Skunk Works is, and has been since its inception under Kelly dur- ing World II, Lockheed's top-secret Advanced Development Pro- gram. Kelly Johnson ran. The Lockheed Skunk Works has demonstrated a unique ability to rapidly prototype, develop and produce a wide range of highly advanced aircraft for the U.S. PDF | Review of "Skunk Works: a personal memoir of my years at Lockheed" by Ben Rich (with Leo Junos) and "The story of Webster's Third.
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To the men and women of the Skunk Works, past, present, and future ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 1 HE AUTHORS wish to acknowledge the contributions of various. TTieSkunk Works is presently studying a new airship that could lead to a new global transportation system. The proposed heavy lifter, with a. in , Rich's Skunk Worker and Skunk Works Watcher: Ben Rich and even a future prototype editor Stuart Brown put their propeller heads together.
Other Voices Bill Park Most people think of test-flying from old movies. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised. The restrictions will eat you alive. Might have taught him a lesson in good grammar too. Before the government would sign a contract with me I had to submit for approval a security plan.
Our formal name was Lockheed's Advanced Development Projects. Even our rivals would acknowledge that whoever ran the Skunk Works had the most prestigious job in aerospace. Beginning with this mild day in January, that guy was me. I was fifty years old and in the pink. Most Skunk Workers were handpicked by our just retired leader, Kelly Johnson, one of the reigning barons of American aviation, who first joined Lockheed in as a twenty- three-year-old fledgling engineer to help design and build the Electra twin-engine transport that helped put the young company and commercial aviation on the map.
By the time he retired forty- two years later, Kelly Johnson was recognized as the preeminent aerodynamicist of his time, who had created the fastest and highest- flying military airplanes in history. Inside the Skunk Works, we were a small, intensely cohesive group consisting of about fifty veteran engineers and designers and a hundred or so expert machinists and shop workers. Our forte was building a small number of very technologically advanced airplanes for highly secret missions.
What came off our drawing boards provided key strategic and technological advantages for the United States, since our enemies had no way to stop our overflights.
Principal customers were the Central Intelligence Agency and the U. Air Force; for years we functioned as the CIA's unofficial "toy-makers," building for it fabulously successful spy planes, while developing an intimate working partnership with the agency that was unique between government and private industry.
Our relations with the Air Force blue- suiters were love-hate — depending on whose heads Kelly was knocking together at any given time to keep the Skunk Works as free as possible from bureaucratic interlopers or the imperious wills of overbearing generals.
To his credit Kelly never wavered in his battle for our independence from outside interference, and although more than one Air Force chief of staff over the years had to act as peacemaker between Kelly and some generals on the Air Staff, the proof of our success was that the airplanes we built operated under tight secrecy for eight to ten years before the government even acknowledged their existence.
Time and again, our marching orders from Washington were to produce airplanes or weapons systems that were so advanced that the Soviet bloc would be impotent to stop their missions. Which was why most of the airplanes we built remained shrouded in the deepest operational secrecy.
If the other side didn't know these aircraft existed until we introduced them in action, they would be that much farther behind in building defenses to bring them down. So inside the Skunk Works we operated on a tight-lipped need-to-know basis. I figured that an analyst for Soviet intelligence in Moscow probably knew more about my Skunk Works projects than my own wife and children. Even though we were the preeminent research and development operation in the free world, few Americans heard of the Skunk Works, although their eyes would light with recognition at some of our inventions: For instance, the F, nicknamed "The Missile With the Man In It," was an incredibly maneuverable high-performance Mach 2 interceptor built to win the skies over Korea in dogfights against the latest high-performance Soviet MiGs that had been giving our combat pilots fits.
The U-2 spy plane overflew the Soviet Union for four tense years until luck ran out and Francis Gary Powers was shot down in The U-2 was built on direct orders from President Eisenhower, who was desperate to breach the Iron Curtain and discover the Russians' potential for launching a surprise, Pearl Harbor-style nuclear attack, which the Joint Chiefs warned could be imminent.
And it is only now, when the cold war is history, that many of our accomplishments can finally be revealed, and I can stop playing mute, much like the star-crossed rabbi who hit a hole in one on the Sabbath. I had been Kelly Johnson's vice president for advanced projects and his personal choice to succeed him when he was forced to step down at mandatory retirement age of sixty- five.
Kelly started the Skunk Works during World War II, had been Lockheed's chief engineer since , and was the only airplane builder ever to win two Collier Trophies, which was the aerospace equivalent of the Hollywood Oscar, and the presidential Medal of Freedom. He had designed more than forty airplanes over his long life, many of them almost as famous in aviation as he was, and he damned well only built airplanes he believed in.
He was the toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders. But even those who would never forgive Johnson for his bullying stubbornness and hair-trigger temper were forced to salute his matchless integrity.
On several occasions, Kelly actually gave back money to the government, either because we had brought in a project under budget or because he saw that what we were struggling to design or build was just not going to work. Kelly's motto was "Be quick, be quiet, be on time. The unmarked building was adjacent to a pair of enormous production hangars, with a combined , square feet of production and assembly space. During World War II, those hangars were used to build P fighters, and later on, the fleet of Lockheed Constellations that dominated postwar commercial aviation.
My challenge was to keep those six football fields' worth of floor space humming with new airplane production and development.
The twin giant hangars were three stories high and dwarfed four or five nearby buildings that housed our machine shops and parts factories. Aside from a guard booth that closely screened and monitored all visitors driving into our area, there were no visible signs of the restricted Skunk Works operation.
Only those with a real need to know were directed to the location of our headquarters building, which had been built for Kelly in As austere as the concrete-and-steel facility was, it seemed like a palace to those fifty of us who, back in the early s, had been crammed into the small drafty offices of the original Skunk Works in Building 82, less than three hundred yards away, which was an old bomber production hangar left over from World War II and still used on some of our most sensitive projects.
I enjoyed the goodwill of my colleagues because most of us had worked together intimately under tremendous pressures for more than a quarter century Working isolated, under rules of tight security, instilled a camaraderie probably unique in the American workplace. I was Kelly's right-hand man before succeeding him, and that carried heavy freight with most of my Skunk Works colleagues, who seemed more than willing to give me the benefit of the doubt as their new boss — and keep those second guesses to a minimum for at least the first week or so.
But all of us, from department heads to the janitorial brigade, had the jitters that followed the loss of a strong father figure like Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, who had taken care of us over the years and made us among the highest-paid group in aerospace, as well as the most productive and respected.
Daddy, come back home! I began by loosening the leash on all my department heads. I told them what they already knew: I was not a genius like Kelly, who knew by experience and instinct how to solve the most complex technical problems.
I said, "I have no intention of trying to make all the decisions around here the way that Kelly always did. From now on, you'll have to make most of the tough calls on your own. I'll be decisive in telling you what I want, then I'll step out of your way and let you do it. I'll take the crap from the big wheels, but if you screw up I want to hear it first. The Ford administration still had two years to run, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was acting like a guy with battery problems on his hearing aid when it came to listening to any pitches for new airplanes.
And to add anxiety to a less than promising business climate, Lockheed was then teetering on the edge of corporate and moral bankruptcy in the wake of a bribery scandal, which first surfaced the year before I took over and threatened to bring down nearly half a dozen governments around the world. Lockheed executives admitted paying millions in bribes over more than a decade to the Dutch Crown Prince Bernhard, husband of Queen Juliana, in particular , to key Japanese and West German politicians, to Italian officials and generals, and to other highly placed figures from Hong Kong to Saudi Arabia, in order to get them to buy our airplanes.
Kelly was so sickened by these revelations that he had almost quit, even though the top Lockheed management implicated in the scandal resigned in disgrace. Lockheed was convulsed by some of the worst troubles to simultaneously confront an American corporation.
We were also nearly bankrupt from an ill-conceived attempt to reenter the commercial airliner sweepstakes in with our own Tristar L in competition against the McDonnell Douglas DC- They used American engines, while we teamed up with Rolls-Royce, thinking that the Anglo-American partnership gave us an advantage in the European market.
We had built a dozen airliners when Rolls-Royce unexpectedly declared bankruptcy, leaving us with twelve hugely expensive, engineless "gliders" that nobody wanted. The Skunk Works would have been sold off with the corporation's other assets and then tossed into limbo as a tax write-off. I had to get new business fast or face mounting pressure from the corporate bean counters to unload my higher- salaried people.
