Inside Skunk Works Podcast

Inside Skunk Works Episode 1

75 years ago in Burbank, California, engineer Kelly Johnson devised an operational concept so unique it is still celebrated today. As the birthplace of many revolutionary technologies – from America’s first fighter jet to the classified programs of today – Skunk Works® sets the precedent for how our most critical and difficult problems are solved. This podcast brings to light the dark, classified world of the secret Lockheed Martin organization. First-hand accounts and stories passed down from generation to generation within the walls of Skunks Works are made public for the first time. And yes – we’ll talk about compact fusion!

Produced by Theresa Hoey & Claire Whitfield, Artwork by Becca Smith

Where to Listen:

SR-71 Blackbird

“It’s this sinister black shape that looks like it’s going 1,000 mph while it’s sitting on the ground.” – Steve Justice, Former Director of Skunk Works Special Programs

Photo by Eric Schulzinger

Steve Justice

Steve Justice is sitting at a draft board in the early days of his career at the Skunk Works®.

Steve Justice's Apartment

“In college as soon as pictures of the Blackbird showed up, I had one hanging on my wall.” – Steve Justice

Steve’s room is pictured from 1976 with his SR-71 Blackbird poster hanging in the top right-hand corner.

Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson, founder of the Skunk Works, pictured in the late 1930s with Amelia Earhart and in 1983 receiving the National Security Medal from President Ronald Reagan.

Burbank Factory

The production and final assembly of the SR-71 took place in complete secrecy in Burbank, California just a few hundred feet from the Hollywood Freeway.

To transport the SR-71 for testing, large boxes nicknamed “the House” were built to carry the disassembled airplanes. A larger box carried the main part of the airplane, while a smaller box carried the removable outer wings, forward fuselage section and other small pieces. The large box was 105 feet long with a width of 35 feet – making for a very oversized load.

Before the House made its way down Highway 99, a pickup truck with a set of extension poles sized to the width and height of the House pre-drove the travel route, noting obstacles along the way. Where necessary, trees were cut down, telephone poles were removed, and street signs were cut off and hinged to be lowered and reassembled after the House passed.

SR-71 Transport
Part Pilot and Part Spaceman

“It’s been said that the SR-71 looks part spaceship and part airplane, and its pilots are part pilot and part spaceman.” – Steve Justice

In service from 1966 to 1998 only 32 SR-71s were built, and only 135 pilots were ever qualified to fly one.

Testing the SR-71

Because rumors of Soviet radar advances led the U.S. government to ask for an even smaller radar cross-section of the SR-71, it became one of the early successful attempts at stealth.

Surfaces were redesigned to avoid reflecting radar signals, the engines were moved to a subtler mid-wing position and a radar-absorbing element was added to the paint. Then a full-scale model of the Blackbird was hoisted onto a pylon for radar testing at a Skunk Works’ secret location in the Nevada desert.

With tests carefully scheduled to avoid Soviet satellite observations, the results were impressive: the Blackbird model, more than 100 feet in length, would appear on Soviet radar as bigger than a bird but smaller than a man. Skunk Works succeeded in reducing its radar cross-section by 90 percent – pioneering stealth technology.

Al Joersz

Eldon “Al” Joersz (picured left) became the fastest man alive in 1976 during the record speed run of the SR-71 Blackbird. Flying with George Morgan as reconnaissance systems officer, Joersz flew an astonishing 2,193.64 mph covering almost 1 km every second. 

Pictured below is a pencil rendering by Steve Justice of Al Joersz’ Blackbird during the Record Speed Run in 1976. The unique paint scheme allowed highly sophisticated radar to track and measure its speed.

Record Speed Run Rendering
Final Flight

When the Blackbird made its final flight in 1990, Ben Rich, Kelly Johnson’s successor, arranged for Kelly, suffering from dementia, to be taken from the hospital to the Lockheed Burbank facility. Kelly was hidden from the crowd in a limousine with darkly tinted windows. The crowd cheered his arrival.

As the SR-71 made a low pass over the plant, Kelly’s window was lowered. The aircraft cracked out two massive sonic booms in salute. Ben looked at Kelly to see he had tears in his eyes.

When Kelly died just months later, Ben ran a full-page ad the following day in the Los Angeles Times. It showed the Skunk Works skunk with a single tear rolling down its cheek.

Story is courtesy of “Skunk Works” by Ben Rich & Leo Janos

“It’s a piece of artwork. I know its shape was derived by engineering principles and aerodynamics and propulsion needs, but the engineers that conceived the airplane created something that was unlike anything anyone had seen before.” – Steve Justice  

Sunset Flight