Skunk Works talks through the history of the famous Lockheed secret R&D facility.

The memoir is told by Ben Rich, the leader of the Skunk Works for some 20-odd years. He helped launch the F-117A “stealth fighter”, the U-2 spyplane, the SR-71 Blackbird.

The book itself contains a number of incredible first-hand accounts, from the first test flights to the bombing of Baghdad.

The importance of stealth

One of the most striking features of the book is just how much of an advantage stealth fighters were, and how fragile they were.

Ben Rich shares a number of stories, where the stealth fighter had some seemingly inconsequential issue, which then caused it to light up like a bus on a radar screen. He talks about times when the fighter ‘had a few screws sticking out’ or when ‘the side panels didn’t quite form a clear seal. In each case, it totally removed the ability for the plane to operate in a stealth capacity.

In another case, the paint for the plane had its mixture changed, causing it to suddenly show up brighter on radar. It took the team months to track down a change upstream in the paint manufacturers process.

Secrecy for a different time

I’ve never been involved with a government project, so the overall secrecy around the Skunk Works surprised me quite a bit. The plane itself was only moved under cover of darkness, and even members of Lockheed and other military organizations were not allowed to see it.

Funding for the planes ended up being ‘money laundered’ from the CIA, in some cases through the personal accounts of the Skunk Works leadership, until it could pay for the planes.

 For the U-2 spyplane, the US went so far as to create fake manuals for 'weather observation planes'. The manual showed parts of the real U-2, but with a doctored instrument panel, fake controls, and false specifications detailing lower-altitude flight. To make the manual look old, the team stained the papers with coffee and cigarette butts. They eventually let it slip into the hands of the Soviets.

Management: then and now

Hearing stories about Kelly Johnson (the previous leader of the Skunk Works) made me. He sounded sort of like a Steve Jobs-esque type, who knew every detail and imperfection, and could design the planes inside and out. He also comes across as a gruff, no-nonsense drinker, who would give you a quarter every time you proved him wrong.

The U-2

The U-2 spy plane was another innovation which came out of the Skunk Works. It was designed to be incredibly lightweight, fly at an altitude of 70,000 feet, and have a wingspan “the size of a small bridge”.

Hearing stories of U-2 pilots is pretty eye-opening.

One particularly terrifying story came from a pilot was flying the U-2 over a Soviet missile base, and realized that there was an active nuclear warhead about to be tested. He flew directly over the missile, taking photos, only to learn that it went off a mere two hours after he passed by.

In another account, a pilot had meant to take a set of cough drops, but accidentally started sucking on a cyanide pill to be taken in case of imminent capture. He spit it out before anything worse happened. 

The SR-71 “Blackbird”

The Blackbird holds a special place in my heart, as it was one of the first airplanes that got me interested in flight. My dad used to take my sister and I to the Seattle Air and Space museum, and the Blackbird was prominently on display.

As it turns out, the Blackbird is also a remarkable piece of machinery. It flew at Mach 3, allowing pilots to “outrun” any sort of enemy detection or missile system.

In the memoir, Ben Rich tells a number of stories about how hard it was to get the Blackbird right. Its engines would constantly leak fuel while on the ground, since they didn’t get sealed in until it was racing through the air. The engines themselves had to be equipped with adjustable ‘input cones’ which could increase the pressure of the air feeding the engine as the Blackbird would fly to astronomic heights.

It is apparently one of the only production military aircraft never to have been lost to enemy action.

Piloting the Blackbird sounds like it enters another dimension. Because the plane travels at 3x the speed of sound, pilots would easily end up in different states or countries when not using the autopilot.

Interestingly, Blackbirds which had been in operation became more flight-worthy. Their supersonic flights would create such heat, that it would anneal the body of the aircraft.

Fun tidbits

Ball bearings rolling across the desk - when an independent team came to inspect the stealthiness of the stealth fighter, they glued a few ball bearings to the front of it. Astonishingly, the ball bearings showed up in higher profile than the rest of the fighter itself on a radar screen. Ben Rich proceeded to advertise the stealth fighter by rolling ball bearings across his desk.