In June 1943, aeronautical engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson received a momentous request. The Nazis were only a year away from deploying the first operational jet fighter into service in World War II, which would have a tremendous speed advantage over Allied piston-engine fighters. The Pentagon wanted Johnson to develop an operational jet fighter, using then-new turbojet engines as quickly as possible—and it didn’t want Johnson to wait for the fine print to be signed in the contract.
(This first appeared several weeks ago.)
Kelly was told he had just five months (150 days) to produce a flying next-generation jet prototype.
The Michiganian of Swedish descent had originally joined Lockheed as a tool designer with an $83 monthly salary. However, after devising an innovative fix for the Model 10 airliner, he rose through the ranks to become the company’s chief designer in 1938.
Johnson’s first major military design was the P-38 Lightning, a very fast, hard-hitting and far-flying twin-engine fighter that used a twin-boom configuration unlike any other aircraft then in service. Johnson assembled a small team of engineers, walled them off from other company operations, and settled on the Lightning’s design after exploring numerous other unconventional concepts.
Johnson used similar methods to structure his XP-80 project at a new, top-secret facility in Burbank, California, adjoining a local airport. Johnson handpicked a team of thirty engineers and thirty mechanics who began working on the XP-80 under the shadow of a huge circus tent. One of them was a Cherokee mathematician named Mary Golda Ross, who had earlier helped fix aerodynamic flaws in the P-38s and became the first Native American flight engineer.
A nearby chemical factory nearby caused an unpleasant stench to drift over facility, leading to the nickname “Skunk Work,” adapted from a foul-smelling moonshine factory depicted in the satiric comic strip Li'l’ Abner. Later, copyright concerns led the nickname to be changed just as aptly to “Skunk Work,” reflected in the branch’s skunk logo to this day.
Johnson’s management philosophy, later consolidated in a list of “Fourteen Principles,” focused on moving rapidly to prototype development rather than sweating every last detail; maintaining creative autonomy from other company operations; remaining externally secretive, but transparent to government clients; keeping diligent monthly accounting of expenses to avoid cost overruns; and minimizing bureaucratic red-tape of all varieties by simply implementing fixes instead of subjecting every little change to review by committee.
Just 143 days later—seven days ahead of schedule—the Skunk Works team had produced a flying XP-80 prototype which would become the U.S.’s first operational jet fighter. Though too late to fly more than a few patrols at the end of World War II, the F-80 Shooting Star production model would see extensive action in the Korean War, and possibly scored the first jet-on-jet kill in history.
Engineering cutting-edge aircraft requires both creative vision and scientific rigor. Innovative out-of-the-box ideas must be subjected to mathematical scrutiny and then relentlessly tested to determine whether they actually work when subjected to the harsh and often inscrutable laws of physics. And unforeseen problems inevitably crop up.
Project managers need the freedom to explore diverse concepts and repeatedly iterate upon the more promising ones until they deliver results, while exercising the discipline to prevent projects from running way over schedule and budget, like the infamous Spruce Goose—a huge mega-transport plane that only flew once for thirty seconds.
These qualities fly in the face of the usual bureaucracy required in the military industrial-sector. Governments, understandably, want to ensure every tax dollar is spent on projects with low risks of failure—and examples of expensive projects sucking billions of dollars in funding only to fail abound.
Johnson’s high-independence, low-red tape model for the Skunk Works proved so successful a template that “Skunk Works” became a byword for any task force within a company assigned additional independence to pursue innovative, cutting-edge projects. Lockheed’s competitor Boeing, for example, has a Phantom Works division which recently was awarded a contract for a new tanker drone.
In the 1950s, Johnson was made the manager of the Burbank facility, technically designated the “Advanced Development Projects.” Under his management, the ADP developed a remarkable number of revolutionary new aircraft—many of which made their mark on American history.
The U-2, for example, was a bizarre super-high-flying spy plane originally modeled off a concept for a spy glider. A U-2 spy mission brought the United States to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union when it photographed Soviet nuclear missiles recently deployed to Cuba in 1962.
By the late 1950s, however, Johnson was aware the U-2 could not fly high enough to evade Soviet missiles and interceptors. Thus the Skunk Works then set out to develop the Blackbird family of aircraft—codenamed Archangel—that would use speed and radar stealth for protection. Lockheed had to sneakily purchase titanium from the Soviet Union through shell companies and develop new tools to work the super-hard metal.
The Blackbird was certainly fast, able to blaze past missiles while cruising at Mach 3.2, but even its angular profile failed to evade radar detection. In the mid-1970, the Skunk Works made a second go at developing a stealth jet. Johnson, who was then retiring, originally proposed curved surfaces for the new stealth plane. However, his friend Ben Rich convinced him that stealth could be achieved with faceted surfaces that the design computers of the time were more capable of handling.
The concept led to the aerodynamically unstable Have Blue prototype tested in Area 51, that evolved into the faceted F-117 Nighthawk attack jet. Though the Nighthawk’s capabilities were limited in many respects, it was the first true stealth aircraft to enter operational service.
In 1989, the Skunk Works moved to a new facility in Palmdale, California. Johnson passed away the following year. By then the division was working on two new projects that will continue to define U.S. airpower well into the twenty-first century: the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
The twin-engine Raptor essentially married the high-performance characteristics of fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 Eagle with the stealth capabilities that far exceeded those of the Nighthawk—resulting in the world’s reigning air superiority fighter.
The single-engine F-35 fulfilled a very different concept of an affordable multirole stealth fighter that could be exported abroad and operated by the Marines, Navy and Air Force. However, designers in the Skunk Works again pursued an innovative but still controversial solution: instead of pursuing high kinematic flight performance as was done for the F-22, the F-35 instead relies on advanced sensors and computers to stay out of the detection range of opposing fighters or air defense missiles, and either engage them with long-range missiles or shuffle that targeting data to another “shooter.”
Though Kelly’s earlier projects certainly experienced growing pains, the F-35 has proven slower and rockier than its predecessors. Its developers intended to build a versatile swiss-army knife of a plane that could be upgraded with new capabilities via software patches. The many ambitious new technologies proved difficult to integrate, leading to major delays and cost overruns.
Today, the Skunk Works appears to be working on another unconventional project to build a (likely unmanned) hypersonic spy/bomber jet unofficially dubbed the SR-72. It has also developed numerous spy drones that remained veiled in secrecy, particularly the RQ-170 stealth drone.
As jet fighters grow more expensive and vastly more complex, the innovative high-speed project management methods used by Skunk Works may prove harder to sustain due to the need to integrate more and more advanced avionics and computers developed by industrial partners.
Nonetheless, Johnson’s innovation-focused approach made an invaluable contribution to an understanding in sectors ranging well beyond military aviation that groundbreaking achievements sometimes require allowing a small team of brilliant thinkers to assume more risk and responsibility.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.