Impact During the Cold War Years

Thesis: During the Cold War, Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Projects (better known as Skunk Works) pioneered, developed and produced several key technologies that kept the United States on the forefront of military aviation. The impact these technologies had shaped the United States foreign policy and were pivotal in bankrupting the Soviet Union.

The Cold War began rapidly after World War II ended. Briefly: it was brought about by mutual mistrust and opposite viewpoints regarding the structuring of post-war Europe. With the defeat of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany and Emperor Hirohito's Japan there was no longer a mutual enemy and as a result within two years the Cold War is considered to have begun. This war was waged through espionage, political wrangling and strategic coalitions such as NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact, strategic weapon deployments causing incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the currying of political favor of nations like Egypt through money and military supplies. This war ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR which followed two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What role did Skunk Works play during this time period?

Skunk Works Organization

A reading of the history of Skunk Works quickly leads one to realize this place was more than an aircraft assembly line existing due to political maneuverings in congress. This was a place of ingenuity, a place of innovation and very much an embodiment of the American way that results in amazing inventions. This stems from the founding leadership of one man, Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, perhaps the best known aeronautical engineer in history. Johnson is the only man or woman to ever win the Collier Trophy twice, once in 1959 for the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and again in 1964 for the Lockheed YF-12, the precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird. Boyne writes, "the culture he created became self-sustaining; after his retirement in 1975 the Skunk Works continued to function in the style that he demanded, even though led by men of very different personalities." [1]

Kelly Johnson and Don Palmer, a friend at the University of Michigan's wind tunnel, set down the now famous fourteen points in the 1950s. Following is those fourteen points, with comments from Lockheed's 1992 paper, The Skunk Works Approach to Aircraft Development and Support, in italics.

1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects.

2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the customer and contractor.

3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 26% compared to the so-called normal systems). Bureaucracy makes unnecessary work and must be controlled brutally.

4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.

5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly. Responsible management does not require massive technical and information systems.

6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. Don't have the books ninety days late and don't surprise the customer with sudden overruns. Responsible management does require operation within the resources available.

7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.

8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don't duplicate so much inspection.

9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn't, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles. Critical, if new technology and the attendant risks are to be rationally accommodated.

10. The specification applying to the hardware must be agreed to in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended. Standard specifications inhibit new technology and innovation and are frequently obsolete.

11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn't have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.

12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor with very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.

13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.

14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.


The efficiency and self-accountability of Skunk Works consistently led to great results from a financial perspective as well. "On several occasions, Kelly actually gave money back to the government.." this would happen from bringing in a project under budget or at the opposite end of the spectrum from realizing a project wasn't going to work and canceling the project to return unused funds.[3] This is in stark contrast to the widely known Soviet practice in all aspects of industry of utilizing 100% of the budget and just barely meeting the government mandated quotas in everything they did.

The XF-104 Starfighter - Showcasing the trapezoidal wing essential for high speeds but also low speed control. [4]

The F-104 was a highly maneuverable Mach 2 interceptor built to win control of the skies over Korea against Soviet MiGs. [5] In 1952 Johnson went on a tour of the Korean battlefields to talk with combat pilots and find out what was needed. They wanted speed and altitude to deny the enemy solace above their current flight ceiling which they sorely needed since the US held a 10 to 1 advantage in engagements that actually occurred. Kelly returned to the United States and set out to design a faster and higher flying fighter jet than any other in the world, he did this when no requirement existed officially for this type of aircraft. A quick visit to the Pentagon was the answer. Kelly showed his proposal to General Don Putt, Don Yates, and Colonel Bruce Holloway, a short while later the requirements were formalized and work began on what would become the F-104 Starfighter. [6]

Being the first operational aircraft capable of flight at twice the speed of sound has it's difficulties, no wind tunnels existed that could provide fast enough speeds for testing aerodynamics. The thin wing, tail, and air intakes all needed to be tested via some sort of cheap modeling method to hit upon the best design as it was impossible financially to build and test hundreds of real planes even before test pilot safety was factored in. Johnson visited the Air Research and Development Command in Baltimore and discussed this problem with General Earle Partridge. When Patridge asked what could he do to help, Johnson replied that having a lot of 5-inch rockets would be great to use as bodies for attaching and testing the various wing variations. A few weeks later Skunk Works was sitting on over 400 rockets that became their open air, single use, wind tunnels. [7] 

Considerable variations in the tail were studied before the classic T-tail was settled on. [4]

Such unique design and testing methods yielded some incredible results. The United States was soon joined by other NATO nations flying this plane such as Norway, West Germany, and Canada. A plane which set the world altitude record at 91,243 feet, a world speed record of 1,404.19 miles an hour and seven records for time to climb to altitude all in 1958. The following year the F-104 repeated with an altitude record in six figures of 103,395 feet. This was the first aircraft that Johnson was awarded a Collier trophy for. The combat pilots wants had been met. [8]

