Skunk Works® logo - a legal mark of Lockheed Martin Corporation


The Skunk Works®


Skunk Works

A skunk works is a group of people who, in order to achieve unusual results, work on a project in a way that is outside the usual rules. A skunk works is often a small team that assumes or is given responsibility for developing something in a short time with minimal management constraints. Typically, a skunk works has a small number of members in order to reduce communications overhead. A skunk works is sometimes used to spearhead a product design that thereafter will be developed according to the usual process. A skunk works project may be secret.

The name is taken from the moonshine factory in Al Capp's cartoon, "Lil' Abner."


Skunk Works® logo - a legal mark of Lockheed Martin Corporation

The Skunk Works® was formed in June of 1943 in Burbank, Calif. The Air Tactical Service Command (ATSC) of the Army Air Force met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express its need for a jet fighter. A rapidly growing German jet threat gave Lockheed an opportunity to develop an airframe around the most powerful jet engine that the allied forces had access to, the British Goblin. Lockheed was chosen to develop the jet because of its past interest in jet development and its previous contracts with the Air Force. One month after the ATSC and Lockheed meeting, a young engineer by the name of Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson and other associate engineers hand delivered the initial XP-80 proposal to the ATSC. Two days later the go-ahead was given to Lockheed to start development and the Skunk Works was born, with Kelly Johnson at the helm.

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XP-80 built by Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works in only 143 days

The XP-80

The formal contract for the XP-80 did not arrive at Lockheed until October 16, 1943; some four months after work had already begun. This would prove to be a common practice within the Skunk Works. Many times a customer would come to the Skunk Works with a request and on a handshake the project would begin, no contracts in place, no official submittal process. Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works team designed and built the XP-80 in only 143 days, seven less than was required.

What allowed Kelly to operate the Skunk Works so effectively and efficiently was his unconventional organizational approach. He broke the rules, challenging the current bureaucratic system that stifled innovation and hindered progress. His philosophy is spelled out in his “14 practices and rules” that he and his team followed. Many of these “rules” are still considered valid today.


Advanced Development

Advanced Development Programs (ADP, Skunk Works®) is responsible for the integrated "front-end" development of new and innovative technologies, new product and derivative programs in support of Air Power as well as the integration of air and space assets.

With a passion for invention, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works has been synonymous with record-breaking aircraft, stealth, lift fan technology, and other cutting-edge innovations for the past 60 years.

The ability to quickly and quietly develop new technologies and prototype war fighter systems is a critical capability as the military pursues transformation to capability-driven, effects based operations.

Tomorrow's war fighting information infrastructure must expand beyond traditional boundaries established among the strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfare. The nation needs survivable, penetrating, long endurance manned and unmanned systems that can provide persistent, real-time, surveillance and targeting capabilities in all threat environments.

Skunk Works is focused on the architectural framework, associated technologies and product needs of the rapidly evolving, new warfare environment. Lockheed Martin is at heart a company of inventors. We are not satisfied unless we devise a new solution -- something smarter, something better. That way of thinking is also core to the men and women of Skunk Works.



Skunk Works


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Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

Unofficial name for Lockheed Martin's Lockheed Advanced Development Projects Unit – the unit responsible for producing a number of famous aircraft, including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-117. Among the most recent projects is the F-35 JSF (Joint Strike Fighter).

The Skunk Works originated during World War II, when the black projects of the Skunk Works were located near the Burbank Airport, now renamed Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California. The legendary Kelly Johnson and team developed the P-80 Shooting Star in a circus tent set in the parking lot (as there was no existing secure area) in only 143 days. This aircraft was the U.S. Air Force's first operational jet fighter. Kelly Johnson headed the Skunk Works until 1975, when Ben Rich took over leadership. At the end of the Cold War in 1989, Lockheed reorganized its operations and relocated the Skunk Works to Site 10 at U. S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California where it is still in operation today.

The Skunk Works has used the
Groom Dry Lake Air Force Base for testing their secret aircraft prototypes.



Kelly Johnson's " Skunk Works " Created The World's Most Amazing Planes

How a handful of men broke the rules and created the world's most amazing high-tech weaponry.

Illustrations by Mike Machat, Mark McCandlish and Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.

Published in the September, 1999 issue of Popular Mechanics.



