Skunk Works


I recently read ‘Skunk Works’ by Ben Rich, a former director of the Lockheed Martin special projects group.  He trained as a thermodynamics engineer and worked at the Skunk Works for about thirty years, being instrumental in the development of advanced aircraft including the F-117, SR-71 and the U-2.  He also worked on projects such as a stealth ship and stealth missiles.  It’s a very interesting book, particularly for those with an interest in aviation engineering.  His boss, Kelly Johnson, founded the Skunk Works and the book is a tale of the battle between Johnson’s ethos and the desire for their clients, ie the government, Air Force, CIA etc,  to suffocate the engineers’ creativity with accountability, micromanagement and security considerations such as men-in-black appearing everywhere and checking the engineers’ waste baskets for discarded secret documents and stamping everything, including the aircraft components with ‘TOP SECRET’.  Johnson followed his ’14 rules’ and insisted the designers were only the toss of a ball from the technicians building the aircraft.  He had a no-bullshit approach that enabled them to build incredible machines within only a year or two on shoestring budgets.  He felt that if an aircraft looks good, it is good, and he had a genius for the technicality of aeronautical engineering.  There’s much for modern society to learn from his commonsense approach.

The book tells of the fascinating interplay between the Cold War and the Skunk Work projects.  The U-2, and later the SR-71, flew over Soviet territory with impunity, photographing Soviet bombers and nuclear test facilities, serendipitously discovering in one case  a prototype H-bomb atop a tower only three hours before it was detonated.  The engineering challenges of these aircraft – the radar invisibility of the F-117 (radar cross-section of a ball bearing) and the SR-71 were astonishing. The F-117′s onboard guidance system, operating during the nineteen-eighties, was able to autonomously fly the plane to the target then fly it home, the pilot only needing to release the munitions.

After designing a high-flying, light and slow plane – the U-2, they turned their hands to a high-flying balls-out racing machine, able to outrun any missiles and enemy aircraft.  From atmospheric friction, the whole of the SR-71 airframe was baking hot, with only the crew compartment refrigerated.  Johnson tested this by putting a pilot in a cockpit locked in an oven.  The pilot survived.  The SR-71′s engines ran extremely hot, its afterburners running continually, therefore they had to find a lubricant up to the task.  To run at such high temperatures the lubricants they sourced were all inevitably almost solid at room temperature.  They were forced to design their own lubricant for the purpose.  Designed for many hours of operation at high temperature, when the airframe was at room temperature the thermal contraction of the panels caused fuel to leak from the tanks, therefore a special fuel was developed with additives making it almost impossible burn outside the engines.  The engineers initially wondered how they could build a mach 3 plane – did the materials and techniques exist?  There existed at that time only one poor quality source of titanium.  The titanium was harder than Lockheed’s tools, so Lockheed Skunk Works engineers created their own new techniques and tools.  Working with this new material, a technician wrote on a titanium panel with a pen, only to find the ink burning right through the metal.  From then on only chlorine-free ink was used.

The U-2 also seems to have been a very interesting aircraft.  At eighty-thousand feet its engine only produced 7% of sea-level thrust, and the aerodynamics were so precarious that when turning pilots often found that while the inside wing was stalling (the airspeed marginally too slow), the outside wing would experience turbulent instability, as its airspeed was too high.  Rubber seals on the U-2 began to perish, causing oil to be leaked dangerously across the pilot’s canopy.  It was eventually realised that this was caused by the ozone at the high operating altitude of the U-2.

The Air Force intended to buy squadrons of SR-71 interceptors, and scaled-up F-117 bombers, but these never came to fruition.  The Skunk Works built an unmanned missile – a sort of early cruise missile – capable of launch from a B-52, then flying six thousand miles across the USSR taking reconnaissance photographs, and back over the Pacific Ocean, where it would jettison the camera & film and guidance system for recover at sea.  The missile would then self-destruct.  In the main, the design performed very well, only failing during test flights owing to minor technical failures, however the project was axed by the Air Force before the Skunk Works could make the fixes.

It’s interesting to read about reasons for the lack of development of some of the projects.  The stealth ship (the ‘Sea Shadow’) required a crew of only four and was by definition low profile.  To a career-minded Navy officer, hoping for his own command, it failed to hit the right psychological buttons.  Officers wanted to command hundreds of men and to be at the helm of a large and impressive orthodox warship.  Navy brass said of a prototype stealth submarine:  ‘We would never build a submarine that looked like that.’   Similarly, vested interests within the Air Force top brass were wedded to the building of only traditionally powerful-looking bombers, like the B-1, forecasted to suffer 60% losses instead of the 10% losses of rather oddly angular shaped stealth bombers.

Given that all of these ground-breaking aircraft are now retired and have been replaced by only rather uninteresting conventional technology, it does seem, rather like the US space programme in the sixties, as if Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich reached forward and pulled two or three decades from the twenty-first (or twenty-second?) century back into the nineteen-seventies.  Where are the current operational eighty-thousand feet mach 3+ aircraft with radar invisibility?

The book also contains interesting testimonial pieces by various test and combat pilots of these aircraft, Cold War politicians and CIA spooks.

It’s well-written and quite compelling.

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2 Responses to “Skunk Works”

  1. mcnalu Says:

    The SR-71 has to be one of favourite planes – it still looks like a craft of the future. I’ve seen two of them but only in static display.

    • Dr Brockmeister Says:

      I saw one at Duxford, and was surprised by how shoddy it appeared close up. It probably looks better however at its operating temperature of 200 degrees C, or whatever, with the panels all thermally expanded to their designed size. I particularly like the movable cones in the engine inlets.

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