Seven decades of Lockheed Skunk Works aircraft (pictures)

The legendary Skunk Works got its start on an early jet fighter design 70 years ago this month. Since then, it's brought you the U-2, the SR-71, and the F-117, and it's still going strong.

Jon Skillings
Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET, where he's worked since 2000. A born browser of dictionaries, he honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS, AI and 5G to James Bond, aircraft, astronauts, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
1 of 31 U.S. Air Force

Lockheed XP-80

In the spring of 1943, amid the urgencies and alarums of wartime, bureaucracy took a back seat to necessity for the U.S. Army Air Force and aircraft maker Lockheed. The Nazi military machine was making notable progress developing a jet-powered fighter, a cutting-edge technology with the potential to give the Germans an edge in the battle for air superiority. The Army, then, didn't waste any time when it got a bold, confident pitch from Lockheed to build a jet aircraft prototype and build it fast. It gave Lockheed the green light in June 1943, setting in motion not just an aircraft design but also what was soon to become known as the Skunk Works.

The aircraft that came from that agreement was the Lockheed XP-80 (seen above), completed well ahead of schedule in a remarkable 143 days. The XP-80 would make its first flight on January 8, 1944. And while jet aircraft never became a factor in the aerial combat of World War II, a new era had dawned in the the world of aviation. And 70 years on, Lockheed's Skunk Works operation is still going strong. In this slideshow, we'll take a look at Skunk Works aircraft from across those seven decades.

2 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

An F-80A named 'Honk'

This photo from May 1946 shows one of the planes that evolved from the XP-80. The Lockheed F-80A -- this one is on the tarmac at the Washington National Air Show with Capt. G.M. Hensley -- would become the first production jet for the U.S. Air Force; more than 900 were built. Other milestones for various editions of the F-80 Shooting Star: it was the first American jet airplane to be manufactured in large quantities, the first USAF aircraft to exceed 500 mph in level flight, and when the Korean War came around in the early 1950s, the first USAF jet to be used in combat.

But let's go back for a moment to 1943 and those early days at the Skunk Works. The work on the XP-80 was led by Kelly Johnson, an engineer in his early thirties who had already made a name for himself at Lockheed. For that initial Skunk Works project, Lockheed's top brass gave him free rein and the OK to pull people off other duties, and he quickly assembled, by one account, a team of 23 engineers and 103 shop mechanics.

3 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

A flying foursome of F-80A jets

This four-aircraft formation shows the F-80A in flight.

So how did the distinctive Skunk Works name come about? In 1943, Lockheed's facilities were already dedicated to churning out production aircraft for the war effort -- there was no space for the work on what was to become the XP-80. So, as Lockheed tells it, that engineering effort found itself headquartered in a rented circus tent that picked up a potent odor from a manufacturing plant next door. That aroma apparently prompted one of the engineers in that group to refer to the place as the "Skonk Works," after a running joke in the popular "L'il Abner" comic strip. And soon enough, the name stuck.

4 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

Rocket assist

At some point along the way, someone thought to try out the Lockheed F-80A with rocket-assisted takeoff. Because, well, why not?

An F-80C variant of the Shooting Star took part in the world's first all-jet fighter air battle, during the Korean War in November 1950, and shot down a MiG-15. Almost 800 of the C models were built. With a wingspan of nearly 39 feet and powered by an Allison J-33 engine, the F-80C had a maximum speed of 580 mph and a range of 1,090 miles.

5 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

Pilot, prone

This Lockheed EF-80A test aircraft put the pilot in a prone position. Not all designs pan out.
6 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

Kelly Johnson and U-2

Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, the legendary chief designer for the Skunk Works, joined Lockheed in 1933 as a tool designer making $83 a month. He headed up the Skunk Works from its inception in 1943 until his retirement in 1975. He's seen here with a U-2 aircraft, one of the many cutting-edge aircraft that his unit produced.

In February 1966, the President's National Medal of Science was conferred on Johnson with this citation: "For bold innovations in the use of materials and in the design of aircraft of unusual configurations that pioneered new vistas for the possibility of flight."