"Kelly" Johnson

The generals had botched it. Years before Pearl Harbor they had sneered at German plans for a new type of high-speed aircraft engine. Now in 1943, as the Allies began preparing for the D-Day invasion of France, intelligence reports revealed that the Nazis were ramping up production of a blistering fast fighter, a plane powered by the very same type of propeller-less "jet" engine they had rejected. The War Department needed a miracle airplane and turned to the one man it could count on to deliver it in six months, Clarence L. Johnson. At age 33, "Kelly" Johnson had already established his reputation. His newest design, the twin-tailed, 400-mph P-38 Lightning, was the most maneuverable fighter–and arguably the most beautiful airplane–in the Allied force (see "Flying Battlewagons," May 1943, page 8). To counter the new German threat, the War Department wanted Kelly to build a plane that could fly 200 mph faster, literally pressing its nose against the sound barrier. The scrappy, one-time dockworker who was often described as W.C. Fields without a sense of humor, knew exactly what to do: He rented a circus tent.

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Now located in Palmdale, Calif., the Skunk Works has branched out to include developing stealthy missiles, low-observable unmanned aircraft like the DarkStar and reusable launch vehicles including the X-33. Its "black projects" remain a closely guarded secret.

Kelly pitched his tent on the sprawling Lockheed Aircraft complex in Burbank, Calif. Officially his shop was the Lockheed Advanced Development Projects Unit. The stench from a nearby plastic factory that wafted into the tent was so vile one of the engineers began answering the phone "skonk works," after the backwoods still in the then popular L'il Abner comic strip. Despite these less-than-ideal working conditions, Kelly's team of 23 design engineers and 30 shop mechanics delivered Lulu Belle, the prototype for the P-80 Shooting Star, in only 143 days. America had entered the jet age, more than a month ahead of schedule.

The war ended before the P-80, later designated the F-80, would fire its first shot in anger, against Soviet MiGs in Korea. Eventually Lockheed would build about 9000. Kelly's team moved to more permanent quarters, in a windowless bomber-production hangar. The foul smell that inspired the design team's name became a memory but the name lingered. At least until the lawyers for the L'il Abner comic strip caught wind of it. In deference to the comic strip, the "skonk works" was rechristened the Skunk Works.

Whatever the spelling, Kelly's Skunk Works is to aviation what Edison's Menlo Park was to electricity, a place where the daily pursuit of the impossible produces technologies indistinguishable from magic. That the Skunk Works thrived in those early years, let alone flourished to reach middle age, is all the more remarkable when you realize that its second and third major projects, the Saturn cargo plane and the XFV-1 vertical-takeoff naval fighter, were "absolute clunkers," according to Ben Rich, Kelly's protégé and hand-picked successor. "The open secret in the company was that Kelly walked on water in the adoring eyes of CEO Robert Gross," Rich would later recall in his memoirs.



Building Planes


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U-2 F-80 F-104

It was well-earned admiration. As a 23-year-old engineering student at the University of Michigan, Kelly had rescued Gross's investment in Lockheed by first spotting and then correcting a critical stability flaw in the twin-engine Lockheed Electra. Kelly's solution, a distinctive twin-tail, would become a Lockheed signature, appearing on the Constellation, P-38 and the Hudson bombers Lockheed built for the British Royal Air Force (see "Uncle Sam's War Birds On World Frontiers," Jan. 1943, page 19).

Most everyone who worked with Kelly was quick to recognize his genius. Hall Hibbard, young Kelly's boss at Lockheed, recalled watching him convert the Electra into the Hudson bomber during a 72-hour marathon redesign session. "That damned Swede can actually see air," he later told Rich. When Kelly learned of Hibbard's remark he said it was the greatest compliment he had ever received.

Kelly made no secret of how he worked his magic. He insisted his engineers get dirty on the shop floor. Working a lot like guys building hot rods in their garages, engineers and production mechanics created the hottest planes ever to cut through the air. This informal process produced the most important planes of the 20th century, including the Mach 2 F-104 Starfighter, U-2 and SR-71 spy-planes, and the stealthy F-117A. The Skunk Works' contributions to the creation of the F-22 Raptor and Joint Strike Fighter ensure its legacy in the shape of the Air Force of the 21st century. And its experimental stealth ship Sea Shadow means the Skunk Works will leave its mark on future navies as well.


