Review: Skunk Works

Skunk Works

Skunk WorksBen R. Rich and Leo Janos. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1994.

Summary: The story of Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” operation that produced innovative planes and other products for the military including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-117 Stealth fighter.

The term “skunk works” has become common parlance in the business and technical worlds for a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic control to work on advanced or secret projects. The development of the original Apple Macintosh computer is an example of a “skunk works” project. This book is the story of the original Skunk Works, a top secret operation with Lockheed responsible for building some of the most cutting-edge and innovative military aircraft. Ben Rich was the second boss over the Skunk Works, mentored under the legendary (and formidable) Clarence “Kelly” Johnson.

The book opens with the first test flight of the F-117, the first real stealth fighter, and the first plane built under Rich’s leadership after he took over from Kelly Johnson in 1975. He describes the process of winning the contract to develop the plane, and the incredible engineering work to make the plane practically invisible to enemy radar through a combination of flat surfaces and absorptive materials. One of the biggest problems turned out to be designing a canopy that would deflect radar while being able to be seen out of. Otherwise, the pilot’s head actually had a bigger radar profile than the plane! The biggest test of the plane was the bombing mission the first night of Operation Desert Storm, against heavily defended Baghdad, in which key command and control facilities, and communication facilities were taken out under heavy anti-aircraft fire without a single plane being lost, not only that night but throughout the conflict.

This was just one in a long line of innovative planes designed by the Skunk Works. Rich tells the story of how Kelly Johnson formed this secret operation within Lockheed in 1943 to develop a jet fighter (the P-80) to counter German development of similar technology. Rich describes his own initiation into the Skunk Works as a thermodynamicist brought on to help with the inlet design on the F-104 Starfighter, the first supersonic jet fighter. He was unsure how long he would work there.

Rich made the grade and goes on in the book to narrate the histories of two of the most innovative planes designed under Kelly Johnson’s leadership, the U-2 and the SR-71, both involved in overflights over the Soviet Union and other countries. The U-2 was designed to fly at 70,000 feet, with wings two-thirds as long as the fuselage which entailed special design challenges. It was put into use on overflights over the Soviet Union in 1956, securing critical intelligence on nuclear and conventional military capabilities until Gary Powers was shot down in 1960 (they actually thought they would only get two years of overflights in before this happened). Later it was used over Cuba, and the remarkable fact is that this plane is still in use, having gone through its latest upgrade in 2012.

Rich and his fellow engineers faced a whole different set of engineering challenges in designing the SR-71 Blackbird, capable of sustained Mach 3.2 speeds and flight at over 80,000 feet while taking crystal clear pictures. The plane still holds sustained speed records that have not been surpassed. It was the first titanium-bodied plane, used a special inlet cone design to force air into the engine at high altitudes, and one of the first to use stealth technology to reduce radar cross-sections.

The book mixes Rich’s narrative with “testimonials” from pilots who flew the planes, defense secretaries like Bill Perry, and national security figures like Zbigniew Brzezinski. More than simply a narrative of building innovative aircraft (and even a stealth ship), it is a narrative of what it was like to work under Kelly Johnson and how he shaped the Skunk Works. One of the most significant contributions Johnson made, referenced by many texts on “skunk works” was Kelly’s 14 Rules, that articulated the requirements of a top secret, lean, innovative, cost-effective organization free of bureaucratic control that inflates costs, bogs down development and stifles creativity. One of the rules also established alternative compensation policies that compensated for performance rather than number of reports.

Kelly was a formidable leader. He did not suffer fools gladly, losing him some contracts. He would not build a plane he didn’t believe in. He had zero tolerance for pretense. He had an amazing knowledge of every aspect of aviation engineering. He insisted that engineers work in close proximity to the shop floor. Rich speculates that such a leader probably would not be possible in his own era.

Rich’s concluding chapter, “Drawing the Right Conclusions” outlines his own ideas for more sensible procurement policies throughout the defense industry. He anticipates the widespread use of drones. I don’t know enough to determine whether any of his idea have been adopted, but they make sense if one wants both to control costs, and maintain a technological edge in weaponry.

It is fascinating to me that most of the applications of “skunk works” ideas have been in the technology world. I’m curious about the application of these ideas to the non-profit world, coming up with innovative ways to deliver services that better people’s lives. Often the challenge here is money to fund something outside of line management or support services, and satisfying funding entities that such an operation is not frivolous. My hunch is that there is a need for clear mission and bench marks, leadership that can manage lightly yet effectively a talented group of people, and good bridges back into the rest of the organization to test and implement ideas.

All that said, Rich has given us a fascinating narrative of the original Skunk Works, fascinating both for anyone interested in military aviation, and instructive for those wanting to learn key principles for skunk works-type operations.

One thought on “Review: Skunk Works

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2017 | Bob on Books

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