But Johnson was known as well for the strength of his vision for how a unit like the Skunk Works should be run -- small, close-knit teams; minimal paperwork and red tape; proximity of engineers to aircraft; and essentially free rein for the person in charge. Lockheed's Web site lists "Kelly's 14 Rules & Practices," which start out with this first precept: "The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects."

7 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

U-2 on the ground

The Cold War gave Johnson another opportunity to come up with a design for a novel aircraft under hush-hush conditions, and to come up with it in a hurry. According to Lockheed, the Skunk Works in the summer of 1955 delivered the first U-2 for a test flight in just nine months following the contract signing. The U-2 spy plane -- known initially as just "the Article" -- quickly became a mainstay of U.S. reconnaissance and surveillance missions over the Soviet Union.
8 of 31 U.S. Air Force Photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds

U-2 Dragon Lady in flight

On its long slender wings, the U-2 Dragon Lady flies high -- it can go up past 70,000 feet, or about 13 miles -- and over the years has packed an ever more sophisticated variety of cameras and sensors. In all, just over 100 U-2 aircraft were built up through 1989, and a number of them, like the contemporary one seen here, are still flying today, not yet put out of commission by 21st-century drones.
9 of 31 Central Intelligence Agency

Design of A-3

This entry from Kelly Johnson's notebook, dated September 1958, shows some musings on the "design of A-3." It's not clear how far this design progressed, though it may have been a step along the way toward the A-12, which itself evolved into the better-known SR-71. A line in the middle of the sketch says "Basic concept -- reduce radar c.s.," in which c.s. in all likelihood stands for "cross section." The term "radar cross section" refers to how easily radar might detect an aircraft.
10 of 31 Central Intelligence Agency

Aircraft sketch

This undated sketch from Johnson's notebook shows an unidentified aircraft from several angles, but otherwise offers few hits to go by. It does bear some resemblance, though, to the Lockheed XF-104...
11 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

Lockheed XF-104

The XF-104 was another mid-1950s creation of the Skunk Works. Lockheed built two of the prototypes, and the first flight took place in March 1954. Those were followed by 17 YF-104A aircraft, one of which hit Mach 2 in February 1956, topping the Mach 1.7 of the XF-104.
12 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

Test pilot and XF-104

Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier strikes a pose on an XF-104.

The U.S. Air Force procured some 300 production versions (both one- and two-seaters), starting with the F-104A. In May 1958, an F-104A set a world speed record of just over 1,404 mph. In December 1959, an F-104C Starfighter set a world altitude record of 103,395 feet, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

13 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

SR-71 Blackbird

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is easily one of the most breathtaking airplanes ever built, both for its looks and for its speed and ceiling. How fast? Better than Mach 3. How high? Above 85,000 feet, or more than 16 miles.

In 1976, it set world records in both categories, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force: an absolute speed record of 2,193.167 mph and an absolute altitude record of 85,068.997 feet. With skills like that, the SR-71 -- 107 feet long, with a 55-foot wingspan, and powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney J58 turbojet engines of 32,500 pounds thrust each, with afterburner -- was unparalleled in its mission to provide long-range strategic reconnaissance.

14 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

Lockheed YF-12 in flight

The SR-71 evolved out of the Skunk Works aircraft that Lockheed refers to as the A-12 and the Air Force as the YF-12. A central challenge for the airframe designers was building something that could withstand extreme heat -- at Mach 3, the leading edges of the aircraft were expected to reach more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (while the ambient temperature outside the cockpit window, says Lockheed, would be 60 degrees below zero). Two design elements were key to handling the heat: the use of titanium in the construction, and the application of black paint to the skin, which gave the Blackbird its color.
15 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

F-80C meets YF-12A

Rendezvous at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio: a Lockheed F-80C (front) and a Lockheed YF-12A.
16 of 31 U.S. Air Force / 49th Wing History office

