Skunk Works is an official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects. Skunk Works is responsible for a number of famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor. Its largest current project is the F-35 Lightning II, which will be used in the air forces of several countries around the world. Production is expected to last for up to four decades.
The designation "skunk works", or "skunkworks", is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.
There are conflicting observations about the birth of Skunk Works.
Ben Rich and "Kelly" Johnson set the origin as June 1943 in Burbank, California; they relate essentially the same chronology in their autobiographies. Theirs is the official Lockheed Skunk Works story:
The Air Tactical Service Command (ATSC) of the Army Air Force met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express its need for a jet fighter. A rapidly growing German jet threat gave Lockheed an opportunity to develop an airframe around the most powerful jet engine that the allied forces had access to, the British Goblin. Lockheed was chosen to develop the jet because of its past interest in jet development and its previous contracts with the Air Force. One month after the ATSC and Lockheed meeting, a young engineer by the name of Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson and other associate engineers hand delivered the initial XP-80 proposal to the ATSC. Two days later the go-ahead was given to Lockheed to start development and the Skunk Works was born, with Kelly Johnson at the helm.
The formal contract for the XP-80 did not arrive at Lockheed until October 16, 1943; some four months after work had already begun. This would prove to be a common practice within the Skunk Works. Many times a customer would come to the Skunk Works with a request and on a handshake the project would begin, no contracts in place, no official submittal process. Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works team designed and built the XP-80 in only 143 days, seven less than was required.
Warren M. Bodie, journalist, historian, and Skunk Works engineer from 1977 to 1984, writes that engineering independence, elitism and secrecy of the Skunk Works variety was demonstrated earlier when Lockheed was asked by Lieutenant Benjamin S. Kelsey (later Brigadier General, USAF) to build for the United States Army Air Corps a high speed, high altitude fighter to compete with German aircraft. In July 1938, while the rest of Lockheed was busy tooling up to build Hudson reconnaissance bombers to fill a British contract, a small group of engineers was assigned to fabricate the first prototype of what would become the P-38 Lightning. Kelly Johnson set them apart from the rest of the factory in a walled-off section of one building, off limits to all but those involved directly. Secretly, a number of advanced features were being incorporated into the new fighter including a significant structural revolution in which the aluminum skin of the aircraft was joggled, fitted and flush-riveted, a design innovation not called for in the Army's specification but one that would yield less aerodynamic drag and give greater strength with lower mass. As a result, the XP-38 was the first 400 mph fighter in the world. In November 1941, Kelsey gave the unofficial nod to Johnson and the P-38 team to engineer a drop tank system to extend range for the fighter, and they completed the initial research and development without a contract. When the Army Air Forces officially asked for a range extension solution it was ready. Some of the group of independent-minded engineers were later involved with the XP-80 project, the prototype of the P-80 Shooting Star.
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