Kelly was known far and wide as "Mr. I was respected by the corporate types, but I had no political clout whatsoever. They demanded that I be a hell of a lot more "client friendly" than Kelly had been. It was an open secret in the industry that Kelly had often been his own worst enemy in his unbending and stubborn dealings with the blue-suiters. Until they had run afoul of our leader, not too many two- or three- star generals had been told to their faces that they didn't know shit from Shinola.
But smoothing relations with Pentagon brass would only serve to push me away from the dock — I had a long hard row ahead to reach the promised land. If the Skunk Works hoped to survive as a viable entity, we somehow would have to refashion the glory years last enjoyed in the s when we had forty- two separate projects going and helped Lockheed become the aerospace industry leader in defense contracts. I knew there were several powerful enemies of the Skunk Works on Lockheed's board who would close us down in a flash.
They resented our independence and occasional arrogance, and suspected us of being profligate spenders hiding our excesses behind screens of secrecy imposed by our highly classified work. These suspicions were fueled by the fact that Kelly usually got whatever he wanted from Lockheed's board — whether it was costly new machinery or raises for his top people.
Nevertheless, Kelly actually was as tightfisted as any beady-eyed New England banker and would raise hell the moment we began dropping behind schedule or going over budget. Knowing that I didn't have much time to find new business, I flew to Washington, hat in hand, with a fresh shoeshine and a brave smile. My objective was to convince General David Jones, the Air Force chief of staff, of the need to restart the production line of the U-2 spy plane.
It was a long-shot attempt, to say the least, because never before in history had the blue-suiters ever reopened a production line for any airplane in the Air Force's inventory.
But this airplane was special. I have no doubt that fifty years from now the U-2 will still be in service to the nation.
The aircraft was then more than twenty- five years old and remained the mainstay of our airborne reconnaissance activities. It needed to be updated with a more powerful engine and fitted with advanced avionics to become even more effective flying its tactical missions around the world.
That meant adding a capability to perform reconnaissance coverage via optical systems that used radar camera images from half a world away. But airplanes are like people. They tend to gain weight as they get older. The first time the U-2 took off to overfly Russia back in , it was a svelte youngster at 17, pounds.
Now it had ballooned in middle age to 40 percent over the original model and bent the scales at 40, pounds. I had been trying for years to get the Pentagon to update the U In the s, I had a meeting with Alain Enthoven, who was head of Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara's vaunted systems analysis group — the so-called Whiz Kids, many brought with him from Ford to work their competitive cold- bloodedness on the Department of Defense.
Enthoven asked, "Why should we buy more U-2s when we haven't lost any? He just couldn't see the logic. So I told him the story of the kid who proudly tells his father that he saved a quarter by running alongside a bus rather than taking it.
The father slapped the kid on the head for not running next to a taxi and saving a buck fifty. Alain didn't get it. During his reign, Kelly insisted on dealing with all of the top Pentagon brass himself, so by necessity I nibbled around the edges for years, cultivating bright young majors and colonels on the way up who were now taking command as generals.
I had gone to the Pentagon many times as Kelly's chart holder while he briefed the brass. It was a great idea, but we were fighting an uphill battle. McNamara was intent on buying a costly new bomber, the B, and was deaf to any other new airplane projects.
I set up the charts while Kelly made the pitch during McNamara's lunch hour. Then he wiped his lips with a napkin and bid us good day. On the way out I teased Kelly, "Never try to pitch a guy while he's eating and reading at the same time. General Jones invited me in for lunch and was very favorably disposed to my idea for a new fleet of spiffy U-2s. I told him I'd give him a good price, but that he had to buy the entire production line of forty- five airplanes.
Jones thought thirty-five would be more like it and said he'd study our proposal. No spy plane connotation that would make our allies shy about letting us use their bases.
If you've got the gold, you make the rules. Call it whatever you want. Tfor tactical, R for reconnaissance. The press immediately called it the TR- 1 spy plane. I left the Pentagon thinking we had a deal, but the study General Jones ordered took months to wend its way through the blue-suit bureaucracy, and we didn't sign the contract for two more years. Updating our old airplanes would help to keep our corporate accountants at bay for a while.
With the TR-1, I was merely buying time. To survive, the Skunk Works needed substantial new projects involving revolutionary new technology that our customer could not wait to get his hands on. Tightrope walking on the cutting edge was our stock-in-trade. Go build your own. And don't build an airplane you don't really believe in. Don't prostitute yourself or the reputation of the Skunk Works. Do what's right by sticking to your convictions and you'll do okay. Stealth technology landed in my lap — a gift from the gods assigned to take care of beleaguered executives, I guess.
I take credit for immediately recognizing the value of the gift I was handed before it became apparent to everyone else, and for taking major risks in expending development costs before we had any real government interest or commitment. The result was that we produced the most significant advance in military aviation since jet engines, while rendering null and void the enormous billion-ruble investment the Soviets had made in missile and radar defenses over the years.
No matter how potent their missiles or powerful their radar, they could not shoot down what they could not see. The only limits on a stealth attack airplane were its own fuel capacity and range. Otherwise, the means to counter stealth were beyond current technology, demanding unreasonably costly funding and the creation of new generations of supercomputers at least twenty- five years off.
I felt certain that stealth airplanes would rule the skies for the remainder of my lifetime. And I came from a family of long livers.
The stealth story actually began in July , about six months after I took over the Skunk Works.
I attended one of those periodic secret Pentagon briefings held to update those with a need to know on the latest Soviet technical advances in weapons and electronics. The U. By contrast, the Russians deployed fifteen different missile systems to defend their cities and vital strategic interests. Those of us in the business of furnishing attack systems had to be updated on the latest defensive threat.
Then we would go back to the drawing board to find new ways to defeat those defenses, while the other side was equally busy devising fresh obstacles to our plans. It was point counterpoint, played without end. Their early-warning radar systems, with foot-long antennas, could pick up an intruding aircraft from hundreds of miles away.
Those long-range systems couldn't tell altitude or the type of airplane invading their airspace, but passed along the intruder to systems that could. Their SAM ground-to-air missile batteries were able to engage both low-flying attack fighters and cruise missiles at the same time. Their fighters were armed with warning radars and air-to-air missiles capable of distinguishing between low-flying aircraft and ground clutter with disarming effectiveness. The Soviet SAM-5, a defensive surface-to-air missile of tremendous thrust, could reach heights of , feet and could be tipped with small nuclear warheads.
At that height, the Soviets didn't worry about impacting the ground below with the heat or shock wave from a very small megaton atomic blast and estimated that upper stratospheric winds would carry the radiation fallout over Finland or Sweden.
An atomic explosion by an air defense missile could bring down any high-flying enemy bomber within a vicinity of probably a hundred miles with its shock wave and explosive power. Our Air Force crews undertaking reconnaissance intelligence-gathering missions over territory protected by SAM-5 sites all wore special glasses that would keep them from going blind from atomic flash. So these weapons system advances posed a damned serious threat.
Most troublesome, the Russians were exporting their advanced nonnuclear defensive systems to clients and customers around the world, making our airplanes and crews increasingly vulnerable. The Syrians now had nonnuclear SAM-5s. And during our Pentagon briefing we were subjected to a chilling analysis of the YomKippur War involving Israel, Syria, and Egypt. What we heard was extremely upsetting.
Although the Israelis flew our latest and most advanced jet attack aircraft and their combat pilots were equal to our own, they suffered tremendous losses against an estimated arsenal of 30, Soviet- supplied missiles to the Arab forces. The Israelis lost airplanes in 18 days, mostly to radar-guided ground-to-air missiles and antiaircraft batteries, manned by undertrained and often undisciplined Egyptian and Syrian personnel.
What really rattled our Air Force planners was that the evasive maneuvering by Israeli pilots to avoid missiles — the same tactics used by our own pilots — proved to be a disaster. All the turning and twisting calculated to slow down an incoming missile made the Israeli aircraft vulnerable to conventional ground fire. If the Israeli loss ratio were extrapolated into a war between the U. I was not too surprised. The Skunk Works had firsthand experience with the latest Soviet equipment because the CIA had scored spectacular covert successes in acquiring their hardware by one means or another.
We could not only test their latest fighters or new radars or missile systems, but actually fly against them Skunk Works technicians pulled these systems apart, then put them back together, and made tools and spare parts to keep the Russian equipment serviced during testing, so we had a sound notion of what we were up against. Still, the Air Force had no real interest in using the stealth option to neutralize Soviet defenses. The reason was that while we had learned over the years how to make an airplane less observable to enemy radar, the conventional Pentagon view was that the effectiveness of enemy radar had leaped far ahead of our ability to thwart it.
