At Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works division, top secret, seemingly impossible projects are turned into functioning aircraft—sometimes over the course of just a few months.
But how is it possible that a small team can do something that normally requires entire companies of people and years of work at any other lab? They use a radical, rapid-design method known as “skunking,” named after the division that invented it.
That’s right. The Skunk Works not only created fabled flyers like the SR-71 Blackhawk Stealth Jet but also crafted a revolutionary design method that streamlines the process into an unprecedented timeline—shattering standards for the aeronautics industry.
And when they’ve finally got their plane off the ground, they do it again. And again. Here’s a look at how.
Skunking 101: Prototyping At Skunk Works
Skunking is all about getting a prototype off the ground as soon as possible—without necessarily worrying about absolute success.
“We have built vehicles that we knew were going to crash,” Steve Justice, the former director of Skunk Works, says on their podcast. “Because we just wanted to explore what’s on the edge of the envelope.”
When you’re skunking, putting an aircraft that isn’t 100 percent done in the air isn’t about showing off to your bosses or meeting absurd deadlines set by outside clients. It’s about failing (in the best way possible) and learning as much as you can from that. It makes sense, too. What’s faster? Discovering a critical flaw because you painstakingly calculated its possibility or literally seeing the flaw in action as your first draft careens back to Earth because of it?
And that’s not to say the Skunk Works team isn’t doing painstaking calculations. Apart from representing some of the brightest minds in the industry, Skunk Works members come with specific ideas, initiatives, and concepts in mind for whatever project they’re working on. It’s all about meeting impossible goals, so having something to offer is an absolute must, according to one Skunk Works team member.
“Whatever thing you came up with, if it didn’t contribute to one of those requirements, it wasn’t making it onto the plane,” she said about one of the team’s first standard-setting projects. “Everything had to buy its way on.”
With So Much On The Line, Skunking Is The Only Option
These hyper-strict requirements, lean teams and resources, and equally impossible goals and timelines are all because of one thing: Skunk Works takes on projects that MUST be done.
Their story begins with a mission to combat a WWII German fighter jet so fast that none of the Allied planes or gunners were fast enough to catch it.
One Lockheed engineer, the Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson, had an idea for how they could beat the Nazis’ groundbreaking plane. But neither Lockheed nor the government had any resources to spare because of the total war effort going on. Yet it wasn’t that simple—Johnson and Lockheed knew that every day his plane wasn’t in the air, there were Allied soldiers, prisoners, and families dying under the Third Reich.
The biggest problem, though, was that making a jet that could beat the fastest one around usually took years. Johnson and his newly-formed, yet-to-be-named Skunk Works team knew that wasn’t going to work.
So they skunked.
The Skunk Works’ Golden Rule is to get to a prototype. This way, they can get down to the last 10 percent that’s actually going to take some serious innovation. Their second Golden Rule? Assume it can be done.
When you don’t sweat the basic details (because you’re a crack team who can knock them out in record time), you have time—however limited—to apply all of your brightest minds to the real task: Doing something that’s never been done before.
From there on, it’s brilliant thinking, ego-free collaboration, and building, building, building.
Finally, you end up with a true invention, an aircraft that flies like nothing else in human history.
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