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.
My visit inside Skunk Works
By Stephen Trimble on 27 March, 2009 in Uncategorised
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