My visit inside Skunk Works

skunkworks.jpg
Photo by Stephen Trimble



PALMDALE, Calif. — I suppose getting invited to enter Skunk Works shouldn’t make much sense. The secret-squirrel types like it that way. You can ask the public relations office repeatedly for several years, as I did, for a site visit, and get nowhere. Then one day you ask for a phone interview about a semi-obscure project, and — voila! — they ask you to come to Palmdale to see it in the hangar. If the Skunk Works organization has a motto, it should be: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you. … Really, don’t call us.”Actually getting inside the Skunk Works site is fairly straightforward.There’s a “visitor control” building, which also includes a bank andPalmdale’s coolest gift shop. I gave the clerk my driver’s license andshe gave me a visitor badge. The PR representative met me outside thedoor, and we drove inside the sprawling complex. Lockheed used to buildthe L-1011 Tristar here. Skunk Works arrived only in 1994, relocated tothe desert from Burbank.

I had come to see the Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA), andinterview the program manager. On paper, this is a project withenormous significance to the future of aerospace manufacturing, butI’ll post more about that later. The aircraft I saw inside the hangaris a Fairchild Dornier 328Jet modified with a widened, mid- andaft-fuselage and all-new vertical tail. It is about to receive anX-plane designation from the Air Force Material Command as the nextaircraft in the long-dormant XC-series for experimental cargo planes.

Walking around a Skunk Works hangar can be tricky. You never know what you might see. As we turned to leave, I looked up at a makeshift wall dividing the hangar. Just over the 30ft-tall barrier, I could clearly see the bulbous top of an enormous aircraft. It could only be one thing. “Hey, that’s the P791!” I said. A worried look crossed the unfailingly polite program manager’s face. “Is he supposed to see that?” he asked the PR rep. She assured him it was okay. He smirked at me and said, “We might not have let you leave.” I decided to interpret this as a joke, and laughed.

The hangar is a paradise for aviation enthusiasts. The entrance is full of models showing off many of the publicly-acknowledged Skunk Works projects. (I looked for one marked “Aurora”, but there was nothing. Maybe it was being cleaned.) There was a huge floor model for Abe Karem’s new optimum speed tiltrotor, for which Skunk Works is involved. I noted that the model designated the aircraft as the “TR-75″. Someone alert Andreas Parsch at designation-systems.net.

Even walking down the hallway in the Skunk Works’ offices is an unusual experience, at least for a journalist unaccustomed to classified working environments. Every door is adorned with small speakers that emit white noise into the hallway. The annoying sound prevents passers-by from inadvertently over-hearing classified conversations going on inside.

In short, Skunk Works doesn’t disappoint. Exotic aircraft really do poke out from behind corners. You really do see and hear things you’ve never seen before. Everything around you reminds this is a special place. It is what it is, and that’s brilliant.

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12 Responses to My visit inside Skunk Works

  1. Addison 27 March, 2009 at 1:23 pm #

    Boy you are one lucky man!

  2. Vladimir 27 March, 2009 at 1:38 pm #

    You lucky guy!
    Do post about the ACCA

  3. J3 27 March, 2009 at 2:36 pm #

    Steve – When will there by more? What a grat opportunity.

  4. alloycowboy 27 March, 2009 at 3:06 pm #

    Very nice, but why does Skunk Works still need that veil of secrecy? It’s not like anyone else can afford to else can afford to build those weapon systems. Even if they could afford it they don’t have the infrastructure to do it.

  5. Steve 27 March, 2009 at 9:07 pm #

    Do me a favor and take me with you next time. I can be your assistant or something.

  6. airplanejim 27 March, 2009 at 9:21 pm #

    “I suppose getting invited to enter Skunk Works shouldn’t make much sense.”

    Of course not! Your job is to tell everything you know about aircraft. Their job is to keep everything they do secret until the “proper” time.

  7. Kenneth 30 March, 2009 at 7:56 pm #

    You need to get a lottery ticket with that kind of luck glad for you enjoyed the report Ken

  8. Peter 31 March, 2009 at 6:27 pm #

    So…..

    what did you buy at the gift shop?

    // got my NSA coffee mug at their museum gift shop

  9. Intex 31 March, 2009 at 6:44 pm #

    // got my NSA coffee mug at their museum gift shop

    I just gotta ask: was it made in China?

  10. pookie 31 March, 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    I hear that the Lockeed Martin management of personnel and projects is rife with office politics.
    I hear that this leads to an inhospitable working environment, an inefficient process, and unnecessarily expensive products.

    Is that a result of needing to work in secret or a symptom of defense contracting in general, is Boeing like that?
    Is it a continuation of a culture created by their merger where the new company had too much management trying to preserve itself?

    Is this true?
    Does anyone know?

  11. Dave 4 May, 2009 at 4:53 pm #

    Nice.

  12. Bert Murray 28 June, 2010 at 3:51 pm #

    Pookie

    I have work for Lockheed, then Martin Marietta, and now Lockheed Martin since 1977. Like any big company there is some office politics, but for the most part the place is very efficient.

    Since 10,000 baby boomers are retiring every year, there is not too many engineers or management. LM, like most defense corporations and the entire US needs more scientist and engineers.

    Bert Murray
    Systems Staff Engineer

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