“Skunk Works” by Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos


The Skunk Works was the semi-independent division of Lockheed which developed (among other planes) the U-2 and SR-71 spyplanes and the F-117 stealth fighter.  Ben Rich was there for all of these, first as right hand man of the famous, cantankerous Kelly Johnson and later as his successor.

The U-2 holds a very important place in Cold War history.  Through about 30 CIA-flown overflights of the Soviet Union over 4 years in the late 50’s (until Gary Powers‘ crash in 1960)  Eisenhower finally got real information on the (non-existent) “bomber gap.”  The designers thought that the U-2’s 70,000 feet altitude would prevent even tracking by Soviet radar, but this was not the case.  However, although the Soviets could see the plane, they did not initially have any missiles or fighters which could get up there.  They routinely scrambled dozens of fighters which desperately tried but to no effect.  Eventually they started flying in formation 15 kft below the U-2, trying to block the camera’s field of view.  Finally the Soviets developed the SA-2 missile which could reach high altitudes and had a very large kill radius; even still it took 14 fired shotgun-style to take down Powers. (plus, his mission planners carelessly repeated a portion of a very recent flight, so the Soviets were waiting for him…)  Later, five more U-2’s were shot down with the same missile over China during the Black Cat missions.

The SR-71 was about 25 years ahead of its time.  It is still the fastest jet ever built.  Most of the systems simply had to be redesigned from scratch to accommodate the Blackbird’s blistering speed and subsequent heat (something like 800 deg F on the nose during full speed flight).  Ironically, the titanium used for construction was primarily sourced from the USSR, imported by dummy companies set up by the CIA.  The conical air intake systems were especially novel – they telescope in and out something like 8 feet to provide the correct amount of air compression.  The SR-71 was never shot down, with defense coming from stealthy features, high altitude, and primarily its great speed.  There was a modified, smaller, drone version of the Blackbird called the D-21 that was used unsuccessfully for surveillance of Lop Nur.

The need for spyplanes was mostly obviated by spy satellites, which is why we don’t have an SR-71 successor … or is there some secret superplane out there ???   I kind of doubt it; especially with satellites + drones like Predator it seems like we have a good handle on surveillance now.

About the time Ben Rich took over in the 1970’s, one of his engineers came to him with a paper (once again ironically) by a Russian physicist on radar propagation.  The equations in the paper were used to construct a computer modeling tool, which was used to model airframe surfaces to minimize RCS (radar cross section).  And thus the stealth fighter was born.  During production, they leaked rumors and make mock-ups of radioactive “cloaking pods” for A-7’s.  The F-117 proved its worth during Desert Storm – Baghdad was more heavily defended than Moscow, but they weren’t able to track the stealth fighter at all as it took out key targets.  The largest RCS contributor was the pilot’s helmet.  There was an anecdote about the F-117’s running out of heavy GBU-27’s and so switched to lighter GBU-10’s for a few days.  One reinforced hangar was impervious to the GBU-10’s, and the Iraqis quickly crammed as many aircraft in there as they could…a few days later, an F-117 with a GBU-27 took out the whole thing.

Some interesting notes on security in the 70’s/80’s vs. 50’s/60’s:

  • During stealth fighter production around 44% of job applicants were denied for drug use.
  • Kelly pretty much ran his own security via personal warnings and a practice of not allowing paperwork to leave the building.  He even had the CIA send million dollar checks to his house.
  • Rich was asked “why don’t you employ any Latino engineers?” A: Because they didn’t go to engineering school.

Later Lockheed tried to market a stealthy ship called the Sea Shadow.  The idea was for it to be a mobile, invisible SAM site to sail ahead of the carrier group and take out incoming bombers.

The final part of the book contains Rich’s rants:

  • Need to have independent R&D with good people
  • Although he didn’t say as much, he subscribes to the philosophy of “perfection is the enemy of good enough” in order to cut costs
  • Excessive oversight by govt is direct result of industry overpromising and not delivering

Words of wisdom from Kelly Johnson:

I’ll teach you all you need to know about running a company in one afternoon, and we’ll both go home early to boot.  You don’t need Harvard to teach you that it’s more important to listen than to talk.  You can get straight A’s from all your Harvard profs, but 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.  That’s all there is.  Now you can run this goddam place.


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