Ben Rich: The Invisible Man

Ben Rich with the SR-71 Blackbird

In the summer of 1972, Ben Rich, one of the most seasoned engineers in Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works® division, stood nervously outside the office of his boss, the legendary Clarence “Kelly” Johnson.

In the 18 years since Johnson recruited Rich to join Skunk Works, the two men had developed a unique, almost father-son, relationship. Rich had helped his mentor shore up thermodynamic and propulsion issues with some of Johnson’s most famous creations, including the F-104 interceptor and SR-71 Blackbird. And in return, Johnson had taken Rich under his wing, letting him tag along to meetings with military officials. 

Rich had come to tell Johnson that he’d been offered a new position at a rival airplane manufacturer. Kelly listened, shook his head, and then offered up a secret of his own.

Johnson told his protégé that in three years he would be retiring. And when he did, he planned to personally recommend Rich to take over as director of the Skunk Works, the most prestigious engineering post in the history of aviation.

Rich stayed. And Johnson delivered on his promise, helping his protégé win the post he not only desired but richly deserved. 

F-117

Diamonds Are Forever
Unlike Johnson, an often intimidating figure, the more affable Rich was more of a bridge builder, listening carefully to the wishes of his customers and then thoughtfully delegating responsibilities to turn their needs into breakthrough aircraft.

For military officials accustomed to dealing with Johnson’s brusque personality, Rich provided a different approach. He quickly won over the Pentagon with a redesign of the division’s famed U-2 spy plane to meet more contemporary mission requirements and then turned his attention to selling the one plane he believed in more than any other: the F-117 stealth fighter.

Rich took a great gamble in supporting his team’s unusual but ultimately revolutionary stealthy, diamond-shaped design, especially so early in his tenure. Kelly didn’t like the look of it. Naysayers called it the “Hopeless Diamond.” But Rich pressed on, confident his team was on the cusp of a breakthrough that would render the aircraft practically invisible to enemy radar.

Ben Rich with the F-117

In time, Rich would prove to be a perfect manager for the project—a savvy salesman, an encouraging team builder, and a decisive team leader all in one. Dubious engineers were quickly given “Stealth 101” classes to better inform them of the technology. Later in the project, when the Air Force requested the creation of two experimental prototypes in only 14 months, he used existing hardware from other programs to save money and meet what was considered a near-impossible deadline. And when an official shoot-down test was scheduled for 1979, it was Rich who flew out to the Nevada desert and personally watched as his “invisible” war bird slipped past radar defenses undetected.

Under Rich’s leadership, Lockheed won the stealth fighter competition, and on June 18, 1981, Rich’s 55th birthday, he watched as an F-117A Nighthawk took off on its first official test flight, changing the nature of aerial warfare forever. 

F-117 in Flight

A Legend in His Own Right
By sheer coincidence, the first tactical strike by an F-117 Nighthawk would occur in 1991 on the same day as Rich’s official retirement banquet. One of the pilots of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing who flew the plane’s first combat mission said he dedicated the first strike to Rich, later handing him a tiny American flag that he’d set in his cockpit during the flight. It was a token of his gratitude for creating the world’s first “invisible” aircraft.

According to Rich, Johnson’s ghostly voice nagged at him during his entire tenure as Skunk Works director, but by the time of Rich’s retirement, Skunk Works was as much a reflection of the protégé as the mentor. Rich’s efforts in shaping the Nighthawk had not only won him the prestigious Collier Trophy in 1990 but the respect of even the most die-hard of Kelly’s supporters. Through an unusual mix of optimism, pluck, and old-fashioned intelligence, Rich had not only preserved Skunk Works’ reputation but enhanced it.

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Sources and Additional Reading

  • Boyne, Walter. Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
  • Rich, Ben R., and Leo Janus. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.