“Skunk Works”

The most clandestine entity of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, which is officially named Advanced Development Programs (ADP). Of course, ADP is much better known as the Skunk Works.

Close to seventy-five years ago now, on June 17, 1943, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation chief engineer Hall Livingstone Hibbard and propulsive system engineer Nathan C. “Nate” Price attended a top secret US Army Air Forces (USAAF) Air Technical Service Command (ATSC) meeting in Washington, DC. In attendance were Brig. Gen. Franklin Otis “Frank” Carroll; Cols. Marshall S. Roth, Howard Bogart, and Ralph P. Swofford Jr. (Lt. Col. Jack Carter later replaced Col. Swofford on this program); and then Capt. Ezra Kotcher—project officer and senior aeronautical engineer in the engineering division of the ATSC’s Air Materiel Command (AMC). Hibbard and Price were told about gas turbine (turbojet) engine developments during this conference and prompted to submit a proposal for a pursuit (fighter) to be propelled by a single centrifugal-flow type of turbojet engine that had been designed by Maj. Frank Bernard Halford, a propulsive systems designer and engineer serving in the RAF. His engine was being produced at this time by the de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited in Great Britain as the Halford H.1B Goblin. This engine was to be produced as the J36 in the United States under license by the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company.

The Bell Aircraft Corporation had been made aware of the H.1B Goblin engine earlier for use in its single-engine XP-59B derivative of the twin turbojet–powered P-59 Airacomet. The XP-59B was to be built under AMC Secret Project MX-398. It had acquired detailed H.1B specifications and drawings for this program. Bell, however, wouldn’t be able to produce the XP-59B in satisfactory time, so the USAAF turned to Lockheed.

The primary reason the USAAF went to Lockheed was that on February 24, 1942, it had received an unsolicited proposal from Lockheed entitled Design Features of the Lockheed L-133 in a Lockheed report numbered 2571. At that time the L-133 was proposed to be a twin-engine fighter, powered by two Price-designed axial-flow turbojet engines, known in-house as the L-1000. This rather unique airframe and powerplant proposal was turned down, however, and Lockheed continued to manufacture piston-powered and propeller-driven combat and transport aircraft for the war effort.

So, on June 17, 1943, with full knowledge of Lockheed’s interest in producing a turbojet-powered fighter, the USAAF correctly surmised that Lockheed would be interested in taking over for Bell. Hibbard was given the specifications and drawings related to the H.1B Goblin engine and headed back home to Burbank, California, where the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation resided. The program became known as AMC Secret Project MX-409.

Upon his return to Burbank, Hibbard and his chief of experimental design, Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson, set their wheels in motion to generate an appropriate airplane. Two Lockheed reports associated with the MX-409 design—numbers 4199 and 4211, respectively—were entitled Preliminary Design Investigation and Manufacturer’s Brief Model Specification. These were taken to the USAAF, and on June 17, 1943, Lockheed received a green light to proceed. On this very same day the USAAF issued Lockheed Letter [of intent to purchase] Contract Number W535 AC-40680. It called for the manufacture of one experimental pursuit airplane designated XP-80. As Lockheed had promised, and now by contract, the XP-80 was to be produced in about six months.

So secret was the MX-409 program that it couldn’t be accomplished under normal circumstances, on a factory floor or near any production line. Lockheed found a site near the factory and cordoned off the space in which the XP-80 would be built. It would be highly guarded. The building in question was located next to a putrid-smelling factory.

The Skunk Works was born in the early 1940s, but it wasn’t officially called so until a number of years later. Prior to being called Skunk Works it was called Advanced Development Projects (ADP) and then Advanced Development Programs. In the 1940s and 1950s the division generated a number of outstanding aircraft.

The Skunk Works came through again in the 1950s with a number of F-80 Shooting Star spinoffs, including the first dedicated jet-powered trainers—the T-33 T-Bird and the T2V SeaStar—for the US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy (USN), and an all-weather fighter, the F-94 Starfire; the world’s first doublesonic fighter, the F-104 Starfighter; and the world’s highest-flying airplane, the U-2.

In the 1960s the Skunk Works proved that science fiction could indeed become science fact when it reinvented aircraft design and produced the amazing Blackbird series of triplesonic aircraft. These 2,000-mile-per-hour aircraft included the A-12, M-21/D-21, YF-12, and SR-71. All were way ahead of their time—not only in form, but also in function. It also produced an advanced version of the U-2 with its U-2R.

In the 1970s the Skunk Works created the Have Blue Experimental Survivable Testbed and the F-117 Nighthawk. The Sea Shadow and a stealthy cruise missile followed in the 1980s.

Yet another U-2 variant came forth from ADP in the 1980s—a tactical reconnaissance version called the TR-1 that sported improved avionics and engine.

In the 1990s, to answer a call from the USAF for an Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), ADP designed the YF-22, which led to the Engineering Manufacturing Design (EMD) phase and then the production of the world’s first fifth-generation fighter—the F-22 Raptor air dominance fighter.