Building Myths


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Kelly crafted the Skunk Works reputation as carefully as he engineered his airplanes, memorializing the company's design philosophy as a set of 14 work rules. Followed to this day, they enshrine the virtues of speed, simplicity and cooperation while banning the evils of paperwork and excessive management. Their spirit, if not their precise words, has been adopted by countless management gurus. Yet the two most important Skunk Works rules were never committed to paper. "All of the planes were Kelly's airplanes. And if a blue-suiter [Air Force officer] wore a star on his shoulder only Kelly was authorized to deal with him," Rich would later recall.

Kelly extended his "star" rule to contact with the CIA. He insisted upon being the sole contact with  the intelligence community, which would provide the Skunk Works with its two biggest Cold War successes, the high-flying U-2 and, later, the SR-71 spy-planes.

Resembling the aftermath of a head-on collision between a sail-plane and an airliner, the U-2 was the single most important intelligence tool of the Cold War. When it was ready to fly President Dwight D. Eisenhower considered its mission so critical to national security that he insisted on personally approving each of its over-flights of the Soviet Union. The results were magnificent. "It really was as if we in the intelligence community had cataracts removed," recalls former CIA director Richard Helms. "The U-2 camera leapfrogged us into another dimension altogether." One of the first major coups was the discovery that a much-feared "bomber gap" between U.S. B-52 and Soviet Bison bombers didn't exist. U-2 photos revealed that the more than 100 Bison counted flying overhead at a May Day military parade were in fact a fleet of 30 flying in a circle.





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Russians may see SR-71 engines, at left, but not the radar-carrying stealth blimp.

Before over-flights of the Soviet Union officially ended as the result of the downing of Francis Gary Powers, the folded-optics camera inside the U-2's "Q-bay" would capture an image that would spur the Skunk Works to design the most impressive plane it never built, the CL-400. The un-built plane would also spawn one of its most enduring mysteries about what really takes place behind closed hangar doors.

Intelligence work is largely a hunt for anomalies. During the height of the Cold War no anomaly was more ominous than the release of a scientist from the gulag, the vast network of Soviet labor camps. When Pyotr Kapitsa, an expert on low-temperature gases arrested in 1946, suddenly found himself transferred to a Soviet research institute, inquiring minds at the CIA wanted to know why. Photos of hydrogen liquefaction plants taken by U-2 over flights offered a frightening possibility: Kapitsa had been "rehabilitated" so that he could work on the power plant for a hydrogen-powered space plane. During the last days of World War II, just such a plane had been proposed as a means of bombing New York City from flights originating in Germany. Little evidence of such a craft was ever found after the war. The possibility that the Soviets had carried it all off lock, stock and barrel was not beyond reason.

Terrified at the prospect of Soviet spy planes flying over U.S. airspace with the impunity that the U-2 crossed Mother Russia, the Skunk Works found itself with $96 million and an assignment to build an ultra-secret hydrogen-powered space plane to counter the new red menace.

For some time before receiving the go-ahead for Project Suntan, Kelly had been fascinated with the idea of burning -350 degree F hydrogen in a modified jet engine. In theory, such a Mach 2 craft could effortlessly skim the atmosphere at 100,000 ft. The Skunk Works geared up to provide the Air Force with a complete package, including a liquid hydrogen production plant and refueling planes. Literally overnight the Skunk Works became the world's largest producer of liquid hydrogen, creating 200 gal. a day.

Meanwhile, the CL-400, as the Suntan hydrogen aircraft was designated, began to take shape as a delta-wing vacuum bottle as big as a pair of B-52s. Encouraged by initial design work, Rich recalled that Kelly ordered 2 1/2 miles of aluminum extrusions. Pratt & Whitney was set to work modifying engines to burn hydrogen. A guidance system was ordered from MIT. And then Kelly spotted the critical flaw.

The CL-400 could fly. There was no question of that. What it couldn't do was fly faster or farther than a kerosene-burning jet plane. Hydrogen offered no technological edge. Kelly bit the bullet, and convinced the Air Force to take back the unspent $90 million. As for the Soviet plane, it never materialized. It seems hydrogen-fuel expert Kapitsa had been freed to work on another project that had somehow escaped the CIA's notice, the launch of Sputnik, the world's first successfully orbited artificial satellite. In 1978, he would win the Nobel Prize.