The smart money in aerospace was betting scarce development funds on building airplanes that could avoid the Soviet radar net by coming in just over the treetops, like the new B- 1 bomber ordered from Rockwell by the Strategic Air Command, whose purpose was to sneak past ground defenses and deliver a nuclear weapon deep inside the Soviet motherland.
That Pentagon briefing was particularly sobering because it was one of those rare times when our side admitted to a potentially serious gap that tipped the balances against us.
I had our advanced planning people noodling all kinds of fantasies — pilotless, remote-controlled drone tactical bombers and hypersonic aircraft that would blister past Soviet radar defenses at better than five times the speed of sound once we solved awesomely difficult technologies. I wish I could claim to have had a sudden two a.
The truth is that an exceptional thirty-six-year-old Skunk Works mathematician and radar specialist named Denys Overholser decided to drop by my office one April afternoon and presented me with the Rosetta Stone breakthrough for stealth technology. The gift he handed to me over a cup of decaf instant coffee would make an attack airplane so difficult to detect that it would be invulnerable against the most advanced radar systems yet invented, and survivable even against the most heavily defended targets in the world.
Denys had discovered this nugget deep inside a long, dense technical paper on radar written by one of Russia's leading experts and published in Moscow nine years earlier. That paper was a sleeper in more ways than one: As Denys admitted, the paper was so obtuse and impenetrable that only a nerd's nerd would have waded through it all — underlining yet!
The nuggets Denys unearthed were found near the end of its forty pages. As he explained it, Ufimtsev had revisited a century-old set of formulas derived by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and later refined by the German electromagnetics expert Arnold Johannes Sommerfeld.
These calculations predicted the manner in which a given geometric configuration would reflect electromagnetic radiation. Ufimtsev had taken this early work a step further.
Radar cross section calculations were a branch of medieval alchemy as far as the non-initiated were concerned. Making big objects appear tiny on a radar screen was probably the most complicated, frustrating, and difficult part of modern warplane designing. A radar beam is an electromagnetic field, and the amount of energy reflected back from the target determines its visibility on radar. For example, our B, the mainstay long-range bomber of the Strategic Air Command for more than a generation, was the equivalent of a flying dairy barn when viewed from the side on radar.
Our F tactical fighter was as big as a two-story Cape Cod house with a carport. It was questionable whether the F or the newer B bomber would be able to survive the ever- improving Soviet defensive net. The F- 1 1 1 tactical fighter-bomber, using terrain- following radar to fly close to the deck and "hide" in ground clutter, wouldn't survive either. Operating mostly at night, the airplane's radar kept it from hitting mountains, but as we discovered in Vietnam, it also acted like a four-alarm siren to enemy defenses that picked up the F- 1 1 1 radar from two hundred miles away.
We desperately needed new answers, and Ufimtsev had provided us with an "industrial- strength" theory that now made it possible to accurately calculate the lowest possible radar cross section and achieve levels of stealthiness never before imagined. Simply because, as Denys later noted, it was and computers weren't yet sufficiently powerful in storage and memory capacity to allow for three-dimensional designs, or rounded shapes, which demanded enormous numbers of additional calculations.
The new generation of supercomputers, which can compute a billion bits of information in a second, is the reason why the B-2 bomber, with its rounded surfaces, was designed entirely by computer computations.
Denys 's idea was to compute the radar cross section of an airplane by dividing it into a series of flat triangles. Each triangle had three separate points and required individual calculations for each point by utilizing Ufimtsev's calculations. The result we called "faceting" — creating a three- dimensional airplane design out of a collection of flat sheets or panels, similar to cutting a diamond into sharp-edged slices.
As his boss, I had to show Denys Overholser that I was at least as intellectual and theoretical as Ufimtsev,- so I strummed on my desk importantly and said, "If I understand you, the shape of the airplane would not be too different from the airplane gliders we folded from looseleaf paper and sailed around the classroom behind the teacher's back.
The Skunk Works would be the first to try to design an airplane composed entirely of flat, angular surfaces. I tried not to anticipate what some of our crusty old aerodynamicists might say. Denys thought he would need six months to create his computer software based on Ufimtsev's formula. I gave him three months. We code-named the program Echo I. Denys and his old mentor, Bill Schroeder, who had come out of retirement in his eighties to help him after serving as our peerless mathematician and radar specialist for many years, delivered the goods in only five weeks.
The game plan was for Denys to design the optimum low observable shape on his computer, then we'd build the model he designed and test his calculations on a radar range. In those early days of my tenure at the Skunk Works, Kelly Johnson was still coming in twice a week as my consultant as part of his retirement deal. I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, Kelly was my mentor and close friend, but it pained me to see so many colleagues crowding into his small office down the hall from mine, taking their work problems to him instead of to me.
Of course, I really could not blame them. No one in our shop came close to possessing Kelly's across-the-board technical knowledge, but he didn't just limit himself to providing aerodynamic solutions for slumped engineers; he damned well wanted to know what I was up to, and he wasn't exactly shy about firing off opinions, solicited or not.
After a quarter century of working at his side, I knew Kelly's views nearly as well as my own, and I also knew that he would not be thrilled about stealth because he thought the days of manned attack airplanes were definitely numbered.
Bombers are as obsolete as the damned stagecoach. Several years earlier, we had built a pilotless drone, the D, a forty- four- foot manta ray-shaped ramjet that was launched from B bombers to streak high across Communist China and photograph its nuclear missile test facilities. That drone achieved the lowest radar cross section of anything we had ever built in the Skunk Works, and Kelly suggested that we offer our D to the Air Force as a radar-penetrating attack vehicle, with or without a pilot.
I put together a small team to begin a modification design, but I couldn't stop thinking about stealth. That first summer of my takeover, our in-house expert on Soviet weapons systems, Warren Gilmour, attended a meeting at Wright Field, in Ohio, and came back in a dark mood. He marched into my office and closed the door.
They're getting a million bucks each to come up with a proof of concept design, trying to achieve the lowest radar signatures across all the frequencies. If one works, the winner builds two demonstration airplanes. This is right up our alley and we are being locked out in the goddam cold.
But we had been overlooked by the Pentagon because we hadn't built a fighter aircraft since the Korean War and our track record as builders of low-radar-observable spy planes and drones was so secret that few in the Air Force or in upper-management positions at the Pentagon knew anything about them.
Warren read my mind. I mean, Jesus, if you think racing cars, you think Ferrari. If you think low observables, you must think Skunk Works.
The trouble was getting permission from our spy plane customer, that legendary sphinx known as the Central Intelligence Agency, to reveal to the Pentagon's competition officials the low observable results we achieved in the s building the Blackbird, which was actually the world's first operational stealth aircraft.
It was , pounds and feet long, about the size of a tactical bomber called the B Hustler, but with the incredibly small radar cross section of a single-engine Piper Cub.
In other words, that is what a radar operator would think he was tracking. Its peculiar cobra shape was only part of the stealthy characteristics of this amazing airplane that flew faster than Mach 3 and higher than 80, feet. No one knew that its wings, tail, and fuselage were loaded with special composite materials, mostly iron ferrites, that absorbed radar energy rather than returning it to the sender. Basically 65 percent of low radar cross section comes from shaping an airplane; 35 percent from radar-absorbent coatings.
The SR was about one hundred times steal thier than the Navy's F Tomcat fighter, built ten years later.
Kelly Johnson was regarded almost as a deity at the CIA, and I had him carry our request for disclosure to the director's office. To my amazement, the agency cooperated immediately by supplying all our previously highly classified radar-cross-section test results, which I sent on to Dr. But Dr. Heilmeier called me, expressing regrets.
You're way too late. We've given out all the money to the five competitors. As it turned out, if I had done nothing more that first year than refuse that one dollar offer, I had more than earned my salary.
I was sitting on a major technological breakthrough, and if I took that government buck, the Feds would own the rights to all our equations, shapes, composites — the works. Lockheed was taking the risks, we deserved the future profits.
It took a lot of arguing at my end, but Dr. Heilmeier finally agreed to let us into the stealth competition with no strings attached, and it was the only time I actually felt good about not receiving a government contract. But not Kelly. He didn't want me to risk an embarrassing failure my first turn at bat, pursuing a high-risk project with little apparent long-range potential. I would be spending close to a million dollars of our own development money on this project, and if Kelly was right, I'd wind up with nothing to show for it.
