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Skunk Works: The Dream Factory for War

In 1943, the U.S government approached Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to develop and build the country’s first high-speed fighter aircraft. Proposals like this usually take years to deliver, but Lockheed was given just 180 days – such were the strains of war. A daunting, mammoth task faced the designers, engineers and mechanics at Lockheed – could they deliver? 

Not only did they deliver, but they did so 37 days early. The legend of the Lockheed Skunk Works had begun. 

Now, if you are an avid follower of our Megaproject videos this name may sound familiar. After all, this is the Lockheed division responsible for the majority of the ground-breaking aviation seen in the United States since World War II. Take your pick from the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Lightning II – Skunk Works has done it all. This is a megaproject that produces megaprojects.  

Pioneering yet highly secret – exact information on Skunk Works can be sketchy, but it’s difficult to imagine anywhere on the planet that has contributed more to aviation warfare than what resides in the U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. But its scope and reputation have gone much further than military boundaries. The framework used at Skunk Works, with its focus on rapid development and out of the box innovation, has now been copied by companies across the world. 

In this video, we’re going to focus on Skunk Works as a whole and will only touch on the various aircraft they have developed. As I mentioned, we’ve already done videos on a number of these planes, so if you’re looking for something more detailed on a specific aircraft, it’s probably worth checking out that video.

Moonshine Origins

Let’s begin with the name. The story of how Skunk Works came to have this slightly odd name begins back in the 1930s, with a popular satirical comic strip called Li’l Abner. Written by Al Capp, Li’l Abner followed the fortunes of Little Abner Yokum, a simple yet lovable hillbilly character living in the small Kentucky town of Dogpatch. 

On the outskirts of Dogpatch lay a noxious, dilapidated factory called Skonk Works, which produced Skonk Oil (by grinding down dead skunks and worn shoes apparently). This was of course moonshine, at a time when prohibition was still in place. 

The story goes that during the development of the P-80 Shooting Star (America’s first high-speed aircraft I mentioned at the beginning of the video) the small Lockheed division was located next to a plastic factory producing the same kind of detestable stink that had been envisioned while reading Li’l Abner. Those working amid the stench came to refer to their dwelling as Skonk Works and the name stuck.  

It wasn’t until the 1960s when representatives from the comic book contacted Lockheed to request that it changed the name of its advanced development company – and they did – to Skunk Works. 

P-80 Shooting Star

There’s nothing that lights a fire under a development team than discovering that your enemy is far ahead. When information on the new Messerschmitt 262, the world’s first fighter jet, appeared in Spring 1943, the Allies realised they were well behind. With the impending invasion of France no doubt front and centre in the mind, U.S military commanders knew they had to get their hands on an aircraft that could at least compete with the Messerschmitt 262. 

They turned to the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation which was already churning out aircraft to battle in both the European and Asian conflicts as fast as they possibly could. As important as this new aircraft would be, Lockheed knew that current production had to remain the top priority. The response was to create a small group led by Chief Engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. The team, initially composed of 23 engineers and 30 mechanics could not be housed at the main Lockheed plant because every conceivable bit of space was being used for war production. Instead, this mishmash, renegade group was housed on the site of an old circus, next to the plastic factory I mentioned earlier. 

The requirements that this group faced were immense. Not only did the aircraft need to be ready in 180 days, but it also needed to fly at close to 600 mph (200 mph faster than Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning propeller plane currently in mass production. It was a tall ask, Johnson submitted the design proposal in mid-June and the clock immediately began ticking. 

Eventually, up to 130 people were involved in the production of the P-80, but such was the secrecy that only between five and ten people actually knew that they were working on the first American fighter jet. 

On 16th November – 37 days ahead of schedule – the first prototype, nicknamed Lulu-Belle, appeared at Muroc Army Airfield. Not only had the Skunk Works division succeeded, but they had also produced an aircraft that had effectively made up the years of German superiority in terms of jet usage. The strange, final twist, however, was that only two P-80s were ever used in World War II and only for reconnaissance missions over Italy. The mass production of the P-80 had been held up and was followed by a fatal accident in the UK after which the new aircraft were grounded as a precaution. By the time they were ready, allied air superiority was almost total and the war was nearly over. 

