Skunk Works, the hub of aerospace innovation
30 July 2014, 8:15 p.m. EDT
by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA web editor
Alton Romig, vice president of engineering and advanced systems at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics – better known as the Skunk Works – addresses a packed house at AIAA’s Propulsion and Energy Forum Tuesday evening.
Alton Romig, vice president of engineering and advanced systems at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics – better known as the Skunk Works – addressed a packed house at AIAA’s Propulsion and Energy Forum Tuesday evening. He shared a brief history of Lockheed and the creation of the Skunk Works during World War II. The name, he noted, has come to mean any hub of innovation, in the same way that a photo copier is often referred to as a Xerox machine.
“Like a lot of modern aviation in North America, [Lockheed] started in California,” Romig said. The Loughead brothers, Glenn L. Martin, Jack Northrop, William Boeing –their major activities all happened in California, which, as he pointed out, remains the largest aerospace employer in the U.S. The Loughead brothers – Alan and Malcolm – started The Alco Cab Company in 1912. After going out of business in 1916, they reincorporated, but also brought in “other people who were relatively well known in aerospace,” such as Jack Northrop. Together, they decided to change the name’s spelling to the more phonetic “Lockheed.”
In 1932, Robert Gross invested $40,000 and bought the then-defunct Lockheed Aircraft Company, renaming it Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Gross served as its CEO until the early 1960s. He and Hall Hibbard, the company’s chief engineer, are the two names “most associated with the birth of the modern Lockheed,” said Romig.
In the 1930s, Lockheed hired Clarence L. ”Kelly” Johnson from the University of Michigan. “Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works are almost synonymous, even to this day....It was his culture and his style that created [it], and [that] persist to this day,” said Romig.
He then described some of the developments that led to the advancement of jet engines. “Kelly himself began working on a design for an axial-flow jet engine in Burbank in 1939,” he said. When the time came to make an operational jet fighter, the government came to Lockheed to build it, and Johnson formed the ADP – Advanced Development Project. He created “Johnson’s 14 Rules,” and, “we still live by these rules today, “ said Romig. “They’re pretty much the rules of modern program management.”
The Skunk Works got its name during World War II, said Romig. There was a factory that made plastic for the war effort down the road from ADP, and it created a very foul odor. It reminded one of ADP’s engineers of a comic strip called Li’l Abner, where there was “a backwoods still that made moonshine that smelled really bad…in the cartoon strip, they called it ‘Skonkworks.’” The engineer, named Irv Culver, “started answering the phone, ‘Skonkworks, your man Culver here.” Customers loved it and the name stuck.
Romig then discussed the U2, saying the aircraft actually uses the same fuselage as Lockheed’s earlier P-80 model. “One of the mantras of the Skunk Works is you re-use stuff whenever you can. So if there’s a part from a previous airplane that works, use it.”
Other developments at the Skunk Works included the A-12, which later became the SR-71. Romig asked if anyone knew why it was called the A-12, saying it’s because the first 11 didn’t work. “When we talk about being willing to take risks and have things fail in the Skunk Works, we’re serious about it. And 12 of them, I think, is good evidence that people are willing to stick to their guns.”
Romig briefly covered stealth technology and the development in the 1970s of a test platform called the “hopeless diamond,” from which the Skunk Works built two airplanes called Have Blue. These first flew in December 1977 under the leadership of CEO Ben Rich. The results were “remarkable” and gave rise to the F-117, said Romig. He discussed some current initiatives, including unmanned aircraft, the flying wing concept, hybrid, the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, the HDB2 – hypersonic boost glide vehicle – and his desire to bring back supersonic business class jets, saying he thinks “the time is about right.”
Romig could not go into much detail about these programs, because as he said, “87 percent of what we do is classified…10 years from now I’ll tell you what we’re doing now.”
To view the entire session, visit AIAA's livestream channel.