Still, I never waivered from believing that stealth could create the biggest Skunk Works bonanza ever.
It was a risk well worth taking, proving a technology that could dominate military aviation in the s even more than the U-2 spy plane had impacted the s. At that point the Russians had no satellites or long-range airplanes that could match our missions and overfly us.
Stealth would land the Russians on their ear. They had no technology in development that could cope with it. So I resolved to see this project through, even if it meant an early fall from grace. My department heads would go along because they loved high-stakes challenges, with most of the risks falling on the boss.
I confided my stealth ambitions to Lockheed's new president, Larry Kitchen, who was himself dancing barefoot on live coals while trying to pull our corporation up to a standing position after the pulverizing year and a half of scandals and bankruptcy. Larry cautioned me: If you've got to take risks, at least make sure you keep it cheap, so I can back you without getting my own head handed to me.
And if something goes sour, I want to be the first to know. My blessings. After all, he had also approved hiring me as Kelly's successor. Denys Overholser reported back to me on May 5, , on his attempts to design the stealthiest shape for the competition. He was wearing a confident smile as he sat down on the couch in my office with a preliminary designer named Dick Scherrer, who had helped him sketch out the ultimate stealth shape that would result in the lowest radar observability from every angle.
What emerged was a diamond beveled in four directions, creating in essence four triangles. Viewed from above the design closely resembled an Indian arrowhead.
Denys was a hearty outdoorsman, a cross-country ski addict and avid mountain biker, a terrific fellow generally, but inexplicably fascinated by radomes and radar.
That was his specialty, designing radomes — the jet's nose cone made out of noninterfering composites, housing its radar tracking system. It was an obscure, arcane specialty, and Denys was the best there was. He loved solving radar problems the way that some people love crossword puzzles.
We are talking infinitesimal. On a radar screen it would appear as a. As big as a condor, an eagle, an owl, a what? He took one look at Dick Scherrer's sketch of the Hopeless Diamond and charged into my office. Unfortunately, he caught me leaning over a work table studying a blueprint, and I never heard him coming.
Kelly kicked me in the butt — hard too. Then he crumpled up the stealth proposal and threw it at my feet. This crap will never get off the ground. Instead they did it verbally and behind my back. These were some of our most senior aerodynamicists, thermodynamicists, propulsion specialists, stress and structures and weight engineers, who had been building airplanes from the time I was in college. They had at least twenty airplanes under their belts and were walking aviation encyclopedias and living parts catalogs.
Over the years they had solved every conceivable problem in their specialty areas and damned well knew what worked and what didn't. They were crusty and stiff-necked at times, but they were all dedicated, can-do guys who worked fourteen-hour days seven days a week for months on end to make a deadline. Self-assurance came from experiencing many more victories than defeats.
At the Skunk Works we designed practical, used off-the-shelf parts whenever possible, and did things right the first time. My wing man, for example, had designed twenty-seven wings on previous Skunk Works' airplanes before tackling the Hopeless Diamond.
All of us had been trained by Kelly Johnson and believed fanatically in his insistence that an airplane that looked beautiful would fly the same way. No one would dare to claim that the Hopeless Diamond would be a beautiful airplane.
As a flying machine it looked alien. Dave Robertson, one of Kelly's original recruits and aerospace's most intuitively smart hydraulic specialist, ridiculed our design by calling it "a flying engagement ring. Robertson hated having anyone look over his shoulder at his drawing and reacted by grabbing a culprit's tie and cutting it off with scissors.
Another opponent was Ed Martin, who thought that anyone who hadn't been building airplanes since the propeller-driven days wasn't worth talking to, much less listening to. He called the Hopeless Diamond "Rich's Folly. Most of our veterans used slide rules that were older than Denys Overholser, and they wondered why in hell this young whippersnapper was suddenly perched on a throne as my guru, seemingly calling the shots on the first major project under my new and untested administration.
I tried to explain that stealth technology was in an embryonic state and barely understood until Denys unearthed the Ufimtsev theory for us; they remained unconvinced even when I reminded them that until Denys had come along with his revelation, we had known only two possibilities to reduce an airplane's radar detection. One way was to coat the fuselage, tail, and wing surfaces with special composite materials that would absorb incoming electromagnetic energy from radar waves instead of bouncing it back to the sender.
The other method was to construct an airplane out of transparent materials so that the radar signals would pass through it. We tried an experimental transparent airplane back in the early s and to our dismay discovered that the engine loomed ten times bigger on radar than the airplane because there was no way to hide it. So all of us, myself especially, had to trust that Denys Overholser, with his boyish grin and quiet self-confidence, really knew what in hell he was talking about and could produce big-time results.
Dick Cantrell, head of our aerodynamics group, suggested burning Denys at the stake as a heretic and then going on to conventional projects. Cantrell, normally as soft-spoken and calm as Gregory Peck, whom he vaguely resembled, nevertheless had the temperament of a fiery Savonarola when, as in this instance, basics of fundamental aerodynamics were tossed aside in deference to a new technology understood only by witches and mathematical gnomes.
But after a couple of hours of listening to Overholser 's explanations of stealth, Dick dropped his lanky frame onto the chair across from my desk and heaved a big sigh.
If that flat plate concept is really as revolutionary as that kid claims in terms of radar cross section, I don't care what in hell it looks like, I'll get that ugly son-of-a-bitch to fly. This computerized enhanced flight stability gave us latitude in designing small, stealthy wings and short tails and mini-wing flaps, and left the awesome problems of unstable pitch and yaw to the computers to straighten out. Without those onboard computers, which the pilots called "fly-by-wire," since electric wiring now replaced conventional mechanical control rods, our diamond would have been hopeless indeed.
But even with the powerful onboard computers, getting into the sky, as Kelly's boot to my butt suggested, would be far from a cakewalk. We had a very strong and innovative design organization of about a dozen truly brilliant engineers, working at their drawing boards in a big barnlike room on the second floor of our headquarters building, who simply could not be conned or browbeaten into doing anything they knew would not work.
One day, Kelly called upstairs for an engineer named Bob Allen. Whoever answered the phone replied, "Yeah, he is. Kelly was livid, but deep down he appreciated the feisty independence of his best people. The designers were either structural specialists who planned the airframe or systems designers who detailed the fuel, hydraulics, electrical, avionics, and weapons systems. In many ways they comprised the heart and soul of the Skunk Works and also were the most challenged by the structural demands of the new stealth technology.
Thanks to Ufimtsev's breakthrough formula, they were being told to shape an airplane entirely with flat surfaces and then tilt the individual panels so that radar energy scattered away and not back to the source.
The airplane would be so deficient in lift-drag ratio that it would probably need a computer the size of Delaware to get it stable and keep it flying. Several of our aerodynamics experts, including Dick Cantrell, seriously thought that maybe we would do better trying to build an actual flying saucer.
The shape itself was the ultimate in low observability. The problem was finding ways to make a saucer fly. Unlike our plates, it would have to be rotated and spun. But how? The Martians wouldn't tell us. During those early months of the Hopeless Diamond, I dug in my heels. I forced our in-house doubters to sit down with Denys and receive a crash course on Stealth That helped to improve their confidence quotient somewhat, and although I acted as square- shouldered as Harry Truman challenging the Republican Congress, deep down I was suffering bouts of angst myself, wondering if Kelly and some of the other skeptics had it right while I was being delusional.
I kept telling myself that the financial and personal risks in pursuing this project were minimal compared to its enormous military and financial potential. But the politics of the situation had me worried: But if stealth failed, I could hear several of my corporate bosses grousing: Is he some sort of flake?
Kelly would never have undertaken such a dubious project. We need to take charge of that damned Skunk Works and make it practical and profitable again. If he didn't like something or someone, it was as obvious as a purple pimple on the tip of his nose. So I had him in for lunch and said, "Look, Kelly, I know you find this design aesthetically offensive, but I want you to do me one favor.
Sit down with this guy, Overholser, and let him answer your questions about stealth. He's convinced me that we are onto something enormously important. Kelly, this diamond is somewhere between ten thousand and one hundred thousand times lower in radar cross section than any U.
Ten thousand to one hundred thousand times, Kelly. Think of it! I'll bet you a quarter that our old D drone has a lower cross section than that goddam diamond. That date was September 14, , a date etched forever in my memory because it was about the only time I ever won a quarter from Kelly Johnson.