Post World II

No sooner had America’s enemies been defeated, new suspicions arose. As we know, the end of World War II coincided neatly with the beginning of the Cold War as it quickly became apparent that humans always seem to need an enemy.

But the world had changed and so had the methods of warfare. Spying was now the name of the game and if the U.S could do it at a height that would make an aircraft untouchable by Soviet planes even better.

In 1955 the CIA approached Lockheed about building a spy plane that could fly higher than anything before it. This contract was taken up by Skunk Works who began developing plans for what would eventually become the U2. This was the first step of a series of ground-breaking designs that would cement Lockheed as the United States’ preeminent producer of aircraft during the Cold War.

The U2 took to the skies in 1956 and was eventually used for several overflight missions crossing the Soviet Union. This came to a shuddering halt in 1960 when a U2 was shot down by a surface to air missile while in Soviet Airspace. The entire fiasco was an embarrassment to the U.S and the U2 never ventured into Soviet territory again, though it was later over Vietnam. 

New Heights

Next came a contract to build five A-12 Archangels at a reported total cost of $96 million (around $827 million today). This would be an aircraft capable of travelling at a height of 26,000 metres (85,000 ft) and speeds of Mach 3.5 (4,321 km/h – 2,685 mph). When the U.S military began exploring the possibilities for such an aircraft they were initially attracted to a rival Convair design, but thanks to Convair’s slightly shaky recent track along with Skunk Works’ burgeoning reputation, the Lockheed team won out.  

The A-12 had its maiden flight in 1962 but didn’t enter service until 1967 before being retired in 1968. Not because it was no good, but with the shooting down of the U2 in 1960, American thinking regarding flights over the Soviet Union had changed dramatically. The rapid development of Soviet missiles had rendered the A-12’s impressive altitude irrelevant. 

But many aspects of the A-12 were shifted over to the next dazzling piece of military hardware that appeared out of the Skunk Works factory. The SR-71 Blackbird combined high altitude, rapid speed and a low radar cross-section which made it almost invisible in the skies. 

Almost all of what goes on at Skunk Works, even to this day, is highly classified, but the SR-71 was in an entirely different league. Developed under ‘black project’ conditions only a handful of people were said to know the true nature of the SR-71. The aircraft made its first test flight in 1964 and remained in service until 1998 capable of speeds of up to 3,540 km/h (2,200 mph) and with a service ceiling of 85,000 ft (26,000 m). 

Stealth Arrives

Aviation changed with the introduction of the F-117 Nighthawk in 1983. Otherwise known as the stealth fighter, it was an aircraft that revolutionised the industry. Looking more like what Batman would fly than a traditional military aircraft, the F-117 was the first aircraft to fully and successfully implement stealth technology.

By this point Clarence “Kelly” Johnson had retired and had been replaced at Skunk Works by his protegee Ben Rich – sometimes rather laudingly described as the father of stealth technology. Rich has tasked Bill Schroeder, a Lockheed mathematician, and Denys Overholser, a computer scientist, to expand on the work Pyotr Ufimtsev, a Soviet mathematician who in 1964 published a paper titled, Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction in which he stated that the strength of the radar return from an object was not related to the size, but rather its configuration. 

The team at Skunk Works developed a computer program named Echo which was able to design an aircraft composed almost entirely of flat sides stitched together in such a way it would scatter 99% of incoming radar signal energy, making the aircraft almost invisible.  

In the early 1980s, rumours began emanating of a new mystery aircraft. The crash of an F-117 in the Sequoia National Forest which killed the pilot and started a forest fire didn’t help. As armed guards and even a roving gunship moved in, it must have been clear to everybody in the area that whatever had crashed was a closely guarded secret. Ironically, the F-117 has gone on to become one of the most recognizable aircraft anywhere in the world. 

The Modern Age

If you think that the Skunk Works may have eased up in recent times, then think again. The introduction of the F-22 Raptor in 2005 and the F-35 Lightning II in 2015 has proven that this secretive development group is still head and shoulders above the rest.

