By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Ben R. Rich, Leo Janos
Narrated by: Pete Larkin
“Skunk Works” is a paean to boys with toys. Ben Rich is an engineer that worked for Kelly Johnson at Lockheed. Kelly Johnson headed Lockheed’s famous design team that created the U-2 spy plane, and the famous Black Bird in the 1960’s. Being an engineer, Rich undoubtedly had a detailed understanding of the facts, but facts are dead things without a good story. Leo Janos is a writer that turns Rich’s facts into tales of Buck Roger’s daring-do.
Lockheed became the talk of the century in the 1970’s; not for their incredible design work but for bribery. Italy, West Germany, Japan, Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia are paid $22 million dollars to buy airplanes designed by Lockheed. That American law violation leads to the resignation of the Lockheed board. Johnson and his team at the “Skunk Works” are not implicated. Johnson threatens to resign but remains to play a leading role in the design of over forty aircraft. The story of the “Skunk Works” largely ignores the scandal while recognizing the magical innovation of the storied corporation.
“Skunk Works” focuses on two great inventions, and some failures. The two great successes are the U-2 spy plane and their stealth aircraft design. Failure in the 1960’s is in Lockheed’s design and execution of drone technology and its work on a Navy stealth ship. In future generations, their “Skunk Works” research on drones and stealth work become useful innovations in many military hardware designs. But with the failure of a submarine design and the loss of three drones, one of which kills the pilot of the launching craft, Johnson’s gravitas is somewhat diminished.
To most Americans, the U-2 spy plane becomes well-known because of the Gary Powers capture in Russia. The U-2 is purchased by the American CIA, its first airplane purchase.
Because U-2 could fly at altitudes beyond the range of known radar, it is ideal for CIA Intelligence. Conventional fighter jets are unable to reach U-2 altitudes for a shoot-down and radar detection is presumed unlikely. President Eisenhower authorizes an overflight of Russia just before a summit. In 1960, Russia fires several ground-to-air missiles that hit the U-2’s tail section. Powers manages to escape the plane and is captured.
This is nearing the fourth year of U-2 flights without incident. Ben Rich suggests Lockheed expects failure for U-2 detection after two years because of technological improvements in radar detection. In fact, the U-2 is found detectable soon after its first use but time is needed to determine how the high flyer could be attacked. A decision is made by the Eisenhower administration to follow a flight path which earlier revealed important information to the CIA. Rich suggests the decision to follow the same flight path is a mistake. The Russians decide to launch several missiles based on previous radar sightings of the U-2 in that area. When Powers is shot down, he is presumed to be dead by the United States for two reasons. One, because of the high altitude of the intercept, and two because of a cyanide injection available to the pilot in the event of capture.
Powers manages to survive the ejection and chooses not to kill himself. According to Rich, a number of military personnel consider Powers a traitor for not killing himself. In any case, Powers is released two years later in a prisoner exchange. Powers is eventually recognized for his positive contribution to the United States for his missions in the U-2. Ironically, Powers leaves the Air Force and, years later, is killed in a helicopter accident as a weather reporter.
The story of the U-2 does not end with Gary Powers. Rich notes that the U-2 is used extensively for military surveillance in future years and by other countries. In spite of radar detection, the utility of the information from U-2 photographs is determined by Washington to outweigh risks that they feel can be mitigated with more caution about flight routes and use.
U-2 photographs became eminently important during the Cuban missile crises. It is an unusual airplane because of its wide wing span, less than 6’ height, extraordinary light weight, and ability to fly at 70,000 feet where the air is too thin for conventional flight. Picture details at 70,000 feet are remarkably clear as a result of Polaroid’s early technology.
Rich recounts the drive and intelligence of Kelly Johnson in selling and managing the design of a stealth bomber. This is the first plane to fly with a nearly invisible radar trail. Initially, Johnson pushes back on the idea of creating another airplane when missiles and current jet fighter technology are dominating government contracts. Johnson eventually recognizes the wisdom of his engineers and the value of having a nearly invisible plane capable of delivering both ground intelligence and lethal force. Johnson demands a plane design that can outperform comparable bombers while cloaked from radar. He sells the idea to the military.
Selling the idea is where the story begins to explain why government is an inefficient engine for production. The military agrees to support a prototype of the Black Bird, a new airplane with stealth capability, because of its potential. The contract is let with Lockheed but it requires a top-secret designation. Any person working on the project must have top-secret clearance. Finding qualified personnel to work on the Black Bird is time-consuming. Some top engineering scientists are disqualified. The few with the qualification are tasked with 70-hour work weeks because there are not enough people to do the work. Routine laborers are subject to extensive background investigation. Work is broken into small pieces with only a few knowing how the pieces fit together. A smooth production line cannot be created once a design is approved.
In addition to the labor issue, competing political interests make it difficult to get approval of superior product. Contracts for the F-111 employ thousands of workers in various states and each has its own political constituent representative. Rich notes that the Black Bird is a superior plane. By some objective measurements, he is correct. It is faster than the F-111. It can fly at higher altitudes. It can carry a bigger payload. It is nearly invisible to radar. The military wants to scrap the F-111 and increase production of the Black Bird. Even with those advantages, the Reagan administration chooses to resurrect the F-111 and decrease the number of Black Birds to be produced. Part of the reason is in the political pressure from States that produce parts for the F-111.
Of course, one has to remember this is a story written by a Lockheed engineer with a vested interest in the company for which he works. The cost of the Black Bird may be higher than the F-111. Rich is not conducting a cost-benefit analysis in his version of the story. However, unquestionably government involvement is clearly shown as an inefficient engine for either innovation or production.
“Skunk Works” is an entertaining and enlightening history of military weaponry. It also illustrates the difference between a scientific research company and an industrial production company. There has to be a decision maker in both circumstances but when one manages scientists and engineers, more autonomy is given to workers than in industrial production. Knowledge, more than rules of production, determine product. Additionally, the inefficiency of government is exposed. On the one hand, inefficiency offers more time for deliberative decision; on the other, it impedes productivity and increases cost.
Finally, the story opens the Pandora’s box of military competition among nations that leaves only hope that the destructive power of nations will not destroy life on earth.
The last chapters of Rich’s story argue that government bureaucracy gets in the way of military innovation. He argues there is too much oversight and too many regulations that increased costs and discourage innovative change. Of course, the other side of the argument is about what happens when profit becomes more important than honesty or morality. The defense industry, like all human enterprises, has its Bernie Madoffs (the stock broker maven who stole investment funds) and Angelo Mozillos (the ex-Coutrywide CEO who paid a fine for his questionable mortgage lending practices). Oversight and regulation are essential to all forms of society because of the nature of humankind.