The 2000s were rife with manned and unmanned ADP creations, including the X-35 Joint Strike Fighter series of concept demonstration aircraft that led to the System Development and Demonstration phase, which then produced the world’s second fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II; the flying-wing Polecat unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV); the P-971 hybrid air vehicle; and several other interesting air vehicles.

From the year 2010 on, the Skunk Works continued to challenge the world of advanced aerospace products. During this time, Lockheed Martin ADP has generated a number of unique air vehicles and concepts for future air vehicles. These include ARES, VARIOUS, UCLASS, LBFD, SR-72, TR, LBFD, and the HWB.


The first year and a half in the life of the Skunk Works gave birth to the first operational fighter in the United States powered by a turbojet engine. By the end of 1944, the P-80A—the first production version of the Shooting Star—had entered into production.

The rather unique design of the P-80 lent itself to the creation of other aircraft types, such as photographic reconnaissance and pilot trainer/transition variants, which the Skunk Works pursued with vigor. But the Shooting Star wasn’t the only aircraft program this new entity of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was working on.

Diversity became a way of life, and in the fall of 1944 a wholly different type of aircraft was in the works. This aircraft, at first known as TDN-146, would evolve into the Model 75 Saturn—a small piston-powered, propeller-driven, feeder-type airliner.

This diversity became status quo within the Skunk Works, a fact that remains true today. The Skunk Works has created a vast assortment of machinery, including manned and unmanned aircraft, missiles and rockets, seacraft and spacecraft. This diversity is the biggest factor in the continuing triumphs of the Skunk Works.

The Skunk Works began in 1943 but took root several years earlier in a number of interesting aircraft programs developed under company security blankets. This was status quo then, now, and will remain to be so throughout the years to follow.

World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, though the war in the Pacific raged on for another four-plus months. In the interim, the fledgling Skunk Works was busy trying to improve upon its P-80 series of aircraft while it delved into new designs. It was a time of discord because the US War Department planned to cut back on its numerous high-volume aircraft orders. Wartime aircraft production was about to come to a screeching halt.

For example, on January 7, 1945, North American Aviation, Inc., received a contract to produce one thousand Lockheed-licensed P-80N aircraft (North American Aviation charge number NA-137) at its Kansas City, Kansas, facility for the USAAF (USAAF contract number W535 AC-7717). But the contract was canceled before any production P-80Ns could be built; the reserved USAAF serial numbers 45-6701 to 45-7700 are believed to have been for these one thousand NAA-built P-80Ns.

In any event, inside Kelly’s lair the design, development, and engineering on various aircraft projects were constant. And since he was chief research engineer, Johnson was responsible for all of its wants and needs.

With the military market dwindling, it came time for Lockheed to reinvestigate the civilian aircraft market. Its large and elegant Constellation would soon ply the skies throughout the world, but there was a need for smaller, feeder-type airliners to shuttle passengers between major cities.

During this particular time period, the still rather fledgling Skunk Works entered into unprecedented territory with the creation of several interesting aircraft projects. Its aerodynamic, aeronautical, electrical, fuel, hydraulic, propulsive, and thermal engineering staff was rampant with genius minds, and they came up with many successful offerings.


Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson joined the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in 1933 at the age of twenty-two. His first assignment was tool maker.

Johnson was born on February 17, 1910, in Ishpeming, Michigan. Some of his school chums teased him about his name, calling him “Clara” on occasion. He got fed up with that girly-sounding nickname and one day, when one of these chums called him “Clara,” he tripped him. The boy fell down so hard he broke his leg. From then on his classmates called him “Kelly,” after a then popular song entitled “Kelly with the Green Neck Tie,” since he had proved he was not a pushover.

In 1989 Johnson’s autobiography, entitled Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, was published by Smithsonian Books. In it he shared, “For some time I had been pestering Gross and Hibbard to let me set up an experimental department where the designers and shop artisans could work together closely in the development of airplanes without the delays and complications of intermediate departments to handle administration, purchasing, and all the other support functions. I wanted a direct relationship between design engineer and mechanic and manufacturing. I decided to handle this new project [the XP-80] just that way.”

Thus, what became the Skunk Works was born.

Irv Culver, a self-taught aeronautical engineer, designer, and inventor, had joined Lockheed in 1938 as a draftsman. He was one of the engineers handpicked by Hibbard and Johnson for the XP-80 program. A few days into the program—the exact date isn’t clear—a telephone rang out. It was a call from the USN intended for Dick Pulver, the project engineer working on the Lockheed XR6O-1 Constitution transport program, but apparently the caller had misdialed. Culver was seated at the desk upon which the telephone was ringing, so he answered, “Skonk Works, inside man Culver.” Surely that caller on the other end of the line didn’t know what in the hell the guy was talking about and most likely hung up on him.

In that era, the “Skonk Works” was a rundown Dogpatch factory in the Li’l Abner newspaper comic strip where “Kickapoo Joy Juice” was brewed from old smelly shoe leather and other putrid inclusions. Al Capp’s comic strip was most likely a favorite of Culver’s. In any case, Culver is credited with the naming of the famed Skunk Works.


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