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