Robert M. Gross, the chairman of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, told a design engineer one day, “Kelly, you’ve been bothering me now for seven years for an engineering experimental department. I don’t think much will come of this, but take it on.”
That was 1943. And that was all Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson needed to hear. He already had the design of the P-38 Lightning fighter to his credit—and several other prominent projects to his credit as well. Now he could pursue other projects. Shortly after that brief conversation, the XP-80 Experimental Group was formed.
That experimental department has never looked back. The department was later called Advanced Development Projects—now known as the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works—and it continues to redefine flight today. Looking back at what has come to fruition throughout Skunk Works’ seventy years, a specific path that defines the Skunk Works way of doing business can be clearly seen.
First, invest in independent research and development to explore technologies. Next, find the right partner to put promising research on contract. Then, if the technology performs well and matches the customer’s need, launch a project into development.
Unlike the mystery that shrouds Skunk Works, the business model, coupled with a now famous set of Fourteen Rules and Practices that Johnson developed for managing projects, is not a secret. But it is something special.
The images here represent just a snapshot of some of the Skunk Works’ leaders and aircraft that pushed, and continue to push, the envelope of aviation.
Heather Kelso is a program communicator for the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.
Skunk Works and the skunk logo are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and in many other countries, in connection with a wide variety of goods and services.