Skunk Works by Ben R. Rich

@May 24, 2022


In Patrick Collison’s Fast, he notes that the P-80 Shooting Star—the first jet fighter used by the United States Air Force—was designed and built by Lockheed Martin in just 143 days. But the P-80 was only one of many projects to come from Lockheed, all delivered on equally absurd timelines.

Skunk Works by Ben R. Rich is a look inside the engineering team behind those projects, which included the U-2, the SR-71 “Blackbird”, and the F-117. It’s also a tribute, in some form, to Kelly Johnson, who was perhaps the greatest aeronautical engineer of the last century.

I would strongly recommend this book to professionals in engineering or management, and I think it’s of interest generally as well. The planes built by a small team in Lockheed’s Skunk Works department have shaped the course of history.

With that said, here are a few things I learned from this book:

  • During the Cold War, Lockheed engineers were inspired to build a stealth plane (where stealth means invisible to radar) by a paper called Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction. Ironically, this paper was published by a Russian physicist named Pyotr Ufimtsev. Ufimtsev didn’t know of his impact on the war until immigrating to the U.S. in 1990, where he noted that Soviet designers were uninterested in his theories.
  • President Jimmy Carter halted the production of the B-1 bomber program, in part because he knew that the stealth aircraft under development by Lockheed and Northrup Grumman would make it obsolete. Unfortunately for Carter, this information was classified, so he took a major political loss—the public believed Carter was cutting defense spending against the Soviets. In reality, he was investing in a fleet of classified bombers.
  • The Soviets easily detected the U-2 on radar, but couldn’t shoot it down (until they eventually did, in 1960—after 4 years of unpunished American overflights). Similarly, the A-12, and its successor, the SR-71, had hundreds of missiles fired at it by Soviet defenses, but was never shot down. The Cold War in the air was actually quite hot, but this was kept secret from the general public.
  • I knew the Blackbird was fast, but didn’t quite realize how fast until reading this book. The SR-72 would cruise at Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound. It would do this at 80,000 feet, over twice the traditional cruising altitude of a 747. Even at this height, where the temperature is -60°F, friction would cause the fuselage to heat to 600°F. This would melt traditional aircraft, so the plane was built with titanium (ironically supplied by the Soviet Union). The Blackbird used to overfly North Korea five days a week in just ten minutes.