapons systems.

The Skunk Works’ initial projects vaulted the U.S. into the jet age with the first operational, production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, first flown on January 8, 1944, too late to effectively influence WWII. Following the P-80 and WWII the U.S. defense industry entered an unprecedented period of innovation and breakthroughs as the Cold War with Russia escalated and China emerged as a growing part of the “Red Menace”.

The Skunk Works’ original founder of record is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, the round-faced, blunt-speaking character who seemed to have aerodynamic engineering in his genetic make-up, went on to make aviation history in more ways than can be able to accurately (and publicly) tabulated. Perhaps more so than the engineers of the early NASA space programs, Kelly Johnson made being an engineer cool. Johnson was awarded an unprecedented two Collier Trophies, an annual award presented by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association for the person who made the most significant contribution to aerospace. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Successor to the Skunk Works throne, colleague and later President Ben Rich, said in his book, “Skunk Works” that Kelly Johnson was, “The toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders.”

Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson (left) and successor Ben Rich (right). (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

While the Skunk Works is most famous for the “black projects” that went on to become famous technology breakthroughs like the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter, what may have been the single largest innovation with the Skunk Works was their ability to, in some cases, subvert the normal convoluted and lethargic acquisition projects the Department of Defense is infamous for.

The Skunk Works developed the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in complete secrecy for less money and in less time than it took Ford Motor Company to develop its Ford Taurus line of cars. Observers in the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. defense and intelligence community maintain the F-117 and the breakthrough in “stealth”, or low radar observability, was a significant factor in the demise of the Soviet Union since their massive defensive dependence on an integrated air defense system had been rendered largely ineffective by stealth.

The Lockheed Skunk Works revolutionized aerial combat with the introduction of effective low-observable technology or “stealth” as originally demonstrated on the top secret “Have Blue” prototype. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

Today the Skunk Works continues as a more recognized, less shadowy organization in brand identity but not in projects. Those remain highly classified.

While no one in the public domain knows what the Skunk Works is working on now, the one thing that is certain is they are working on something. A host of projects has been discussed by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed that include hypersonic remotely piloted and manned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Still flying in operational use today, the Lockheed U-2 long-range, high altitude reconnaissance plane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In 2017 Aviation Week magazine wrote that, “One such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

In a rare and stunning reveal in late 2017 at the Society of Aerospace Engineers Exhibition, Lockheed’s Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, told media about a new “SR-72 program”: “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed.” Carvalho told Aviation Week, “Hypersonics is like stealth. It is a disruptive technology and will enable various platforms to operate at two to three times the speed of the Blackbird… Security classification guidance will only allow us to say the speed is greater than Mach 5.”

Based on their remarkable 75-year history two things we do know about the Skunk Works’ current projects are; they are certainly working on something, and, it will defy our imaginations.

The author’s collection of artifacts from the Lockheed Skunk Works. Lockheed has trademarked the name “Skunk Works” and the attendant skunk logo. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Two former Skunk Works members seem to know why the F-35 program is a mess

Among the contents of the November 2012 issue of Classic Aircraft (a magazine that since Jan. 2013 has been incorporated into its sister magazine Aviation News), an interesting article written by Angus Batey gives an exclusive overview about the birth of the legendary Lockheed’s Skunk Works division.

The father of this facility was Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, one of the best aircraft designer in the aviation history.

He created the Skunk Works with the aim to develop some of the most revolutionary military aircraft following a concept: a project would have turned into a great aircraft if only few qualified people had worked on it.

Thanks to this rule the Skunk Works division designed airplanes which represented a giant leap for their times such as the F-104, the U-2, the Blackbird family or the F-117A stealth fighter jet.

In Batey’s article some of the people who contributed to create these classified concepts and former Skunk Works members also explain which are the main differences between the rules followed by Lockheed during the development of the above mentioned aircraft and the rules followed by Lockheed during F-22 and F-35 development: these differences may be among the reasons which led to the problems of the last two US (multirole) fighter jets.

F-35

According to Batey, Alan Brown, a British guy who joined Lockheed in 1960 before joining the Skunk Works in 1975 and being involved in the Have Blue and F-117 programs, had “a simple algebraic formula”:

[…] “the time it takes to go from initial design to operational use by the Air Force is directly proportional to the size of the Air Force oversight committee that’s guiding the airplane design. For the F-117, the Air Force team was a colonel and six other experts-the corresponding team on the F-22 was 130. And if you ratio 130 over seven, you’ll get just about the ratio of the time it took from starting the airframes to getting them in service,” Brown explained.

Bob Murphy, who joined the Skunk Works in 1954, managed flight-test on the U-2 and became deputy director of operations, illustrated the troubles faced by the Joint Strike Fighter to Batey.

“Because of bureaucracy”, […] “once you get all these organizations involved-all the different Air Force bases across the country, and every contractor that makes a screw for the airplane-when they have meetings, everybody comes to every meeting, and nothing ever gets settled. It’s crazy! If you’ve got 300 people in a meeting, what the hell do you solve? Nothing,” Murphy stated.

But F-35’s cost overruns and slippage were are also due to the philosophy which brought to the three different F-35 versions, as explained again by Brown:

“In the mid-1960s, there was a proposal by the Secretary of Defense to combine the F-14 and F-15 programs, so we did some analysis”, […] “the Air Force wanted 200 F-15s and the Navy wanted 200 F-14s.

If you designed an airplane for each individual service to do what they wanted, each airplane would weight about 40,000lb, but if you combined them so one airplane could do the job that was needed for each service, the weight suddenly went up to about 70,000lb-and back then it was generally accepted that airplanes cost about a thousand dollars per pound of weight.

The cost savings on producing 400 of one airplane rather than 200 of two was about 10 percent, so it was clearly much more cost-effective to have two separate airplanes doing their own job best.

So how we manage, on the F-35, to suddenly reverse that idea is not clear to me.”

It’s a shame that the experience made on some of the most advanced and adveniristic projects ever made in aviation history did not guide LM and the U.S. Air Force and Navy through the development of the Lightning II.

David Cenciotti has contributed to this article.

F-35B NVG

Image credit: Lockheed Martin

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