I had lost about ten bucks' worth of quarters to him over the years betting on technical matters. Like me, my colleagues collected quarters from Kelly just about as often as they beat him at arm wrestling. He had been a hod carrier as a kid and had arms like ship's cables.
He once sprained the wrist of one of our test pilots so badly he put the poor guy out of action for a month. So winning a quarter was a very big deal, in some ways even more satisfying than winning the Irish Sweepstakes. Depending on the size of the purse, of course. I really wanted a photographer around for historical purposes to capture the expression on Kelly's big, brooding moon-shaped mug when I showed him the electromagnetic chamber results.
Hopeless Diamond was exactly as Denys had predicted: The fact that the test results matched Denys 's computer calculations was the first proof that we actually knew what in hell we were doing.
Still, Kelly reacted about as graciously as a cop realizing he had collared the wrong suspect. He grudgingly flipped me the quarter and said, "Don't spend it until you see the damned thing fly. He told me later that he was surprised to learn that with flat surfaces the amount of radar energy returning to the sender is independent of the target's size.
A small airplane, a bomber, an aircraft carrier, all with the same shape, will have identical radar cross sections. I had the feeling that maybe he still didn't. Our next big hurdle was to test a ten- foot wooden model of the Hopeless Diamond on an outdoor radar test range near Palmdale, on the Mojave desert. The range belonged to McDonnell Douglas, which was like Buick borrowing Ford's test track to road test an advanced new sports car design, but I had no choice since Lockheed didn't own a radar range.
Our model was mounted on a foot- high pole, and the radar dish zeroed in from about 1, feet away. I was standing next to the radar operator in the control room. Rich, please check on your model. It must've fallen off the pole," he said. I looked. The radar operator smiled and nodded. His radar wasn't picking up our model at all.
For the first time, I felt reassured that we had caught the perfect wave at the crest and were in for one terrifically exciting ride. I saw firsthand how invisible that diamond shape really was.
So I crossed my fingers and said a silent prayer for success in the tests to follow. Other Voices Denys Overholser In October , Ben Rich informed me that we and Northrop had won the first phase of the competition and would now contest against each other's designs in a high noon shoot-out at the Air Force's radar test range in White Sands, New Mexico.
The two companies were each given a million and a half dollars to refine the models and told to be ready to test in four months. The government demanded competition on any project, but that Hopeless Diamond shape was tough to beat. We built the model out of wood, all flat panels, thirty-eight feet, painted black.
And in March we hauled it by truck to New Mexico. The White Sands radar range was used to test unarmed nuclear warheads, and their radars were the most sensitive and powerful in the free world. The tests lasted a month.
I never did see the Northrop model because under the ground rules we tested separately, on different days. In the end we creamed them. Our diamond was ten times less visible than their model. We achieved the lowest radar cross sections ever measured. And the radar range test results precisely matched the predictions of our computer software. This meant we could now confidently predict radar cross section for any proposed shape, a unique capability at that point in time.
The range was as flat as a tabletop; the pole downrange was in a direct line with five different radar antenna dishes, each targeting a different series of frequencies. The model was mounted atop the pylon and then rotated in front of the radar beam.
Well, two very funny things happened. The first day we placed our model on the pole, the pole registered many times brighter than the model. The technicians had a fit. They had thought their poles were invisible, but the trouble was nobody had ever built a model that was so low in radar signature to show them how wrong they really were.
Their pole registered minus 20 decibels — okay as long as the model on top was greater than But when the model was registering an unheard-of lower value, the pole intruded on the testing. An Air Force colonel confronted me in a fit of pique: Build a tower that's ten decibels lower than the model. Lots of luck. In the end we had to team up with Northrop to pay for the poles, because the Air Force wasn't about to foot the bill.
It cost around half a million dollars. And I designed a double- wedge pylon which they tested on a 50,watt megatron, state of the art in transmitters, that could pick up an object the size of an ant from a mile away. On that radar the pole was about the size of a bumblebee. John Cashen, who was Northrop's stealth engineer, was in the control room when they fired up the radar.
And I overheard their program manager whisper to John: The model was measuring approximately the equivalent of a golf ball. One morning we counted twelve birds sitting on the model on top of the pole. Their droppings increased the radar cross section by one and a half decibels. Three decibels is the equivalent of doubling its cross section. And as the day heated on the desert, inversion layers sometimes bent the radar off the target.
One day, while using supersensitive radar, the inversion layer bent the beam off the target, making us four decibels better than we deserved.
I saw that error, but the technician didn't. What the hell, it wasn't my job to tell him he had a false pattern. I figured Northrop probably benefited from a few of them too, and it would all come out in the wash. But then Ben Rich called me and said, "Listen, take the best pattern we've got, calculate the cross section level, and tell me the size of the ball bearing that matches our model.
The model was now shrunk down from a golf ball to a marble because of bad data. But it was official bad data, and no one knew it was bad except little me.
So Ben went out and bought ball bearings and flew to the Pentagon and visited with the generals and rolled ball bearings across their desktops and announced, "Here's your airplane! John Chasen was livid when he found out about it because he hadn't thought of it first.
And a few months later, Ben had to stop rolling them across the desk of anyone who wasn't cleared. In early April , I got the word that we had officially won the competition with Northrop and would go on to build two experimental airplanes based on our Hopeless Diamond design.
The program was now designated under the code name Have Blue. We knew we could produce a model with spectacularly low radar signatures, but the big question was whether we could actually build an airplane that would enjoy the same degree of stealthiness.
A real airplane was not only much larger, but also loaded with all kinds of anti-stealth features — a cockpit, engines, air scoops and exhausts, wing and tail flaps, and landing gear doors. In any airplane project the design structures people, the aerodynamics group, and the propulsion and weight specialists all argue and vie for their points of view. In this case, however, I served notice that Denys Overholser's radar cross section group had top priority. I didn't give a damn about the airplane's performance characteristics because its only purpose was to demonstrate the lowest radar signature ever recorded.
I joked that if we couldn't get her airborne, maybe we could sell her as a piece of modern art sculpture. I assigned the design project to Ed Baldwin, who was our best and most experienced structural engineer. His task was to take the preliminary design concept of the Hopeless Diamond and make it practical so that it could actually fly. Dick Scherrer had done the preliminary design, laying out the basic shape, and Baldwin had to make certain that the shape's structure was sound and practical; he would determine its radius, its thicknesses, its ability to withstand certain loads, the number of parts.
All of our structure and wing guys worked for him, and Baldwin enjoyed badgering aerodynamicists, especially in meetings where he could score points with his fellow designers by making aerodynamicists squirm or turn beet red in fury. One on one, Baldy was a pleasant chap — at least moderately so for a crusty Skunk Works veteran — but in meetings we were all fair game and he was a bad-tempered grizzly.
Early on, for example, he got into a heated exchange with a very proper Britisher named Alan Brown, our propulsion and stealth expert, about some aspect of the structure he was designing.
Baldwin turned crimson. Its gross weight was 12, pounds. The leading edge of the delta wing was razor-sharp and swept back more than 70 degrees. To maintain low infrared signatures, the airplane could not go supersonic or have an afterburner because speed produced surface heating — acting like a spotlight for infrared detection.
Nor did we want the airplane to be aurally detected from the ground. For acoustical reasons we had to make sure we had minimized engine and exhaust noise by using absorbers and shields. To keep it from being spotted in the sky, we decided to use special additives to avoid creating exhaust contrails. And to eliminate telltale electromagnetic emissions, there was no internal radar system on board. Our airplane wasn't totally invisible, but it held the promise of being so hard to detect that even the best Soviet defenses could not accomplish a fatal lock-on missile cycle in time to thwart its mission.
If they could detect a fighter from a hundred miles out, that airplane was heading for the loss column. The long-range radar had plenty of time to hand off the incoming intruder to surface-to-air missile batteries, which, in turn, would fire the missiles and destroy it. Early-warning radar systems could certainly see us, but not in time to hand us over to missile defenses. If the first detection of our airplane was at fifteen miles from target, rather than at fifty miles, there simply would be no time to nail us before we hit the target.
And because we were so difficult to detect, even at fifteen miles, radar operators would also be thwarted while trying to detect us through a confusing maze of ground clutter. I had asked Kelly to estimate the cost of building these two experimental Have Blue airplanes. He said, "Look, Ben, we're in tough straits right now. I don't think we can really afford this. Bob set up the meeting, and I just laid it all out. Larry Kitchen, Lockheed's president, and Roy Anderson, the vice chairman, spoke up enthusiastically in support.
