Inside Skunk Works

About Inside Skunk Works

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:


Episode 1: Absolute Definition of Power

SR-71

“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.
SR-71 Transport

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 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.
SR-71 Pilot
“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.
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 (pictured 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. 
SR-71 Blackbird
Pictured above 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.
SR-71 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

SR-71 Pilot
“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

Episode 2: They Gave Him a Tent

Kelly Johnson
It was said that Kelly Johnson, the founder of the Skunk Works, could “see” how the air would move around an aircraft just by studying its design.
 
Kelly's 14 Rules
Skunk Works Circus Tent
In the background of this photo is the only known picture of the Skunk Works circus tent.
P-80 Shooting Star Poster
A testament to Kelly Johnson’s third rule of a small number of good people working on a program, pictured above is a poster of the P-80 Shooting Star signed by all program engineers.
Burbank Plant
Burbank Plant
Burbank Plant
In an effort to protect the Lockheed plant in Burbank from enemy planes that might be flying overhead, the entire facility was concealed under acres of canvas disguised as a neighborhood.
Tony LeVier
Kelly Johnson is pictured with Tony LeVier, one of aviation’s greatest test pilots credited with testing the first American jet aircraft – the P-80 Shooting Star.
Skunk Works Aircraft
Rare photo of the P-80 Shooting Star, F-104 Starfighter, F-94 Starfire, SR-71 Blackbird, U-2 Dragon Lady and the F-117 Nighthawk all developed at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.

Episode 3: Arrowhead

Ben Rich

Ben Rich is pictured in the cockpit of the F-117 Nighthawk.

Ben was Kelly Johnson’s successor of the Skunk Works upon Kelly’s retirement.

1989 Aviation Week Cover
Photo courtesy of Aviation Week

“A picture came out in Aviation Week. It was really fuzzy. And I thought, ‘Really? That’s not the impression I got from the drawings.’ A little later I got to see the actual airplane and it was more like the drawings than the initial fuzzy picture.”

Although Ed Burnett, Lockheed Martin senior fellow, was working on the F-117 program at the time, the first time he saw the F-117 in its entirety was a blurry photo in Aviation Week. 

F-117 Nighthawk
“The amount of stealth technology that existed prior to the F-117 was actually quite extensive. But the type of levels we were looking for were far lower than anything that had existed before. The technology that allowed us to jump to this next level down of signature was shaping itself.”  - Steve Justice, Former Director of Skunk Works Special Programs
Have Blue
Have Blue was developed to demonstrate and validate that signatures sufficiently low to negate battlefield air defense threats could be achieved in a practical flight vehicle. The very low observable aircraft, including engine inlets and exhausts, featured faceted surfaces covered with radar absorbing materials. The successful concept demonstrator aircraft led to the larger F-117 Nighthawk.
F-117 Nighthawk
As Ben Rich was meeting with customers to explain the F-117’s stealth technology, he compared the radar cross section of different ships and aircraft to common objects. The radar cross section of an aircraft carrier was equivalent to a ball a quarter-mile in diameter. A truck driving down the street was equivalent to a basketball. The F-117 Nighthawk’s radar cross section was the size of a marble.
F-117 Factory
“We walked over to the assembly building where the F-117 was in final assembly. We went up these flights of stairs to the fourth level mezzanine and I remember looking out and seeing that arrowhead down below me. The actual words in my head were, ‘far out.’” – Steve Justice after seeing the F-117 for the first time 
F-117 Nighthawk
“When they were going to move an F-117 from the factory out into the open when the airplane was still black or unacknowledged, they played tricks on the human eye to deceive people as to what shape of the hardware they were moving around. There was a set of frames made out of wood with corners poking out of them that were put on top of the F-117 itself before the canvas was draped across it that gave it the weirdest look you’ve ever seen. You would never be able to know what the real shape was.” – Steve Justice  
F-117 Missing Wheel Landing
Pictured above is Tom Morgenfeld, junior test pilot, in the first F-117 making a critical landing after the aircraft’s nose wheel fell off after upon take off. He was advised to eject from the aircraft but was able to safely land and spare the aircraft.
F-117 Nighthawk
“To make an F-117 stealthy, there was indeed a stealth switch. It retracted the antennas inside the airplane. Antennas make a natural, large radar reflector so you want to get rid of those.” -Jim Brown, test pilot of the F-117 Nighthawk
F-117 4-Ship Formation
“I would still be flying F-117s if I could – if someone would let me! It pumps you up like you’ve never been pumped up before.” -Tom Morgenfeld