Have Blue

The SR-71 was one of the first aircraft to have "stealth" factored into its design -- that is, to be hard for radar systems to detect because of the contours of the airframe or the use of certain materials, or both. The much more angular aircraft seen here, code-named "Have Blue," marked a much more concerted effort to create a stealth aircraft. Lockheed developed a pair of these experimental flying machines in the mid-1970s, with the first flight taking place in December 1977. The Air Force describes "Have Blue" as "the first fixed-wing aircraft designed from an electrical engineering (rather than an aerodynamic) perspective."
17 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brian Ferguson

F-117A Nighthawk

And this is what "Have Blue" led to: the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter, a contingent of which are seen here lined up for takeoff from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., in October 2006. The chunky design remains distinctive even today.
18 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

Lockheed F-117A in flight

Seen from above while in flight, the F-117A does have a certain sleekness. The U.S. Air Force took delivery of 59 of the Nighthawks for operational use between 1981 and 1989. The aircraft has a wingspan of just over 43 feet and a length of just under 66 feet, and its maximum cruise speed was about 684 mph. The Air Force retired the F-117A in 2008.
19 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Michael Holzworth

F-22 Raptor over the Pacific

An F-22 Raptor flies over the Pacific Ocean near the Hawaiian Islands in March 2012. That aircraft design got its start at the Skunk Works around 1990 as the YF-22 prototype, and it went through nearly 44,000 wind tunnel test hours, 13,000 material sample tests, six years of development, and "a trio of program rephasings mandated by Congress," according to Lockheed. The first flight of an F-22 model came in September 1997 -- followed by nearly 3,500 additional flights and more than 7,600 test hours in the engineering and manufacturing development phase. In 2005, the Air Force finally declared the aircraft operational as the F-22A.
20 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

Sidewinder away

An F-22 Raptor fires an AIM-9 Sidewinder during a test flight in 2002. The Air Force says the F-22 can fly at better than Mach 1.5 without having to use a fuel-hungry afterburner, and the aircraft has a ceiling above 50,000 feet.
21 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo

RQ-3 DarkStar

It would be hard to find an odder-looking aircraft than the RQ-3 DarkStar, with its ruler-like wings spanning 69 feet straight out to the sides from the back end of a 15-foot disk of a fuselage. Right off the bat, you want to know where the rest of it is, but this is it. The DarkStar was a creation of the Skunk Works and Boeing, as part of a DARPA effort to develop drones for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions -- and to be fully autonomous. Four DarkStar aircraft were built, but only two ever flew, first in March 1996 and finally in January 1999.
22 of 31 NASA Dryden Flight Research Center photo/Carla Thomas

Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft

The Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft, a modified Dornier 328J aircraft, is a proof-of-concept technology demonstrator with an emphasis, as the name suggests, on the use of advanced composite materials to help improve durability and easier maintenance. In this case, most of the fuselage and the vertical tail made use of lighter-weight composite materials (the wings, engines, crew compartment, and landing gear are from the original Dornier), which dramatically cut the number of parts and mechanical fasteners needed. A joint effort of the Skunk Works and the Air Force Research Laboratory, it first flew in June 2009.
23 of 31 U.S. Navy photo By Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Andrew Rivard

F-35B Lightning II

The flip top on the dorsal side of this F-35B isn't a cockpit canopy. It's the cover for the lift fan that helps give this variant of the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, designed in part by Lockheed's Skunk Works, its STOVL (short takeoff and vertical landing) capabilities. Here we see an F-35B lift up from the flight deck of the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship, during testing in October 2011.
24 of 31 U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Michael D Jackson

F-35B test aircraft

That's a Lockheed Martin test pilot in the cockpit of this F-35B test aircraft, earlier in 2011 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. The F-35B, intended for use by the U.S. Marine Corps, should achieve operational status by the middle of the decade.
25 of 31 Lockheed Martin/Screenshot by CNET

Lockheed P-791

Airships haven't been much of a presence in the skies since the 1930s, before the Skunk Works came into being. But in recent years, the U.S. military has toyed with the idea of putting modern lighter-than-air vehicles to work at tasks including surveillance, communications, and cargo transport. And that got the Skunk Works going on this gentle hulk, the Lockheed P-791 Hybrid Air Vehicle. Lockheed says the P-791 was designed to remain aloft for three weeks at around 20,000 feet, packed with cameras, sensors, communications relays, and more. On the underbelly of the aircraft is an air cushion system, helping it to hug and traverse the ground like a hovercraft.
26 of 31 Lockheed Martin/Screenshot by CNET


