Looking back, it might seem like the Allies won World War II without a hitch—but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There were moments when the only thing that stood between victory and loss were the intelligent minds of a few important people. And some of those fine minds could’ve been found at Lockheed Martin’s enigmatic Skunk Works division.
They’ve produced the fastest jets the world has ever seen. They’ve made stealth planes that could fly without being picked up by radar before anyone else could. Today, they work on top-secret technology the public has yet to imagine. But just what is the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works?
Here’s their story and how YOU could actually become a part of one of the world’s most advanced research and engineering teams.
The Skunk Works Story: Saving The Allies From Defeat In WWII
In the heat of the European campaign in WWII, the Nazis unveiled a new technology that put thousands of lives in danger: The ME-262 fighter jet, which was known among troops and engineers as “the Whizzer.”
The Germans were outgunning and outrunning everything the allies had in the skies. There was no time to spare. But nothing in development was even close to ready. The Allies needed an answer and it came in the form of a Lockheed Martin engineer named Kelly Johnson. He had plans to build something unlike anything the world had ever seen—something even faster than the German fighter jets.
The government and Lockheed Martin had a problem, though. Everything was booked. All the money, buildings, factories, and even engineers were entirely occupied producing bombers, engines, and anything else that an all-out war demanded. So, they told Johnson, as one modern Skunk Works engineer described it, you can do it, but with, “No people, no facilities, and no equipment. Good luck!”
Instead of a lab or a dedicated team, Lockheed gave him a tent.
The First Skunk Work
They immediately began work on what would eventually become the Lockheed XP-80 (aka The Shooting Star). Setting a precedent for future Skunk Works projects, the effort was entirely centered around a few simple goals. Whatever they made had to be meaner and faster than the German plane—and it had to be on the battlefield yesterday.
This is where Johnson’s “assume it can be done” mindset came into play. He created an environment where all ideas were legal tender, as long as they contributed to one of those goals. It’s an atmosphere that persists in the Skunk Works today; as the new director of special programs, Renee Pasman, puts it, “When people feel their leadership supports them, they’re more comfortable taking risks.”
And take risks they did. “We’ve built vehicles that we knew were going to crash, because we wanted to explore what was on the edge of the envelope,” says Steve Justice, former director of Skunk Works.
Working in absolute secrecy, Johnson’s team built the Shooting Star. It was faster. It was more agile. And it was ready in 145 days. Luckily, it wasn’t really needed for WWII and was quickly outclassed in the following conflicts. Also luckily, the Skunk Works team was the one outclassing it.
They soon built the SR-71 Stealth Bomber (you know, the one that looks like a spaceship), the Starfire jet, and the world famous F-22 Raptor.
They Still Answer The Call To Innovation
A lot has changed about Skunk Works. Today, they’re an essential part of Lockheed Martin’s operations. Their team is made up of engineers, designers, scientists, physicists, and more who work together to build the next big thing in aviation, whatever it may be. Plus, they’ve upgraded from a tent to a top-of-the-line research and testing facility.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the Skunk Works philosophy. They still work toward impossible goals in practical ways. Nothing is wasted. Every idea and all people have to buy their way onto the team by showing that what they can do helps make the impossible possible.
Do you think you’ve got what it takes to work on the most advanced team in aeronautics? Check out fun facts, videos, and job opportunities from Lockheed Martin on WayUp right now!