Episode 4: Hat Trick

Tom Morgenfeld
Tom Morgenfeld, chief test pilot of the X-35, is pictured with the X-35A model before its first flight.
Tom Morgenfeld First Flight
“We go do the first flight and it was marvelous,” said Tom Morgenfeld. “The airplane just flew so nicely. We were back in the air two days later and kept flying.”
X-35C
“There was a lot of things that we did on the X-35C that I believe are going to change how safe it is for aircraft to come back to carriers,” said Ed Burnett, Lockheed Martin senior fellow. “The technologies that came out of X-35 and are applied to F-35 are now finding their way back into other fleet aircraft.”
Lift Systems
“The biggest challenges were in this lift systems,” said Ed Burnett. “It was the new technology. It was the one miracle we wanted to focus on.” 
Engine Runs
“As we’re doing these engine runs, you’re tempted to walk outside to see this phenomenal piece of energy, this turbo machine that’s putting out incredible amounts of thrust,” said Ed Burnett. “You walked outside, and you were just inundated with the feeling of everything inside you moving. The color of the Mach diamonds coming out of the engine are just phenomenal. The dust from everything around just starts moving and you see water in the swamps just blowing about.”
X-35B First Hover

Photo of the first hover of the X-35B

X-35
“When I saw their mouths drop and their eyes get really big, it wasn’t a staged photo. It was the real deal,” said Tom Reynolds, flight test photographer of the X-35. “I just locked my camera up and turned around expecting to see the airplane three or four feet off the ground. Simon had it throttled up and had it parked 30 feet above the ground.”   
X-35
“I was standing along the fence with everybody else watching it take off,” said Ed Burnett. “The line from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘the thing that hangs in the air just like a brick doesn’t’ was the thought that came to mind.” 
X-35B

“We were trying to figure out how can we show that the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps are all going to be happy with this vehicle,” said Ed Burnett. “We came up with Mission X – a 450-foot short take off, accelerate up to a supersonic speed and come back and do a vertical landing.”

Mission X was deemed the program’s Hat Trick.

X-35 Patch
“Mission X was something that had never been accomplished before, and in the fighter pilot world there’s an old saying that you can never have enough thrust or enough gas,” said Tom Reynolds. “Lockheed made up a very nice, rather large, oversized patch that was the ‘So What?’ patch. Those very words kept ringing the accomplishment to light.”

Episode 5: Not Today

Eric Knutson

“I became a Lockheed employee and one of my first assignments was on the U-2 program. People would bring by these documents and say, ‘Do you know what your father did’? I think what made him a hero was what he did for us at home just like any other dad or mom. I didn’t realize that in his spare time he liked to get shot at over Russia.”

- Eric Knutson, director of Advanced Programs at the Skunk Works and son of Martin Knutson, one of the first U-2 pilots

 

U-2

“The CIA and the Air Force both had ideas that maybe if you could fly high enough, the Russian radars wouldn’t be able to pick you up. The CIA needed something quickly, and since Kelly Johnson had performed a miracle with the XP-80 design the thought was can he pull this off for us. Kelly was introduced to people to begin discussions about what the art of the possible might be.”

- Steve Justice, former director of Special Programs

U-2

“The really incredible thing about the U-2 to me, is they were essentially hand made so each one was different. They flew differently.”

- Steve Justice

U-2

“In the U-2 in the high altitudes, one pound of weight was one foot of altitude, so the engineers did lots of tricks to take weight out. The early airplanes weren’t painted. The camera reels were as thin as possible, and the camera bodies were as light as possible.” 

- Steve Justice

Kelly Johnson and Gary Powers

Kelly Johnson, founder of the Skunk Works, pictured with Francis Gary Powers

U-2

“Kelly referred to it as an angel for a reason. It gets this incredible view of the earth where the sky is almost black during the day. You can see stars. You’re almost into the heavens but looking down at the ground.”