Here you see the control panel of the Lockheed P-791 airship -- as well as a certain pop culture sensibility, in the labeling of the gauges (presumably representing the thrust of the airship's engines) at top left with names of characters from "The Simpsons."
27 of 31 U.S. Air Force photo


The X-56A MUTT (for "multi-utility technology testbed") is a little slip of a thing -- 7 feet long, with a 28-foot wingspan and a modest pair of 52-pound-thrust JetCat P200-SX turbine engines, and at that size, unmanned of course. It's the focal point of a project that teams up the Skunk Works with the Air Force Research Laboratory and NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center to study what technologies will be best suited for lightweight, flexible aircraft of the future. Long, thin wings like those are vulnerable to flutter -- uncontrollable vibrations that can do bad things to an aircraft in flight.
28 of 31 DARPA


Remember how the SR-71 Blackbird was remarkable for its travels at Mach 3? That pales in comparison with what aerospace engineers have in mind for the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), which is expected be capable of sustained flight at Mach 20 (a jaw-dropping, cheek-flapping 13,000 mph) and remain maneuverable to boot. A pair of test flights, the first in April 2010 and the next in August 2011, alas, both ended prematurely. As Lockheed puts it with some understatement, the HTV-2 -- a "data truck" packed with sensors -- is conducting research in "an uncertain operating envelope."
29 of 31 Lockheed Martin/Screenshot by CNET

UCLASS drone concept

The U.S. Navy has been slowly building toward a new category of drone -- smarter, deadlier, often autonomous, and just plain more capable all around -- under the heading of UCLASS, for "unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike" aircraft. The big defense contractors, meanwhile, have all been angling for position as the Navy gets heads toward a preliminary design phase that could kick off in the latter part of 2014. With its pitch, and the artist's conception seen here, Lockheed has been invoking the Skunk Works name and its ability to integrate "proven technologies" from aircraft such as the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter and the mostly hush-hush RQ-170 Sentinel drone.
30 of 31 Lockheed Martin

The VARIOUS drone

This Skunk Works concept aircraft, also meant to be unmanned, takes a different tack -- it incorporates lift fans in its wings to allow, hypothetically, for vertical takeoff and landing capabilities. It also has a particularly underwhelming name to account for its vertical skills and apparently to suggest its willingness to take on a variety of missions: VARIOUS, blandly short for this mouthful: VTOL Advanced Reconnaissance Insertion Organic Unmanned System.
31 of 31 DARPA


Who says only aircraft should be able to fly? Certainly not DARPA, which is on a mission to find the happy meeting ground between Humvee and helicopter. To that end, it has launched what it calls the Transformer (TX) program, which seeks to discover how feasible it might be to develop an air-and-land vehicle that meets these goals: vertical takeoff and landing; the ability to carry a 4-person payload more than 250 nautical miles on one tank of fuel; and the ability to safely travel on roads. It also has to be something that can be operated by a typical soldier, without requiring a dedicated pilot.

With industry partners including the pioneering helicopter company Piasecki Aircraft, Lockheed's Skunk Works has thrown its hat in the ring.

More Galleries

My Favorite Shots From the Galaxy S24 Ultra's Camera
A houseplant

My Favorite Shots From the Galaxy S24 Ultra's Camera

20 Photos
Honor's Magic V2 Foldable Is Lighter Than Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra

Honor's Magic V2 Foldable Is Lighter Than Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra

10 Photos
The Samsung Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus Looks Sweet in Aluminum
Samsung Galaxy S24

The Samsung Galaxy S24 and S24 Plus Looks Sweet in Aluminum

23 Photos
Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra Now Has a Titanium Design
The Galaxy S24 Ultra in multiple colors

Samsung's Galaxy S24 Ultra Now Has a Titanium Design

23 Photos
I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

34 Photos
17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About
Invitation for the Apple September iPhone 15 event

17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About

18 Photos
AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

17 Photos