Skunk Works – Fighting the Government to Give it What it Needs

Skunk Works”, by Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos, ISBN 978-0-316-74330-3 (1994)

Ben Rich was the second person to lead Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works division based in Burbank, California, following in the footsteps of Kelly Johnson, the irascible giant of the aeronautical world who had convinced the company to set up a small tight operation to design & manufacture cutting-edge airplanes.

Rich joined Lockheed in 1950 as a young thermodynamicist, rising to CEO of the Skunk Works in 1975. He retired in 1990 and died in 1995. The Skunk Works did business almost entirely with the US Government, producing planes for the CIA and the Air Force – the first US jet fighter, the P-80; the first supersonic jet attack plane, the F-104; the U2 spy plane; the SR-71 Blackbird surveillance aircraft, designed to outperform Soviet missiles by flying at 3 times the speed of sound at heights up to 80,000 feet; the F-117A radar-evading stealth tactical fighter.

In this book, Rich enthusiastically describes the technical challenges the small group at the Skunk Works faced in pushing the limits of aircraft performance and how they overcame them. He builds on that to muse upon the organizational benefits & challenges of a Skunk Works-type of business model, and on the inefficiencies of military contracting. His tale is interspersed with “Other Voices” – interesting short sections in which people from pilots to Secretaries of Defense share some of their experiences.

Rich deeply admired his long-time boss Kelly Johnson, and quotes him, such as on how to manage a business:

You don’t need Harvard to teach you that it’s more important to listen than to talk. … you’ll never make the grade unless you are decisive: even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision. The final thing you’ll need to know is don’t half-heartedly wound problems – kill them dead”.

And on another occasion:

Hell, in the main plant, they give raises on the basis of the more people being supervised; I give raises to the guy who supervises least. That means he’s doing more and taking more responsibility.”

An example of the kind of challenge the Skunk Works faced was one that arose when they were building the SR-71 Blackbird – how to find a suitably light material which could withstand the very high skin temperatures generated by flight at Mach 3. The answer was a form of titanium, but the large quantities required were difficult to source. The CIA arranged to purchase from the USSR the material needed for a US plane intended to spy on the USSR.

An important part of Rich’s story relates to the development of radar-avoiding stealth technology, which began with an impenetrable paper published in Russian in 1964 that was apparently ignored in the USSR. In 1975, a young Skunk Works engineer named Denys Overholser read a translation, and realized it provided the key to designing aircraft which would be almost invisible on radar. After much work, this led to the development of the F-117A Nighthawk which saw service in Iraq in 1991.

A disheartening element in Rich’s experiences was the military’s factionalism and resistance to change. The Skunk Works realized their stealth technology could be utilized to make submarines almost undetectable by sonar, and designed a hull to show the US Navy. Navy personnel were not interested – that was not what a submarine should look like.

Also frustrating was the rising burden of bureaucracy over the years. The priority of the growing numbers of government auditors & inspectors was keeping paperwork organized, not delivering a working aircraft. If a manufacturer managed to deliver a plane under budget, it was liable to fines & penalties for having “over-bid”.

One of the consequences of that growing administrative overhead burden is that building a new aircraft has become increasingly costly, and thus fewer new planes are authorized for development. In the 1950s, 49 new aircraft were introduced; in the 1980s, only 7; and by the 1990s, it was down to 3. Rich laments that in his 40 years in the industry, he worked on 27 different aircraft, whereas a young engineer joining the industry today will be lucky to build even one. It becomes increasingly difficult for the industry to maintain the necessary engineering skills and technological capabilities.

This is a well-told fast-paced tale about both the human and the technological sides of cutting-edge development in the real world of business risks and political vicissitudes. Thought-provoking too, in a world in which the US is allowing its’ former technical lead to slip away.

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I understood the origin of the stealth concept came with the SR. When we were climbing all over one in CA on our annual training tour, it struck me the leading edge of the SR was extremely similar to the 117. I asked the Crew Chief stranding there if the SR could be seen on radar, and he smiled - and said, “Not really. We used to give the Fleet in the Med a heads up we would be flying over their carrier group at such=an-such a time. The lauched but never found us.”

The edge had not been designed for stealth but because of the speed and heat. It was serrendipitous.

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Kelly Johnson remarked that he much preferred working with the CIA to the Air Force. The CIA would provide the specifications for the mission they wanted to perform: altitude, speed, range, reconnaissance camera resolution, etc, then leave it to the contractor to figure out how to build an airplane to do the job. The Air Force, by contrast, thought they knew a lot about how to design aircraft and were always meddling in the design process, leading to incessant changes, delays, cost overruns, and conflict between the customer and contractor.

By the time Ben Rich took over, the Skunk Works was working almost entirely for the Air Force, which had become even more meddlesome and bureaucratic in their administration of development projects.

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A Texas structural engineer with decades experience remarked to me the toughest customers to design residential foundations for are pilots.