U-2R, one of the many variants over the years since the U-2 first debuted. [9]

The U-2 was really the first spy plane, but more correctly it is a reconnaissance aircraft that has continually been improved in flight characteristics and sensor packages since it's introduction. The initial U-2 development resulted from a direct order from President Eisenhower, "who was desperate to breach the Iron Curtain and discover the Russians' potential for launching a surprise, Pearl Harbor-style nuclear attack, which the Joint Chiefs warned could be imminent."  Skunk Works delivered on this order and the U-2 provided crucial intelligence during four years of flights over the Soviet Union until Gary Powers was shot down in 1960. [10]

In 1953 Lockheed was made aware of the need for the type of aircraft that eventually became the U-2. This aircraft must be able to fly above 70,000 feet to be at an altitude higher than vapor trails will form, be able to fly over 4,000 miles, and do all this while taking accurate pictures of the ground below. Skunk Works initially looked at using the F-104 platform with modifications but preliminary work made it obvious an entirely new design was needed. Johnson was grilled on the design they came up with for three days in Washington, this covered every part of the process in great detail due to the skepticism of the proposed design. Kelly Johnson was then asked what made him think that Skunk Works could build twenty airplanes with spare parts for $22 million and do it all in 8 months. General Donald Putt replied on his behalf, "He has proven it three times already - on the F-80, F-80A, and F-104." [11]

As can be imagined security for such a project was strict but when you, "functioned as the CIA's unofficial 'toy makers'" this is expected. [11] For the U-2 project security was so strict Johnson would arrive home to find checks totaling $1,256,000 in his mailbox after Skunk Works had submitted their first vouchers showing progress on the project. Other contractors that were utilized for the project thought they were doing work for a company called CLJ, Johnson's initials. Secrecy was so tight that in 1955 the Air Force issued a proposal for the same aircraft that Skunk Works was developing, the proposal was in fact a copy of the original presentation Johnson had made to the government that had somehow worked it's way through the bureaucracy of the USAF into a design challenge. The problem was quickly rectified but serves to really illustrate how tight security was. [12]

Once the U-2 became operational the CIA was initially given control over all of it's flights and worked closely with Lockheed during this time. U-2 pilots were actually paid through a Lockheed account that was filled with laundered CIA money. [13] Marty Knutson was the first pilot selected to fly in the U-2 program and flew the third U-2 mission over the Soviet Union on July 8th, 1956. For the next 25 years Knutson flew the U-2 for the CIA all the while gathering crucial intelligence. En route to a fly-over of Leningrad he flew over Engels Airfield and photographed thirty Bison bombers. Initially this was thought to prove the bomber gap, a feared advantage that the Soviets had over America, further flights over the entire country could find no more Bison bombers and fears were allayed. These first flights were obviously hitting the gold mines of intelligence on the USSR and it showed in their diplomatic responses and threats. After Sputnik launched U-2 pilots were tasked with covering the missile and nuclear test sites to determine how much of the Soviet bragging over ICBM capabilities was real. The pilots began seeing what were determined to be surface-to-air missile sites spring up around bases and knew it was only a matter of time before they would achieve the altitude necessary to hit the U-2. In desperation the Soviets were stripping down MiG-21s and using them as kamikaze planes attempting to ram the U-2s down. [14]

Aerial reconnaissance photo by U-2, as shown courtesy USAF

" The missile crisis began on Oct. 16, 1962, when President Kennedy learned from analysis of U.S. reconnaissance flights that the Soviet Union had secretly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba." [15] Throughout the crisis U-2 flights were part of multi-pronged covered that helped Kennedy negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
A-12, precursor to the famous SR-71 Blackbird [16]

As Ben Rich states Skunk Works, " forte was building a small number of very technologically advanced airplanes for highly secret missions. What came off our drawing boards provided key strategic and technological advantages for the United States, since our enemies had no way to stop our overflights. Principle customers were the [CIA] and the [USAF]." [17] In no aircraft was this more evident than the SR-71 Blackbird. It was for the YF-12, one of the many versions before the SR-71, that Johnson received his second Collier trophy. Similar to the F-104 project, in which Johnson received his first Collier trophy, Skunk Works recognized the need for a plane of this type before the government officially did. Skunk Works knew they needed more speed and more altitude, from this they completed studies to determine a needed altitude of 80,000-85,000 feet with speeds over Mach 3 plus the usual flight stability necessary to take pictures from 90,000 feet up. On top of that it should be able to refuel in the air and have a low radar cross section. The government this time held a contest but still Lockheed emerged the winner on August 29, 1959 with the A-12 design. [18]

