Skunk Works: 70 years of cutting-edge aircraft

In June 1943, Lockheed made a bold pitch to the U.S. Army that it could build a jet fighter, and build it fast. Since then, the Skunk Works has conjured up the U-2, the SR-71, the F-117, and more, and it's still going strong.

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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.
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XF-104 with Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier
The XF-104, also known as Lockheed Model L-246, with Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier, perhaps from 1954-55. U.S. Air Force photo

Think aerodynamics in the animal world, and your mind may turn to the barn swallow and the peregrine falcon, the shark, and the sailfish, perhaps the greyhound. You probably won't conjure up the image of the zaftig, waddling skunk.

But think aerodynamic designs from hands and minds of humankind, and you can't help but turn your mind to the legendary Skunk Works.

That pungent nickname surely imparts more character and color to a long-running series of aviation innovations than the bland and anodyne, if accurate, bureaucratic title of the Lockheed Martin unit, Advanced Development Programs. Cutting-edge aircraft that have emerged from the hush-hush environs of the Skunk Works include the U-2, the A-12 (which became the SR-71 Blackbird), the F-117, and the F-22.

It was 70 years ago this month, in June 1943, that the Skunk Works got its start, when the U.S. Army Air Forces -- worried by Nazi efforts to develop a first-of-its-kind jet-powered fighter aircraft -- welcomed a bold pitch from Lockheed to build a jet aircraft prototype for the Allies and build it fast. The resulting aircraft was the Lockheed XP-80, completed well ahead of schedule in an impressive, no-nonsense 143 days.

Seven decades of Lockheed Skunk Works aircraft (pictures)

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That work was carried out in secrecy, a characteristic of the unit that continues to today. In a Q&A on Lockheed's Web site marking the 70th anniversary, Alton Romig Jr., corporate vice president and the general manager of the Skunk Works, estimates that 90 percent of what the Skunk Works does is classified.

Lockheed does share some details -- or at least generalities -- about what it's working on today. Those contemporary cutting-edge projects include a 21st century airship, a bid to capture the contract for the U.S. Navy's next-generation UCLASS drone, and the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), an experimental design that has flown twice, briefly, in recent years in a quest to develop aircraft (or missiles) that can achieve sustained flight at Mach 20.

"Having completed two flights with HTV-2, we now have close to 20 minutes of flying at Mach 20 under our belts," Romig said. "This work is shaping a technology maturation path to build more complex vehicles that could be deployed in 2030 and beyond."

Kelly Johnson aircraft sketch
Kelly Johnson notebook entry from September 1958 describing the "design of A-3." Central Intelligence Agency

The first head of the Skunk Works was Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, who had joined Lockheed in 1933 as a tool designer and had already made a name for himself. Johnson led the unit from its inception in 1943 until his retirement in 1975.

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 more than just an engineer and designer; he also quickly demonstrated -- and sustained over his tenure -- a strong vision as a manager 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 and executives still celebrate "Kelly's 14 Rules & Practices," which start out with this precept: "The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects."

And here's the efficiency-minded rule No. 3: "The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems)."

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.

You can see the wide range of historical and present-day Skunk Works designs in the slideshow that accompanies this story.