Advanced Development Projects, America’s top secret aircraft design program, is best known as “Skunk Works.” Its unlikely name was, in turn, derived from the name of a fictional moonshine still in Al Capp’s celebrated hillbilly comic strip, “Li’l Abner.”
Created during World War II, the Skunk Works has been dubbed the prime mover behind the launch of the jet propulsion age and stealth technology. Its design mastermind or “Head Skunk” was Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, who first set up shop at Lockheed Aircraft’s factory in Burbank, California with a team that consisted of 23 design engineers and 30 mechanics. In the midst of the war, the unit had been formed at the U.S. government’s request to meet the foreseeable challenge coming from the Nazi development of their formidable Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.
In 1943, Johnson and his team started work on the prototype for the XP-80 Shooting Star, also known as “Lulu Belle.” They finished in 143 days. In 1944, 500 production models were ordered. When the war was over, however, the XP-80 was produced too late to face the Messerschmitt in combat.
Pundits still believe that the Nazi plane would’ve been no match, because the XP-80 was designed for head-on combat as opposed to the Messerschmitt’s trademark rear aspect attacks.
Clarence “Kelly” Johnson
Besides his stunning technological achievements, Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works set a new standard for business management. After all, it was Johnson who had coined the term “K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid.” But, it was his “14 rules” of design team management that crossed over from aircraft industry specific to becoming an integral part of modern business theory.
In 1936, Johnson’s advanced design skills were first noticed by aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, who then hired him to develop the Super Electra aircraft. Hughes went on to break speed records in Kelly Johnson’s plane. Another early major achievement for Johnson was the development of the first successful pressurized cabin airplane.
It was his reputation with Hughes that made Kelly Johnson a natural choice to lead the U.S. government’s Skunk Works program. At Lockheed, his achievements included the F-94 Starfire, the first fighter plane to use radar-targeting in air combat; and the groundbreaking U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance planes.
Kelly Johnson’s crowning achievement, however, was the development of the A-12 reconnaissance plane, also known as the U-2.
Fortunately, the government continued to support Skunk Works even after the U-2 program earned notoriety in 1960, when pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 were detected and downed while on a reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union.
The government eventually pulled the plug on the U-2 not because of the embarrassing U-2 incident, but because it had become too expensive to operate. The U2’s technology didn’t go to waste. It was eventually integrated into the SR-71 Blackbird, the forerunner of stealth technology.
The SR-71 Blackbird was actually a lower-cost version of the U-2 with breakthrough technologies added, particularly its Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) technology, a major conceptual breakthrough. The ECM was a system that could jam most combat radar, and it has often been credited with ushering in the era of satellite space-based surveillance for better or worse.
During the Vietnam War, the SR-71 Blackbird was used for reconnaissance missions.
To this day, the SR-71 Blackbird astounds with its capability of making a one hour and 55 minute flight from New York to London.
Clarence “Kelly” Johnson died in 1990.
“Be quick, be quiet”, Chip Jacobs, Los Angeles Business Journal
Lulu Belle, Smithsonian
“SR-71 Blackbird”, Smithsonian