The CL-400 vanished from the Skunk Works but the mythology surrounding a liquid hydrogen spy-plane remained and in time would grow to become one of the great Skunk Works mysteries, Aurora. The Air Force and Lockheed insist Aurora is a code name for the company's work on its entry in the B-2 stealth bomber design competition, which was won by Northrop Aircraft.

Those who chase mystery aircraft point to two facts that suggest there may be more to the story. There have, they claim, been repeated sightings of a mystery craft of the CL-400-like proportions moving at high speed. There is also documentation of a NASA-financed project that overcame the technical roadblocks that caused Suntan to stumble. In the early 1970s Gerald Rosen, a professor of physics at Philadelphia's Drexel University and one of the highest paid theoretical physicists in the United States, was contracted by NASA to determine whether it would be possible to store hydrogen as individual atoms rather than as molecules. His calculations predicted it was not only possible, but that so much fuel could be stored in a small space that the Apollo astronauts could have traveled to the moon in a rocket the size of a pickup truck. And so, official denials ignored, Aurora remains a lively topic for speculation.


The Fastest Plane


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The F-22 The Joint Strike Fighter

Despite the termination of Suntan, the Skunk Works got to build a fast, high-flying spy-plane, the SR-71 Blackbird. Designed for Mach 3 plus flight (see "The Blackbird Is Back," June 1991, page 27), the SR-71 holds a slew of records that are not likely to be broken for decades to come. Like the U-2, the SR-71 also began as a CIA project. And like the U-2, its role was made obsolete by technology, in this case American technology in the form of CIA and National Reconnaissance Office spy satellites. Today, most SR-71s, and their predecessor A-12s, are featured attractions at air museums. NASA continues to operate one SR-71 for environmental research. A second, operated by the Air Force, is used from time to time in technology demonstration experiments, according to military sources.

It was a far different fate than Kelly had envisioned for the SR-71. Much as he had adapted the Electra to become the British Hudson bomber, Kelly envisioned manufacturing fleets of the SR-71 specially modified as bombers, fighters and missile launchers. The government rejected the idea and, in a decision that will live in infamy for aviation enthusiasts for centuries to come, ordered the Skunk Works to destroy all SR-71 tooling.

Before being killed in its prime, the SR-71 took part in an experiment that would pave the Skunk Works' entry into the next frontier of high-altitude surveillance, Tagboard. The project tested the feasibility of using the SR-71 to launch a high-speed, high-altitude drone, the D-21, deep into enemy terrain. After a series of tries, including one that ended in the loss of a plane and its pilot, Tagboard was canceled.

Combining the lessons learned from Tagboard with the stealth technology it would later develop for Have Blue, the prototype for the F-117A (see "Black Jet," July 1990, page 43), the Skunk Works would work with Boeing to develop DarkStar. Using this low-observable, high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft, the Air Force will be able to undertake reconnaissance missions too far into hostile terrain for manned aircraft and too expensive for satellites.



Future Planes


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X-33 & Darkstar

Changing times have rendered the legendary planes of the Skunk Works militarily obsolete. Kelly and Rich have passed on. In May 1995, following the merger of Lockheed and Martin Marietta, the new Lockheed Martin company spun off the Skunk Works as a separate Lockheed operation, based in Palmdale, Calif. Today, a new generation of designers, plane builders and test pilots under the leadership of president Jack Gordon carries on the best of the old Skunk Works traditions. Later this year they will literally blast the Skunk Works into the 21st century, with the launch of the X-33. A prototype for Venture Star, a possible replacement for NASA's space shuttle, the X-33 itself is being considered as a test-bed for a future military space plane. Tales of mystery craft continue. There have been scores of sightings of a 1000-ft.-long stealth blimp that supposedly carries a massive phased array radar. The craft is said to disguise itself by using "optical stealth" technology that creates an image of a floating star field.