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The essence of good leadership is giving a subordinate a mission then allowing him to decide how to do it. It may not be how you would have done it, but if it fills the bill for what you wanted, you should be good.

The AF, OTOH is full of regulations on how to do this and that. No flexibility. ONE result is that AF pilots don’t find parity with Navy/.Marine pilots until the reach tthe rank of senior majors/Lt. Col’s. Navy & Marines allow their pilots to play with their airplanes, and even occasionally break them in order to learn the edge of the flight envelope.

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My son gave me this book for my birthday last year. Highly recommended. Good write-up!

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And here’s a story about giving the government what it wanted:

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Unless this was a reenactment of the event years later, four of these guys (plus the guy out of the photo) were in their thirties at the time:


The guy on the right was likely mid-forties.
Also see:

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On this note, the Commander-in-Chief of Ukrainian military forces is 49.

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Part of the problem is that pilots have no leadership experience. THEY are expected to fly the planes and solve ALL the problems the plane may develop while in the air. Therefore the concept of delegation is foreign to them. Doctors are often the same.

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The point is that, except for the second guy from the left, they all look older by today’s standards. General Zaluzhnyi just looks out of shape.

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The comment about Zaluzhnyi reminds me of this article by Nassim Taleb:

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Ah skunk works, when America could build a fully functional platform within the specified time on the contract. Unlike the F-35 which I believe is now on hiatus due to Chi-Com parts.

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The F-35 was well known to be a POS. It’s only that no one seems to be willing to talk about it - at least out loud.

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It also seems to be stuck in developmental stage due to constant reconfiguration of the systems. My understanding is that they designed it to be a one size fits all plane for the services but each service has different specs for their combat aircraft. It was one huge rat hole for the pentagon to shove money down.

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This was completely predictable by anybody who remembers the sorry history of Robert McNamara’s TFX program, which became the F-111. It was supposed to meet both the needs of the Air Force and Navy, but grew so much in weight and cost (because there was much less commonality between the Air Force and Navy versions than anticipated) that the Navy bailed out in 1968. The Air Force version had large cost overruns and development delays. Sen. WIlliam Proxmire called it a “flying Edsel”.

By comparison with the F-35, the F-111 project now seems quick and inexpensive, but it was considered a massive boondoggle at the time and among foreign military sales customers only Australia ended up buying some planes. The lesson was that when “defence intellectuals” wax eloquent about the economies to be had from “joint” projects, they’ve probably been smoking too many of them.

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Truth. The F-35 actually had a chance to be a decent fighter BUT the Marine Corps demanded. VSTOL ability - to replace their Harriers, which were always “interesting” airplanes with little tactical application. THAT buggered up the whole aircraft design and we got the F-35.

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Kind of makes you wonder what the “f” actually stands for.

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I do not believe we are far enough advanced, in either technology or tactics, to seriously take on VSTOL fighters.

The Harrier was an interesting tour de force in concept. But while it did kind of interesting things, it revealed - once again - the limits of vertical T/O - that is POWER. Helicopters had already taught us that going way back. Helo’s are power limited, and when you finally get a big enough engine to drive the thing, they are rotor limited.

Helo’s were first used in Korea. The Army used them for MEDEVAC but the Marine Corps developed the concept of vertical envelopment. Vietnam had the first large scale use, with the Army developing them into the modern version of cavalry (the Marine Corps was never so rich to be able to afford anything like that. We were perfectly willing to potentially sacrifice a platoon of Marines to guard the carcass of a dead helo so it could be pulled up for either spare parts or rebuilt, while the Army left them lie where they fell.)

But Vietnam also revealed their weaknesses - thin-skinned, large, slow, so relatively easy targets for AA fire of all types. Today we see the Blackhawks as the evolution of the helo into a serious fighting vehicle. It took time. The Blackhawk is not the end of the development line, but it is considerably down the line. (Tanks are in for such serious developmental consideration now. They are too heavy and cumbersome for good future use, and need a new material to be lighter, faster, and still the “moving pillbox” concept. And then there’s the combat exoskeleton - a long-ago sci-fi concept that needs development and introduction - especially if we’re going to keep putting women into frontline units.)

If one looks at the Harrier, one finds an interesting A/C that is so power limited that the squadrons flying them kept records on the individual engine performance figures. so pilots could fly them safely! That ain’t a useful combat vehicle; it is merely an interesting design exercise.

Then there is the tactical doctrine. The Marine Corps likes the idea of a forward-deployed fighter-bomber, but has yet to show just how that is to be achieved. ?Where will the airframes be deployed. ?How will you resupply them with ammo and fuel (and maintenance). ? WHO will command them. Civil War taught us the infantry doesn’t know how to use something unfamiliar - as artillery was then - and a Harrier-like fighter is so much more complex!

So I consider the F-35 a transitory design, interesting perhaps in what it has developed, but not anything any nation ought to seriously purchase.

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Dev, sounds to me like the Marines would be better suited having the A-10 as part of its air combat doctrine as opposed to a more traditional “fighter/bomber” platform. What do you think?

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