- Steve Justice

 

U-2 Pilot

“The U-2 program, which started in the mid-50s, ultimately called upon six initial Air Force pilots to join the CIA and become sheep-dipped. They removed all knowledge of their existence, changed their names and trained for a special operation. One of those six pilots was my father.”

- Eric Knutson

U-2

“When you come back, the only landing gear you have is on the center line of the airplane. You land on both sets of wheels simultaneously and you have to stall the airplane to land. As soon as it touches down, you’re in the world’s biggest bicycle.”

- Mark Cole, director at Skunk Works and former U-2 pilot

U-2

“You really had a sense of purpose every time you went out to fly the U-2. It gives [our adversaries] pause before they act. You want them to wake up and say, ‘Not today. I know the U-2 is watching. Not today.’"

- Mark Cole

U-2

“When you’re at that altitude and you can see for that distance, during the day you just don’t see borders. You see the earth as the earth. You don’t see the geographic boundaries.”

- Mark Cole

Episode 6: Crashing is Success

Mike Swanson

“Throughout the Skunk Works history, there’s been this idea that we’re out there pushing boundaries and taking risks. We’re going to have setbacks and issues, but as long as we’re moving forward, it’s okay.”

- Mike Swanson, Skunk Works chief engineer

ACCA

“The entire aerospace industry was challenged to develop a large, transport-size, all-composite cargo plane in less than two years. At the time, we had never attempted to do anything of that size before. Given the schedule, we literally had to design the airplane at the same time we were inventing this new material process.”

- Mike Swanson

 

“People want to solve those problems yet to be solved. The people that gravitate to the Skunk Works are really trying to solve issues and problems that we don’t even know we have today and come up with products that haven’t even been imagined.”

Watch this video featuring Kolby Rowe, conceptual design engineer.

Atherton

“You can work a problem for a long time and to a great extent, but at some point you just have to go do it – you have to attempt that first flight.”

- Atherton Carty, director of Technology Roadmaps

 

Louise

“We throw around the word “Skunky” a lot, and it’s almost used as an excuse. We can bend rules, because we know what rules can be bent. That allows us to build products that work, but break the rules of the infrastructure.”

- Louise Moores, an early-career electrical engineer, is pictured in her F-117 Nighthawk Halloween costume.

Ed

“Being able to learn from failure is the important part. You don’t want to try to fail; however, I say that with a bit of a smile because we have built vehicles that we knew were going to crash because we wanted to experiment out at the very edge of the envelope.”

- Ed Burnett, Lockheed Martin senior fellow

Episode 7: It Changes Everything

Compact Fusion Team

“It has the potential to touch our lives from across the board – from the food we eat to the water we drink to the air we breathe.”

- Dr. Tom McGuire, co-founder and technical lead of the Skunk Works compact fusion program

Pictured left to right is Dr. Tom McGuire, Dr. Regina Sullivan, research scientist and Dr. Frans Ebersohn, engineer and researcher

Compact Fusion

“What we’re trying to do with the compact fusion reactor is use the process that the sun uses to make energy to make energy here on Earth.”

- Dr. Frans Ebersohn

 

Compact Fusion

“We’re trying to do experiments that tell us our models and technological approaches are valid and actually work. It’s experimental physics.”

- Dr. Tom McGuire

Compact Fusion

“Picture a balloon as your magnetic bottle. As you introduce plasma and heat it up, you’re basically creating pressure inside the balloon. If you inflate the balloon to a certain pressure you reach an equilibrium where you have the structure of the balloon, the pressure inside and the pressure outside.”

- Dr. Regina Sullivan

Compact Fusion

“Plasma is pretty funky. You can think of the particles like ants. They don’t really know much but they come together to do amazing things. These particles are really simple, and they go together in lots of different ways. All of this complexity makes it a really hard problem.”

- Dr. Tom McGuire

Compact Fusion

“If we figure out how to this it will be one of those threshold events in humanity. Everyone will remember when we figured out fusion.”

- Dr. Frans Ebersohn


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