By their nature, the type of "black projects" undertaken by the Skunk Works always have and always will be secret. What PM has learned through its conversations with company executives and test pilots and visits to non-restricted parts of the Skunk Works is only as much as the company and government are willing to share. It is certain that there is far more to the Skunk Works story than can now be told. Looking at the tall white hangars gleaming in the high desert sun, we can't help but wonder what 21st century wonders are taking shape inside.



Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works Celebrates Its Diamond Anniversary

Palmdale, CA, June 17, 2003 --

Lockheed Martin's [NYSE: LMT] renowned Skunk Works officially marks its 60th Anniversary today.

Once the informal name for the Lockheed organization led by Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson that produced many of America's most technologically advanced aircraft, the Skunk Works has made an indelible mark on aviation history. The Skunk Works is regarded worldwide as one of the most respected design and development names in aeronautics.

During the heat of World War II, Johnson, Lockheed's famed aircraft designer, forged a team of engineers behind tightly closed doors in makeshift facilities in Burbank, Calif., and designed and developed the P-80 Shooting Star, the Air Force's first truly operational jet fighter, in a mere 143 days.

Since then, this organization continues within Lockheed Martin and has given shape to many "firsts" such as the F-104 Starfighter, the first Mach 2 aircraft; the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which is still the highest flying single engine airplane; and the SR-71 "Blackbird" reconnaissance aircraft, which was the first to fly at speeds in excess of Mach 3. The SR 71, which has been retired, is still the highest flying and fastest jet aircraft ever developed.

The Skunk Works is also responsible for development of the F-117 Nighthawk, the world's first operational stealth fighter, and led development of the YF-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter, the forerunner of today's F/A 22 Raptor, the first aircraft to combine stealth, supercruise, super maneuverability, and highly integrated avionics.

More recently, the Skunk Works led the development and flight testing of the Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems X 35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) prototypes Included in this effort was the successful flight testing of the innovative lift fan system on the X-35B demonstrator. The successful testing of this revolutionary vertical landing capability was a key factor in the Lockheed Martin team's win in the JSF competition. With production of the F 35 aircraft scheduled to last for four decades, the JSF program will likely be the largest defense contract in history.

How did the Skunk Works name come into being? The actual facts have been veiled by time. But there is no doubt that it was derived from the "Skonk Works" in Al Capp's popular 1940s-era "Li'l Abner" comic strip that appeared in newspapers nationwide. It is believed that Irv Culver, a talented designer who worked on Johnson's original 1943 P-80 development team was responsible for the name.

Johnson, who died in 1990, noted in his autobiography, "The legend goes that one of our engineers - I guess it was Culver - was asked 'What is Kelly doing in there?' He's stirring up some kind of brew,' was the answer. This brought to mind Li'l Abner and the hairy Indian in that strip who regularly stirred up a big brew, throwing in skunks, old shoes and other material to make his 'Kickapoo joy juice.'"

Culver's version differs. He recalled that World War II secrecy dictated that Lockheed engineers could not even identify their office when answering the phone. The isolation reminded him of the much-shunned Kickapoo joy juice works in the comic strip. So one day when a group of Pentagon military officers placed a conference call, he answered, "Skonk Works, inside man, Culver." After an awkward pause one of the officers asked, "What?" Culver repeated, "Skonk Works," and the name stuck.

Nestled in the fringes of California's Mojave Desert, Advanced Development Programs (a.k.a. The Skunk Works) today continues its notable tradition by developing transformational strategies and classified products in a "quick", "quiet" and "quality" manner to support its varied customers. It continues to "brew" up new innovations that are and will serve our nation's defense for decades to come. The Skunk Works unique unmanned products, i.e. Desert Hawk and FPASS recently saw action in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Frank Cappuccio is the current Vice President and General Manager of the "Skunk Works". Frank started his Lockheed Martin career in the Skunk Works and is committed to keeping this national asset in the forefront of aeronautical technology and products. His vision, like Kelly Johnson's is simple: Superior products through innovation.

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, is a leader in the design, development, systems integration, production and support of advanced military aircraft and related technologies. Its customers include the military services of the United States and allied countries throughout the world. Products include the F-16, F/A-22, F-35 JSF, F-117, T-50, C-5, C-130, C-130J, P-3, S-3 and U-2.

Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., Lockheed Martin employs about 135,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustaining of advanced technology systems, products and services.


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