Book Review #6: Skunk Works
If you want to leapfrog technology ahead 50 years you need four things:
- Enough money to not have it be a primary concern
- A clear enemy/ideal to defeat (e.g. Russia)
- Lots of really hardworking, super-smart people
- And the freedom to run after “crazy” ideas
In the 1940s, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson godfathered a division inside Lockheed that eventually came to be known as the “Skunk Works.” It was in this hulky warehouse just off the main runway at the Burbank Airport where the coolest 21st Century Airplanes were dreamed up, prototyped, and made—midway through the 20th Century.
They saw problems, then they made solutions, with very little regard to “possible.” That outfit was responsible for the U-2 spy plane (which flies at 70,000 feet and is still in service), the SR-71 Blackbird (instead of trying to evade missiles, they just made it faster than missiles), and the F117 Nighthawk (the first real stealth fighter), to name a few.
Ben Rich, who took the helm upon Johnson’s retirement, penned this book outlining 40+ years of American, business, and technological history. It reads both like an old guy telling stories to his grandkids and like a visitor from the future sharing what it’s like to not be limited by the rules of normal humans.
Read it. Learn about one of the most effective government/private industry partnerships on record. And, maybe, lose yourself in a few moments of greatness.
And at the height of production, in the mid-1960’s, we employed a huge force of nearly eight thousand workers and delivered one Blackbird per month. While we were trying to build that first airplane, the unions were giving Kelly fits because he ignored seniority rules and chose the best workers, so Kelly had the union heads cleared and walked them through the plant and showed them the airplane. He said, “Gents, this airplane is vital for our nation’s security. The president of the United States is counting on it. Please don’t get in my way here.” They backed off. (216)