I predicted we would be building stealth fighters, stealth missiles, stealth ships, the works. I was accused of hyperbole by one or two directors, but in the end I got my funding, and as time went on my sales predictions proved to be conservatively low.
Even worse, I began picking up rumors that certain officials at the Pentagon were accusing me of rigging the test results of the radar range competition against Northrop. An Air Force general called me, snarling like a pit bull. No one would have ever dared to accuse Kelly Johnson's Skunk Works of rigging any data, and by God, no one was going to make that accusation against Ben Rich's operation either.
Our integrity was as important to all of us as our inventiveness. The accusation, I discovered, was made by a civilian radar expert advising the Air Force, who had close ties to leading manufacturers of electronic jamming devices installed in all Air Force planes to fool or thwart enemy radar and missiles. If stealth was as good as we claimed, those companies might be looking for new work. His motivation for bad-mouthing us was obvious; but it was equally apparent that we were unfairly being attacked without any effective way for me to defend the Skunk Works' integrity from three thousand miles away.
So I invited one of the nation's most respected radar experts to Burbank to personally test and evaluate our stealth data. MIT's Lindsay Anderson accepted my invitation in the late summer of and arrived at my doorstep carrying a bag of ball bearings in his briefcase. The ball bearings ranged in size from a golf ball to an eighth of an inch in diameter.
Professor Anderson requested that we glue each of these balls onto the nose of the Hopeless Diamond and then zap them with radar. This way he could determine whether our diamond had a lower cross section than the ball bearings. If the diamond in the background proved to be brighter than the ball in the foreground, then the ball could not be measured at all. That got me a little nervous because nothing should measure less than an eighth-of-an-inch ball bearing, but we went ahead anyway. As it turned out, we measured all the balls easily — even the eighth-of-an-inch one — and when Professor Anderson saw that the data matched the theoretical calculated value of the ball bearings, he was satisfied that all our claims were true.
That was the turning point for the entire stealth adventure, which could have ended right there if Lindsay Anderson had reinforced the accusation that we were being unscrupulous and presenting bogus data.
My first reaction was "Hooray, they finally realize how significant this technology really is," but Kelly set me straight and with a scowl urged me to cancel the whole damned project right then and there. It will increase your costs twenty- five percent and lower your efficiency to the point where you won't get any work done. Although the Israelis flew our latest and most advanced jet attack aircraft and their combat pilots were equal to our own.
Their fighters were armed with warning radars and air-to-air missiles capable of distinguishing between low-flying aircraft and ground clutter with disarming effectiveness. The Soviet SAM Those of us in the business of furnishing attack systems had to be updated on the latest defensive threat. Their SAM ground-to-air missile batteries were able to engage both low-flying attack fighters and cruise missiles at the same time.
Most troublesome. All the turning and twisting calculated to slow down an incoming missile made the Israeli aircraft vulnerable to conventional ground fire. By contrast. Their early-warning radar systems. The Skunk Works had firsthand experience with the latest Soviet equipment because the CIA had scored spectacular covert successes in acquiring their hardware by one means or another.
So these weapons system advances posed a damned serious threat. It was point counterpoint. An atomic explosion by an air defense missile could bring down any highflying enemy bomber within a vicinity of probably a hundred miles with its shock wave and explosive power. A radar beam is an electromagnetic field. For example. These calculations predicted the manner in which a given geometric configuration would reflect electromagnetic radiation. The reason was that while we had learned over the years how to make an airplane less observable to enemy radar.
Making big objects appear tiny on a radar screen was probably the most complicated. The nuggets Denys unearthed were found near the end of its forty pages. As Denys admitted. Radar cross section calculations were a branch of medieval alchemy as far as the non-initiated were concerned. Our F tactical fighter was as big as a two-story Cape Cod house with a carport.
Denys had discovered this nugget deep inside a long. It was questionable whether the F or the newer B bomber would be able to survive the ever-. As he explained it. The smart money in aerospace was betting scarce development funds on building airplanes that could avoid the Soviet radar net by coming in just over the treetops. That paper was a sleeper in more ways than one: I had our advanced planning people noodling all kinds of fantasies—pilotless.
The truth is that an exceptional thirty-six-year-old Skunk Works mathematician and radar specialist named Denys Overholser decided to drop by my office one April afternoon and presented me with the Rosetta Stone breakthrough for stealth technology.
The author was Pyotr Ufimtsev. Ufimtsev had revisited a century-old set of formulas derived by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and later refined by the German electromagnetics expert Arnold Johannes Sommerfeld. I wish I could claim to have had a sudden two a.
That Pentagon briefing was particularly sobering because it was one of those rare times when our side admitted to a potentially serious gap that tipped the balances against us. The gift he handed to me over a cup of decaf instant coffee would make an attack airplane so difficult to detect that it would be invulnerable against the most advanced radar systems yet invented.
Ufimtsev had taken this early work a step further. After a quarter century of working at his side. We code-named the program Echo I. The Skunk Works would be the first to try to design an airplane composed entirely of flat. I had mixed feelings about it. We desperately needed new answers. I tried not to anticipate what some of our crusty old aerodynamicists might say.
I really could not blame them. Simply because. Kelly was my mentor and close friend. I had to show Denys Overholser that I was at least as intellectual and theoretical as Ufimtsev.
Kelly Johnson was still coming in twice a week as my consultant as part of his retirement deal. The game plan was for Denys to design the optimum low observable shape on his computer.
The F tactical fighter-bomber. The new generation of supercomputers. As his boss. Bill Schroeder. Denys and his old mentor. I gave him three months. On the one hand. Operating mostly at night. In those early days of my tenure at the Skunk Works. The trouble was getting permission from our spy plane customer. This is right up our alley and we are being locked out in the goddam cold.
That first summer of my takeover. Bombers are as obsolete as the damned stagecoach. He marched into my office and closed the door. Its peculiar cobra shape was only part of the stealthy characteristics of this amazing airplane that flew faster than Mach 3 and higher than In other words. I put together a small team to begin a modification design. If you think low observables.
But if I knew the CIA. Kelly Johnson was regarded almost as a deity at the CIA. It was If one works. Warren Gilmour. Warren read my mind. That drone achieved the lowest radar cross section of anything we had ever built in the Skunk Works. Several years earlier. To my amazement. No one knew that its wings. McDonnell Douglas. I mean. Basically 65 percent of low radar cross section comes from shaping an airplane.
At that point the Russians had no satellites or long-range airplanes that could match our missions and overfly us. I had more than earned my salary. Larry Kitchen. They had no technology in development that could cope with it. I want to be the first to know. I was sitting on a major technological breakthrough. I never waivered from believing that stealth could create the biggest Skunk Works bonanza ever.
Lockheed was taking the risks. That was his specialty. I think. Heilmeier called me. Denys was a hearty outdoorsman. What emerged was a diamond beveled in four directions. It was a risk well worth taking. He was wearing a confident smile as he sat down on the couch in my office with a preliminary designer named Dick Scherrer.
After all. And if something goes sour. But Dr. I only wish I had known about this sooner. But not Kelly. George Heilmeier. Kelly was trying to be protective. Heilmeier finally agreed to let us into the stealth competition with no strings attached. My department heads would go along because they loved high-stakes challenges. It took a lot of arguing at my end. It was an obscure. So I resolved to see this project through. I would be spending close to a million dollars of our own development money on this project.
Viewed from above the design closely resembled an Indian arrowhead. Denys Overholser reported back to me on May 5. As it turned out. He loved solving radar problems the way that some people love crossword puzzles. Stealth would land the Russians on their ear. My blessings. Larry cautioned me: We are talking infinitesimal. On a radar screen it would appear as a… what? As big as a condor. This crap will never get off the ground. At the Skunk Works we designed practical.
My wing man. Self-assurance came from experiencing many more victories than defeats. All of us had been trained by Kelly Johnson and believed fanatically in his insistence that an airplane that looked beautiful would fly the same way.
These were some of our most senior aerodynamicists. Instead they did it verbally and behind my back. No one would dare to claim that the Hopeless Diamond would be a beautiful airplane. One way was to coat the fuselage. Most of our veterans used slide rules that were older than Denys Overholser. They had at least twenty airplanes under their belts and were walking aviation encyclopedias and living parts catalogs.
