There are conflicting observations about the birth of Skunk Works.
On paper, the specifications read like works of pure fantasy: a spy plane capable of taking crystal-clear photographs from 70,000 feet. A Mach-3 aircraft that could fly continuously for hours on end and literally outrun missiles. An attack aircraft that rendered itself invisible to enemy radar.
But Lockheed’s chief engineer, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, simply fielded all requests and relayed to his handpicked band of Skunk Works employees what needed to be done.
And then, as explained in interesting piece appeared on Lockheed Martin.com, they would deliver. Impossible missions always were, and continue to be, their particular area of expertise.
Ben Rich and “Kelly” Johnson set the origin as June 1943 in Burbank, California; they relate essentially the same chronology in their autobiographies. Theirs is the official Lockheed Skunk Works story:
The Air Tactical Service Command (ATSC) of the Army Air Force met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express its need for a jet fighter. A rapidly growing German jet threat gave Lockheed an opportunity to develop an airframe around the most powerful jet engine that the allied forces had access to, the British Goblin. Lockheed was chosen to develop the jet because of its past interest in jet development and its previous contracts with the Air Force. One month after the ATSC and Lockheed meeting, the young engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson and other associate engineers hand delivered the initial XP-80 proposal to the ATSC. Two days later the go-ahead was given to Lockheed to start development and the Skunk Works was born, with Kelly Johnson at the helm. The formal contract for the XP-80 did not arrive at Lockheed until October 16, 1943; some four months after work had already begun. This would prove to be a common practice within the Skunk Works. Many times a customer would come to the Skunk Works with a request and on a handshake the project would begin, with no contracts in place, no official submittal process. Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works team designed and built the XP-80 in only 143 days, seven fewer than was required.
When Kelly Johnson became the Vice President of then Lockheed Advanced Development Projects (ADP) [today Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs] in 1958, their first offices were, more or less, uninhabitable. They were located near to a plastic factory that created a very pungent odor indeed. The stench was so bad that one of the engineers, Irv Culver, began to answer the Intra-Lockheed phone as “Skonk Works!”
This name came from a popular comic strip “L’il Abner” by Al Capp. Within this strip, Big Barnsmell’s Skonk Works — spelled with an “o” — was where Kickapoo Joy Juice was brewed. The name felt very appropriate indeed. The nickname was soon leaked out and Lockheed ordered it to be changed to “Skunk Works” to avoid potential legal problems over copyright.
This name quickly spread through the aerospace community and became a very popular nickname for R and D offices in general. However, The Skunk Works would always be associated with the Lockheed facility. It was here at this facility that the F-104 Starfighter, the infamous spyplanes the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird, the first ever stealth aircraft, the F-117, and even the fictional Darkstar for Top Gun: Maverick were conceived.
Not only Kelly Johnson had been the “head skunk” for 40 years at the Skunk Works. In 1955 in fact, he was approached by the CIA to initiate construction for the secret airbase at Groom Lake, Nevada. This later came to be known as Area 51 and was the location for the final flight testing of the iconic Lockheed U-2.
Kelly was known for saying …if it flies high enough and fast enough, they won’t be able to see it!
Photo credit: Jarek Tuszyński and Jonathan Cutrer from San Angelo, Texas, United States via Wikipedia