Creating such an advanced aircraft had a laundry list of issues to overcome. Spot welds in the made in the summer failed because of chlorine added into the water at treatment plants to combat bacterial growth, when this was used to wash the welds it induced failure, it was discovered pure water was needed at such high operating temperatures and speeds. Drills had to be imported from West Germany that could drill titanium efficiently, both to have lower drill costs and to preserve the titanium which was a very limited resource (much of which was even imported from Russia through fake corporations). Skunk Works utilized color coding and oddly shaped connections to make sure everything was put together correctly since it was discovered 10% of such a large workforce would be color blind. Hydraulic fluid that operated above 600 degrees Fahrenheit had to be invented from a Penn State fluid modified with seven additional ingredients. Special electrical wiring had to be made with asbestos used to insulate the very hottest sections. This is just a sampling of all the obstacles surmounted. [19]

The SR-71 set many records on it's way to being an intelligence gathering juggernaut. Speed records of 2,189 miles per hour, absolute altitude and horizontal flight at 86,000 feet, transatlantic and transcontinental records. [20] Some of the publicly acknowledged intelligence successes that the SR-71 has had include overflights of the Middle East during the Yom Kippur war that provided Henry Kissinger with photos he showed to the Israelis to prove that the United States knew they were lying. Hundreds of flights have been made over Red China and as the Cold War has come to a close these flights in particular have most assuredly taken on a greater importance. [21] President Johnson used the SR-71 to gain intelligence on North Vietnam regarding the possibility of them having surface to surface missiles given to them by the Russians. The SR-71 overflights revealed no missiles after covering the entirety of North Vietnam and a very grateful President Johnson bestowed the Medal of Freedom to Skunk Works head, Kelly Johnson. [22]


From the beginning days of Skunk Works designing and building combat planes for the military through the evolution of the company into a designer and manufacturer of both combat and spy planes their work has been revolutionary. United States Air Force pilots from Korean and Vietnam wars no doubt appreciated a company tremendously that not only listened to their needs but then delivered on what was asked for. Presidents from Eisenhower to Johnson and beyond have again and again relied on intelligence brought back by Skunk Works aircraft, namely the U-2 and SR-71. These were crucial contributions from such a small company, when compared to the size of the United States military industrial complex as a whole, and as Walter Boyne states, "[it] can be said that the combination of the Lockheed intelligence-gathering resources, including the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes..provided information on a scale beyond the conception of the Soviet Union. This vast intelligence superiority enabled the United States to meter its defense expenditures at a rate that allowed the civilian economy to prosper as well. The Soviet Union did not have comparable systems, and its military expenditures were too much for the inherently faulty Communist economy to bear." [23] Much of this success can be contributed to the vision and leadership of Kelly Johnson who, "excelled in giving the United States weapon systems that were in advance of those of competitors, sometimes by by and incredible margin of thirty or forty years..” [24] However Ben Rich, Johnson's hand-picked successor has arguably continued this success into the post-Cold War era leading such innovative developments as the first truly stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk and other impressive projects. As time passes and historians judge it will be undoubtedly seen that Skunk Works innovation and brilliance has continued to serve the United States interests well beyond the Cold War. 


[1] Walter, Boyne, Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story, 1999. pg 177-179

[2] Walter, Boyne, Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story, 1999. pg 179-183

[3] Ben, Rich, Skunk Works: My Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, 1994. pg. 9

[4] Jay, Miller, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works: The Official History, 1995. pg. 66

[5] Ben, Rich, Skunk Works: My Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, 1994. pg. 8

[6] Clarence, Johnson, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, 1989. pg. 107-109

[7] Clarence, Johnson, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, 1989. pg. 109

[8] Clarence, Johnson, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, 1989. pg. 113

[9] Jay, Miller, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works: The Official History, 1995. pg. 95

[10] Ben, Rich, Skunk Works: My Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, 1994. pg. 8-9

[11] Clarence, Johnson, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, 1989. pg. 120-121

Clarence, Johnson, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, 1989. pg. 123-124

Ben, Rich, Skunk Works: My Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, 1994. pg. 120

[14] Ben, Rich, Skunk Works: My Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, 1994. pg. 146-151

[15] Lewis, Anthony, ABROAD AT HOME; The Guns of January, 1990. pg 1

[16] Jay, Miller, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works: The Official History, 1995. pg. 122

[17] Ben, Rich, Skunk Works: My Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, 1994. pg. 7

[18] Clarence, Johnson, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, 1989. pg. 134-136

[19] Clarence, Johnson, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, 1989. pg. 142-144

[20] Clarence, Johnson, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, 1989. pg. 150

[21] Walter, Boyne, Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story, 1999. pg 401-403

[22] Ben, Rich, Skunk Works: My Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, 1994. pg. 238-239

[23] Walter, Boyne, Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story, 1999. pg xxii

[24] Walter, Boyne, Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story, 1999. pg 177-178