Another opponent was Ed Martin. I tried to explain that stealth technology was in an embryonic state and barely understood until Denys unearthed the Ufimtsev theory for us. They were crusty and stiff-necked at times.
I had the feeling that there were a lot of old-timers around the Skunk Works who wanted badly to do what Kelly had just done. As a flying machine it looked alien. Dave Robertson. Then he crumpled up the stealth proposal and threw it at my feet.
Kelly kicked me in the butt—hard too. Kelly was livid. The other method was to construct an airplane out of transparent materials so that the radar signals would pass through it. But even with the powerful onboard computers. This computerized enhanced flight stability gave us latitude in designing small. Several of our aerodynamics experts. Unlike our plates.
If that flat plate concept is really as revolutionary as that kid claims in terms of radar cross section. Without those onboard computers. One day. During those early months of the Hopeless Diamond. The airplane would be so deficient in lift-drag ratio that it would probably need a computer the size of Delaware to get it stable and keep it flying. The problem was finding ways to make a saucer fly. The shape itself was the ultimate in low observability. In many ways they comprised the heart and soul of the Skunk Works and also were the most challenged by the structural demands of the new stealth technology.
Dick Cantrell. I forced our in-house doubters to sit down with Denys and receive a crash course on Stealth We tried an experimental transparent airplane back in the early s and to our dismay discovered that the engine loomed ten times bigger on radar than the airplane because there was no way to hide it.
I dug in my heels. Dick dropped his lanky frame onto the chair across from my desk and heaved a big sigh. Kelly called upstairs for an engineer named Bob Allen.
The designers were either structural specialists who planned the airframe or systems designers who detailed the fuel. We had a very strong and innovative design organization of about a dozen truly brilliant engineers. But how? Whoever answered the phone replied. So all of us. That helped to improve their confidence quotient somewhat.
But the politics of the situation had me worried: Sit down with this guy. He grudgingly flipped me the quarter and said. We need to take charge of that damned Skunk Works and make it practical and profitable again. So winning a quarter was a very big deal. I never would have believed that. Depending on the size of the purse. But if stealth failed. Ten thousand to one hundred thousand times. I kept telling myself that the financial and personal risks in pursuing this project were minimal compared to its enormous military and financial potential.
He once sprained the wrist of one of our test pilots so badly he put the poor guy out of action for a month. So I had him in for lunch and said. That date was September Hopeless Diamond was exactly as Denys had predicted: Our next big hurdle was to test a ten-foot wooden model of the Hopeless Diamond on an outdoor.
Think of it! I could hear several of my corporate bosses grousing: Is he some sort of flake? Kelly would never have undertaken such a dubious project. Kelly reacted about as graciously as a cop realizing he had collared the wrong suspect. Like me. A small airplane. I know you find this design aesthetically offensive.
I was standing next to the radar operator in the control room. Our diamond was ten times less visible than their model. I looked. I never did see the Northrop model because under the ground rules we tested separately.
And in March we hauled it by truck to New Mexico. The technicians had a fit. They had thought their poles were invisible. So I crossed my fingers and said a silent prayer for success in the tests to follow. The two companies were each given a million and a half dollars to refine the models and told to be ready to test in four months. The White Sands radar range was used to test unarmed nuclear warheads.
This meant we could now confidently predict radar cross section for any proposed shape. An Air Force colonel confronted me in a fit of pique: The tests lasted a month. The range was as flat as a tabletop. New Mexico. In the end we creamed them. I saw firsthand how invisible that diamond shape really was.
The range belonged to McDonnell Douglas. Lots of luck. Their pole registered minus 20 decibels—okay as long as the model on top was greater than And the radar range test results precisely matched the predictions of our computer software.
We built the model out of wood. For the first time. The government demanded competition on any project. Our model was mounted on a foot-high pole. In the end we had to team up with Northrop to pay for the poles. The model was mounted atop the pylon and then rotated in front of the radar beam. We achieved the lowest radar cross sections ever measured.
The first day we placed our model on the pole. The radar operator smiled and nodded. But when the model was registering an unheard-of lower value. I felt reassured that we had caught the perfect wave at the crest and were in for one terrifically exciting ride.
I figured Northrop probably benefited from a few of them too. John Cashen. We knew we could produce a model with spectacularly low radar signatures.
In this case. I assigned the design project to Ed Baldwin. The model was measuring approximately the equivalent of a golf ball. It cost around half a million dollars. In any airplane project the design structures people. And I overheard their program manager whisper to John: Dick Scherrer had. Their droppings increased the radar cross section by one and a half decibels. I saw that error. And I designed a doublewedge pylon which they tested on a What the hell.
And a few months later. A real airplane was not only much larger. But it was official bad data. I got the word that we had officially won the competition with Northrop and would go on to build two experimental airplanes based on our Hopeless Diamond design.
The program was now designated under the code name Have Blue. His task was to take the preliminary design concept of the Hopeless Diamond and make it practical so that it could actually fly.
On that radar the pole was about the size of a bumblebee. So Ben went out and bought ball bearings and flew to the Pentagon and visited with the generals and rolled ball bearings across their desktops and announced. And as the day heated on the desert. In early April One morning we counted twelve birds sitting on the model on top of the pole.
But then Ben Rich called me and said. The model was now shrunk down from a golf ball to a marble because of bad data. Three decibels is the equivalent of doubling its cross section. Early on. All of our structure and wing guys worked for him. Baldy was a pleasant chap—at least moderately so for a crusty Skunk Works veteran—but in meetings we were all fair game and he was a bad-tempered grizzly.
And to eliminate telltale electromagnetic emissions. Baldwin turned crimson. To keep it from being spotted in the sky. I had asked Kelly to estimate the cost of building these two experimental Have Blue airplanes. If they could detect a fighter from a hundred miles out. I predicted we would be building stealth fighters. I was accused of hyperbole by one or two directors. One on one. To maintain low infrared signatures. And because we were so difficult to detect.
The long-range radar had plenty of time to hand off the incoming intruder to surface-to-air missile batteries. Bob set up the meeting. Its gross weight was For acoustical reasons we had to make sure we had minimized engine and exhaust noise by using absorbers and shields. If the first detection of our airplane was at fifteen miles from target. Early-warning radar systems could certainly see us. The leading edge of the delta wing was razor-sharp and swept back more than 70 degrees.
Bob Haack. Nor did we want the airplane to be aurally detected from the ground. He said. Even worse. But once he corroborated our achievement back in Washington. The restrictions will eat you alive. Other Voices General Larry D. I began picking up rumors that certain officials at the Pentagon were accusing me of rigging the test results of the radar range competition against Northrop.
Professor Anderson requested that we glue each of these balls onto the nose of the Hopeless Diamond and then zap them with radar. His motivation for bad-mouthing us was obvious. An Air Force general called me.
This way he could determine whether our diamond had a lower cross section than the ball bearings. If the diamond in the background proved to be brighter than the ball in the foreground. That got me a little nervous because nothing should measure less than an eighth-of-an-inch ball bearing.
Make them reclassify this thing or drop it. The accusation. The ball bearings ranged in size from a golf ball to an eighth of an inch in diameter. Kelly was seldom wrong. I discovered. Our integrity was as important to all of us as our inventiveness.
That was the turning point for the entire stealth adventure. I was a brigadier general in charge of planning at the Tactical Air Command at. If stealth was as good as we claimed. Bill Perry. After he left. Before we could ask Congress for money. Ben spoke only about twenty minutes. And that faith was based on long personal experience. General Bob Dixon. Perry at the Pentagon and inform him about decisions we required from him as Under Secretary of Defense.
Because we were so highly classified. Ben and Kelly worked out the figures on a piece of paper— Okay. Once a month. But if Ben Rich and the Skunk Works say that they can deliver the goods. The management approach we evolved was unique and marvelous. We had special bank-vault conference rooms. There were only five of us at headquarters cleared for the stealth program. Sometimes he agreed. Before the government would sign a contract with me I had to submit for approval a security plan.
Perry was very interested in the stealth concept and wanted our input. So I had supreme confidence that Ben and his people would deliver superbly on stealth. Way back when I was a young colonel working in the fighter division—this would be the early seventies—I was tasked to come up with a realistic cost estimate for a revolutionary tactical fighter with movable wings called the FX. I did win a couple of important concessions: They needed Special Access clearances. Most important.