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to the Skunk Works, for its “record of developing cutting-edge aircraft, technologies, and systems for the U.S. Government”. It was the first time that the medal had been bestowed on a member of the aviation industry.

Unfortunately, we just don’t have time to go through everything that has been developed at Skunk Works, as it is a length list. From unmanned drones like the D-21, large-scale cargo planes like the X-55, or unmanned air vehicles like the mysterious RQ-170 Sentinel, the Skunk Works back catalogue over the last few decades is hugely impressive.  

Next Generation

It’s estimated that Skunk Works is currently working on as many as 500 individual projects. Most of these won’t even get past the design or development stage, but it does give a brief glimpse at the extraordinary scope this division is working on.

One interesting project that has been in the pipeline for nearly two decades is the Quiet Supersonic Technology, which is hoped will lead to the construction of a supersonic business jet capable of flying at speeds of Mach 1.6 to 1.8 (1,975 – 2,222 km/h – 1,227 -1,381 mph) at a height of 18,288 metres (60,000 ft.) 

And if you’re wondering about the quiet part of the name, it’s hoped that this technology will be able to dramatically reduce the noise of the aircraft as it goes supersonic. Normally a supersonic boom is heard as an aircraft passes the threshold, but if Skunk Works delivers, this aircraft will be “virtually boomless”. This was a project that was officially announced in 2000, but there hasn’t been much news on it since 2013.  

Perhaps some of the most fascinating technology currently being developed at Skunk Works doesn’t involve a new aircraft, but rather how existing aircraft, ground troops and even naval vessels can communicate with one another on the battlefield. Known as Open Systems Architecture, this system has the potential to completely revolutionize warfare. By allowing sensors, software, video and targeting across various military units to collaborate in real-time this has the potential to be a dramatic game-changer. Just imagine if troops on the ground could use all of the information being gathered from a spy plane above using hand-held monitors. Or how much more effective airstrikes could be if all the aircraft involved could share real-time data as the attack progressed. 

Over the last decade, Skunk Works has taken part in a series of test operations which have gradually increased in size and complexity, including Project Missouri, Project Iguana and last year with wonderfully named Project Riot. This is something that Skunk Works has been working on for some time now but it’s not immediately clear when it could be rolled out across the military.

Finally, there’s the hypersonic weapon travelling at speeds of up to 24,695 km/h (15,345 miles per hour). The AGM-183 ARRW uses a boost-glide system propelled by a rocket to reach speeds thought to be roughly eight times faster than any missile on the planet. And yes, this is the weapon that President Trump famously referred to as a “super-duper missile”. In 2018, the U.S Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a contract worth $480 million to develop and produce the missile and it’s believed that it should be available sooner rather than later.

Skunk Works in the Wider World

It is a testament to the extraordinary work done at Skunk Works that the term skunk works has come to define any small innovative group within a larger company. Often working completely autonomously and with sizable budgets, they are sometimes referred to as disruptive elements. Not because of their bad behaviour, but because they are constantly challenging the status quo and pushing innovation at a rapid pace. The Skunk Works framework was laid out decades ago by its pioneering leader Clarence Johnson with his 14 rules and practices that remain on the Lockheed website to this day. I’m not going to go through them all right now, but I can tell you that much of the focus is on speed, daring innovation, small groups, fluidity and reward for those involved. 

IBM famously used the process to develop their first IBM PC in less than a year in the 1980s and most large companies around the world now use the same kind of framework for their own “Skunk work” divisions. Google has Google X, Amazon has Lab126 and A9, Boeing has its Phantom Works and who can forget the small, little known company known as Apple who used the same kind of framework when Steve Jobs handpicked a group of 20 people and produced the Macintosh.  

The Dream Factory for War 

The Skunk Works division recently celebrated its 75th birthday. Seventy-five years of producing new generation aviation hardware have placed Skunk Works into a category with few, if any, rivals. Considering the comings and goings that occur over just a couple of decades, let alone 75 years, it’s extraordinary that it has retained its ferocious drive and record of ground-breaking innovation. 

Skunk Works may not be able to put an aircraft in the sky after just 143 days anymore, but this is a group that has gone far beyond mere nuts and bolts. A group with a daring imagination, a place where war dreams come true.

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