Skunk Works

“I asked the Air Force for $30 million, but they had only $20 million to spend in discretionary funds for secret projects by which they bypassed Congressional appropriations procedures.”

The above was written by Ben Rich, head of the Skunk Works– a secret division of military-contractor Lockheed in Burbank, California in summer 1975.

The Book of the Week is “Skunk Works, A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed” by Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos, published in 1994.

In January 1975, the author, a scientist, helped with projects to build weaponry for the CIA and the U.S. Air Force. At the time, the U.S. government was cutting military spending, as the Vietnam War was ending.

Lockheed was suffering from a bribery scandal, and the longtime head of the Skunk Works was retiring. The out-going executive had contentious relations with Lockheed’s customers, but knew how to manage people building weaponry. The author was promoted to replace him.

In summer 1975, unbeknownst to Lockheed, competitive bidding among military contractors had already started for producing a “stealth” plane; meaning, undetected by radar, that could spy or drop bombs. One military school-of-thought was pushing missiles rather than bombs, because missiles could travel long distances, and required a minimum of military personnel.

As is well known, 1970’s software that powered military planes was extremely primitive. The complex aerodynamics involved in making a plane invisible to radar, requires reverse-engineering– quickly computing billions of bits of information obtained from surveilling the wings of the plane while it’s flying above, and taking photos of or dropping bombs on, enemy territory.

The stealth plane project was “Top Secret” so extraordinary measures had to be taken to keep it quiet; necessitating an alarm system, code-names, pass codes, security clearances, etc. Contractor workers labored around the clock to meet deadlines and budgets, despite numerous setbacks and frustrations. It was ultimately up to American president Jimmy Carter to decide which plane models the military was to build in future years. He did, in June 1977. Nevertheless, it takes eight to ten years for a non-secret plane to be designed, tested, and manufactured. It is even more difficult to estimate how long a secret one will take.

For, more problems arose with the stealth project, including a strike by the machinists’ union in August 1977. From the start, intrusive Air Force, Navy and OSHA inspectors had provided yet other stressful procedures-and -paperwork-and-more-paperwork diversions from the research and development.

August 1979 saw the “competitive” in competitive bidding. Pilots pitted the stealth fighter with high-precision, laser-guided bombs against an existing T-38 plane with Hawk missiles in the Nevada desert. After a July 1980 deadline was missed, finally, in June 1981, the contract-award-winner executed a first test-flight witnessed by government, military and weapons-making leaders from the White House Situation Room and the Tactical Air Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

One aspect of a spy-plane test-flight, is that the plane breaks the sound barrier– faster than the earth rotates, at a speed of, say almost mach 2 or 3– so its vibrations rattle or can break windows of structures on earth. Test flights that have failed have killed pilots, but successful ones have transported pilots cross-country in record time: from San Diego, California to Savannah Beach, Georgia in one hour.

Yes, Americans derive a few benefits and excitement from military toys. However– greedy, power-hungry people who fail to foster international cooperation, continue to argue that it is still necessary for the security of the nation, to build ridiculously expensive, high-tech weaponry that will never be used. The wasted money might be better spent on other budget items.

The author admitted that even during the Cold War, his operation “… almost wrecked our own free enterprise system by chasing after enormously costly technologies that were simply beyond our creative grasp …We spent a hell of a lot of money in deception and very little in behalf of worthwhile technology.”

Read the book to learn: how the author harnessed his and his underlings’ knowledge and experience in personnel management, physics, chemistry, aerodynamics, engineering, economics, contract-law and various other disciplines to stay on top of the juggling act that was his job; a wealth of additional information on the research and development of high-tech planes (including the tortuous ways they were paid for, and by whom; and how, with the knowledge gained in developing one of the spy planes– the Challenger disaster could have been averted).