Every piece of paper dealing with the project had to be stamped top secret. Security would snoop in our desks at night to search for classified documents not locked away. The Air Force security people made the decision and offered no explanation about why certain of my employees were denied access to the program. Over the years we had developed the concept of using existing hardware developed and paid for by other programs to save.
We just made damned sure that all sensitive papers stayed inside the Skunk Works. Full field investigations were demanded of every worker having access to the airplane. Only five of us were cleared for top secret and above. But the government. Kelly evolved his own unorthodox security methods. It was like working at KGB headquarters in Moscow. Beswick and his people had to lock them away in a safe between coffee breaks. I was personally responsible for collecting every single piece of it and turning all of it over to the proper authorities.
If one machinist had to go to the toilet. No one in Washington conferred with me or asked my opinion or sought my advice. They imposed a strictly enforced two-man rule: Keith Beswick. We never stamped a security classification on any paperwork. I knew my people very well. In fact. These draconian measures hobbled us severely at times.
The Air Force wanted the two test planes in only fourteen months.
Some were horse players. If it crashed. My biggest worry was clearing our workers for this project. For all I knew some of my best people might be part-time transvestites. If security caught them. That way. A few guys with lousy memories tried to cheat and carried the combination numbers in their wallets.
I told you so. They were granted waivers to work on Have Blue. I was named its official custodian and had to sign for it whenever it left its hangar area and was test-flown. They assigned an expediter named Jack Twigg. Without it. Since this was just an experimental stealth test vehicle destined to be junked at the end. Our designers spent at least a. We flew the airplane avionically on the simulator flight control system and kept modifying the system to increase stability.
The pilot tells the flight control system what he wants it to do just by normal flying: I worked an agreement with the Air Force to supply me with the airplane engines. The heads-up display was designed for the F fighter and adapted for our airplane. But we had our very own Bob Loschke. We put two engines in each experimental airplane and had a couple of spares. Our airplane was a triumph of computer technology. Jack was a natural at playing James Bond: Our engineers were expected on the shop floor the moment their blueprints were approved.
Only the flight control system was specially designed for Have Blue. Designers lived with their designs through fabrication. Engineering designed and developed the Have Blue aircraft and turned it over to the shop to build. Jack requisitioned six engines from the Navy.
The electronics will move the surfaces the way the pilot commands. In July Our senior shop people were tough. Our organizational chart consisted of an engineering branch. We begged and borrowed whatever parts we could get our hands on. We took the servomechanisms from the F and F and modified them. We had our ownunique method for building an airplane.
The Santa Ana winds were howling and half of L. Major General Bobby Bond. Flat plates. The shop manufactured and assembled the airplane. He always thought he was being shortchanged or victimized in some way.
My asthma was acting up and I had a lousy headache and I was in no mood for a visit from the good general. We had to install special alarm systems that cost us a fortune in the section of our headquarters building devoted to the naval work.
Constant inspection forced our workers to be supercritical of their work before passing it on. We also had nagging technical headaches applying the special radar-absorbing coatings to the surfaces. Each section was built separately then brought together and assembled like a giant Tinkertoy. That was how we kept everybody involved and integrated on a project. In the midst of all this interservice rivalry. At the Skunk Works quality control reported directly to me.
The plates had to be absolutely perfect to fit precisely. When the project ended. Self-checking was a Skunk Works concept now in wide use in Japanese industry and called by them Total Quality Management.
And we were also doing some prototype work for the Army on stealthy munitions. But General Bond was a brooder and a worrier. My weights man talked to my structures man.
Above all. We trusted our people and gave them the kind of authority that was unique in aerospace manufacturing. They were a check and balance on the work of the shop. That was also unique with us. We used about eighty shop people on this project. In most companies quality control reported to the head of the shop. Our manufacturing group consisted of the machine shop people.
Each airplane required its own special tools and parts. Our workers were all specialists in specific sections of the airplane: I did my best to look hurt and appeased Bobby by even raising my right hand in a solemn oath.
I kept Alan Brown. I told myself. He pounded on my desk and accused me of taking some of my best workers off his Have Blue airplane to work on some rumored secret Navy project. Our inspectors stayed right on the floor with the machinists and fabricators. We could both go to jail if I told him what was really up.
Bob put together a shop crew of thirty-five managers and engineers who worked twelve hours a day. On either side he placed two tractor trailer vans and hung off one end a large sheet of canvas.
He rolled out the plane after dark to a nearby blast fence about three hundred yards from the Burbank Airport main runway. Murphy had Beswick. I surrendered. But Bob Murphy. There sat a few startled Navy commanders. To Murphy.
Never before in the. There seemed to be no way we would be ready to fly by December 1. He began pounding on the door until it finally opened a crack. Meanwhile an independent engineering review team. But how could we run engine tests?
Murphy figured out a way. Because Have Blue was about the most classified project in the free world. It was a jerry-built open-ended hangar that shielded Have Blue from view.
They had nothing but praise for our effort and progress. What else can I do? The Navy project is top secret and Bond has no need to know. Our workers hit the bricks just as Have Blue was going into final assembly. Bond squeezed my arm. An Air Force general seeing their secret project was as bad as giving a blueprint to the Russians.
Before I could think up another lie. Murphy himself put in the ejection seat and flight controls. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.
This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project.
The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. We had lived and died by fourteen basic operating rules that Kelly had written forty years earlier. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. They had worked for him and they worked for me: He should have the authority to make quick decisions regarding technical.
The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works. There must be a minimum number of reports required. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled. Commercial bid procedures are often better than military ones. Use a small number of good people.
But all of us sensed that the old Skunk Works valued independence was doomed to become a nostalgic memory of yesteryear. There must be absolute trust between the military project organization and the contractor with very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This was an insult to our cherished way of doing things. He can and must test it in the initial stages.
Although most of our cherished rules were now in tatters. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and the industry. Very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided in order to make schedule recovery in the face of failures. You had the cream of the crop in management delivering the goods for you.
The Skunk Works program manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects.
The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to in advance of contracting. Push basic inspection responsibility back to the subcontractors and vendors. No one nowadays gains access without special clearances that include a polygraph test. It is now a sprawling facility. Head on. Winds are usually calmest then. Kelly had jokingly nicknamed this godforsaken place Paradise Ranch. I watch nervously as Have Blue emerges from the guarded cavity inside its hangar and is rolled out.
I was a Skunk Works rookie and this base. Such paranoia has kept our most guarded national defense secrets secret. The plane was now in the hands of our flight test crews.
They noticed a six-foot steel shop tool cabinet. Bill claimed that flying such a mess earned him the right to double. Seventy-two hours before the first test flight. Soviet satellites made regular passes. The engine was removed.
And it worked perfectly. It is a flying black wedge. Back then. Even though the test site was in a remote location. I agreed. To Bill. He and I have been through tight spots on other test programs. But my anxieties are closer to home: I was sure Park was about to become a grease spot on the tarmac.
Kelly Johnson is watching intently as the prototype taxis past us heading for the end of the runway. He left three-inch-deep heel imprints in the sand. We always polished off a hardearned success with a boisterous party where Kelly challenged all comers to an arm-wrestling contest. But the specially coated glass will keep radar beams from picking up his helmeted head.
Once he ejected from an SR that began to flip over on takeoff. The sharp edges and extreme angular shape of our small prototype create whirling tornadoes and make the airplane a flying vortex generator. Bill pushes on the throttle. Adding to the tensions of this day. I give the thumbs-up sign to Bill Park in the cockpit.
But we never had a mishap on a first test flight—a catastrophe that would send us back to the drawing board with our tails between our legs. To be able to fly at all. Nearly Bill is damned thorough and damned lucky. I am wired. The airplane has a muffled sound because its engines are hidden behind special radar-absorbing grids. To stay stealthy Have Blue has no afterburner.
Bill Park fires the twin engines. Kelly Johnson is standing at my side. The little airplane hears me. Other Voices Bill Park Most people think of test-flying from old movies. Slow as a jumbo jet a hundred times its weight. The next phase would be to test Have Blue against highly calibrated radar systems and precisely measure its stealthiness from every angle and altitude and be challenged by the most sophisticated radar systems in the world. All the avionics were surplus store red tags.
Bill goes full throttle. We built two Have Blue prototypes in record time. I remember this Air Force colonel came down to the test site and asked me how much we spent on this program. But just hanging there. Then the Air Force would evaluate the results and determine whether or not to go ahead with full-scale production. Damn it. By the time the mountains come clear.