Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed
by Ben Rich and Leo Janos
Overview: From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, the never-before-told story behind America's high-stakes quest to
dominate the skies Skunk Works is the true story of America's most secret and successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich,
the operation's brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works is a drama of cold war confrontations
and Gulf War air combat, of extraordinary feats of engineering and human achievement against fantastic odds. Here are up-close portraits of the
maverick band of scientists and engineers who made the Skunk Works so renowned. Filled with telling personal anecdotes and high adventure, with
narratives from the CIA and from Air Force pilots who flew the many classified, risky missions, this book is a riveting portrait of the most spectacular
aviation triumphs of the twentieth century.
In Chapter 1, the authors open in 1997 with the test flight of the world’s first “pure” stealth fighter and its resounding success.
From there the reader is taken back to 1975 where the chief of the Skunk Works, Kelly Johnson, has asked Rich to replace him as he prepares to
retire. During this time, almost by accident, one of the Skunk Works mathematicians finds a copy of a Soviet scientist paper on reflective radar.
What fueled the initial relationship between Johnson and Rich? What do you believe made the relationship so successful?
In Chapter 2, Rich and Janos explain how many in the Skunk Works are skeptical of the stealth project, which would be known as Have Blue. Facing a
deadline of fourteen months to build two prototypes, the team faced obstacle after obstacle. What lessons can we learn from this fourteen month
effort? When is it best to follow established procedures? When not?
In Chapter 3, Lockheed is awarded the contract without a single test flight, but has a limited timeframe to demonstrate a successful flight.
This period is contrasted with the oil crisis and almost hyperinflation under President Carter; then rapid funding of programs under President
Reagan. Personal and managerial crisis seemed to ensure Rich would not bring the Silver Bullet to fruition.
In Chapter 4, we see how Major Al Whitley works closely with Lockheed along each stage of building the F-117A and the follow on success of the
aircraft during Desert Storm. How important do you believe was it for Maj Whitley to be involved in the effort? Where might you see parallels
that could work in today’s environment?
In Chapter 5, 6, and 7, the authors take us back to the 1950s and Rich’s earliest days at the Skunks and his efforts on the U-2 project. We
see despite the success of the new U-2 flying over Russia, the plane can be detected. With Russia potentially developing a new missile, the CIA
pushes Lockheed to reduce the radar signature. On its final flight over Russia, a Soviet missile bring the plane down with the pilot surviving.
What in Rich’s background prepared him for his success at the Skunks? Where did the Skunks Works get its name and where else do you see popular
culture influencing industry? The Air Force? What are the benefits and deficiencies of extreme control over a project (Kelly Johnson over the U-2 project)?
In Chapters 8 through 12, the authors detail how Lockheed’s work lead to the Blackbird, SR-71. Beginning with Kelly Johnson’s efforts to develop
a hydrogen fueled plane seemingly being detailed by Sputnik I, the Skunks continued to innovate. Rich and Janos examine a period when a rift develops
between Skunk Works, the Air Force and State Department as cost climb and the US enters Vietnam. Ultimately, the Blackbird proves it value during the
1960’, 70’s, and 80’s across numerous operations. What can we learn from innovating new technologies? Is failure acceptable? What can we learn from
Secretary Cheney’s decision to end Blackbird production?
In Chapter 13 and 14, we see how the close personal and professional relationship between Johnson and Rich continued to drive Skunk Works. From
the stealth submarine project to advice on personal relationships, both men demonstrated loyalty and an appreciation for the others talents. How
can close personal relationships like Johnson and Rich’s drive organizations? How might successes emerge? What constrains might such a relationship
have on potential success (think about the limited Skunks product line)?
In Chapter 15 and 16, the authors detail the Pentagon’s effort toward the next generation bomber. Due in part to the high cost and the complexity
of building the new plane, the manufacturing becomes distributed across the industrial base, a patter that would become familiar to systems
development. Rich and Janos close with challenges that the industry faces today, from regulations that restrict today’s industry, to the demand
for prototypes before contract award. How did competition drive the Skunk Works innovation? What challenges exist as explained by the authors to
industry working with the federal government? What constraints do you see today to innovation in development and acquisition?