Inside Skunk Works, Lockheed’s super-secret weapons facility

Back on the ground on the corner of Sierra Highway and N Avenue is an empty lot with a flagpole in the middle. Jet spotters and spies from around the world gather here to catch a glimpse as the latest, top-secret aircraft soar over Skunk Works, Lockheed Martin’s research and development facility. It’s her only chance to see her; There is no view of the runway or the planes sitting on the tarmac.

Lockheed invited a select group of reporters for just a few hours last month to tour the vast facility and, for the first time in eight years, to lift the veil behind its magical workshop. Skunk Works produced the U-2 spy plane that could – and still does – collect images from 70,000 feet away; the SR-71 Blackbird, a Mach 3 aircraft that could fly at speeds above Mach 3; and the F-117 Nighthawk, the first stealth fighter.

For defense tech journalists and aviation nerds, this is the equivalent of a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, but think of supersonic drones instead of perennial gobstoppers.

Officially – with a wink – the reason for the visit was to cut the ribbon for a new, ultra-modern factory on the 539 hectare campus. But unofficially, Lockheed Martin is in the same boat as other contractors: he’s trying to increase support for more Pentagon deals amid flatter defense budgets.

Byron Callan, managing director at Capital Alpha Partners, said Lockheed had many reasons to showcase its facilities. Skunk Works, for example, is investing heavily in digital engineering and looking to catch up with rivals Boeing and Northrop Grumman, all of whom are vying for roles in the Air Force’s next fighter jet program known as Next Generation Air Dominance.

“So many of these things are done in secret program settings,” he said. “It’s probably just a way of saying, ‘Hey, we’re competitive, we’ve invested in some of these areas.” “

Skunk den

Skunk Works has been a legend since its inception in 1943 after the Army’s Air Tactical Service Command asked Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to design and manufacture the country’s first fighter jet in the middle of World War II.

Lockheed selected Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, a young engineer, to lead the XP-80 program. But there was one problem: the company had no space for the project at its Burbank facility.

So Kelly’s team rented a big top to work on the project and delivered the fighter in just 143 days. According to tradition, the tent smelled pungent because it was next to a plastic factory in Burbank. The name Skunk Works was born.

Almost 80 years later, it’s much more high-tech than high-top. Skunk Works has just completed a 215,000 square foot advanced manufacturing facility capable of manufacturing aircraft for the U.S. and its allies in anticipation of future conflicts.

The new facility makes up a small part of Skunk Works’ footprint in the desert. Set on table-flat property surrounded by sun-bleached highways where the temperature rose to 105 degrees during the visit, Skunk Works is actually a collection of 58 buildings spread over 2.4 million square feet.

Upon arrival at the visitor center, guests are guided through the campus – sometimes in a van, often through underground tunnels, always under strict observation – so as not to see too much. About 85 percent of the work done here is classified.

The skunk’s den is the only unclassified room at headquarters. The modern room looks like an ordinary conference room. There is a large conference table and additional seating. But this is also crammed with around 60 toaster-sized models on exhibition stands on the glass walls.

There is an inconspicuous briefcase in one of the showcases. It’s the one Johnson used when visiting CIA headquarters to show off an early model of the A-12, a predecessor to the SR-71.

But despite all the achievements shown, Lockheed has seen some problems and criticism in recent years. Legislators continue to raise the alarm over the cost and performance of the Tri-Service F-35, an aircraft born at Skunk Works that became the most expensive program in Pentagon history.

And despite rising revenue, largely coming from contracts with the U.S. government, Lockheed stock performance has struggled to regain a foothold since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The long-time company boss and acting CFO Kenneth Possenriede recently retired abruptly in August citing personal reasons, and its announcement coincided with Lockheed Martin’s announcement of a $ 225 million loss on a classified aviation program.

Callan speculated in a notice to investors that the loss, while “not great,” could have led to Possenriede resigning if he or his team missed warnings about the project’s problems.

Lockheed Martin said the $ 225 million performance loss was identified when the company took an in-depth look at the program and then reported the results to the board of directors.

“Upon completion of the review and based on ongoing negotiations with our client, it has been determined that the total cost of completing the current phase of the program is expected to exceed the contract price,” Lockheed’s quarterly filing stated.

Due to the secret nature of the unpublished program, it is likely that the project has ties to Skunk Works, but company executives did not comment on the loss during the visit.

Factory of the future

Back in the Skunk Cave, Jeff Babione, Vice President and General Manager of Skunk Works, lays what he calls the “factory of the future”.

The new factory is Skunk Works’ first since the 1980s. Instead of assembling a specific aircraft, the building doesn’t have fixed machines or tools, which means it can be easily reconfigured for new projects, Babione said.

It is also the first Skunk Works facility to host secure, classified wireless communications, meaning employees can transmit information digitally. Everything used to be done manually on paper. Over the next five years, Lockheed Martin will invest over $ 2 billion in digital transformation.

Local dignitaries joined Lockheed Martin executives to cut the ties here. Due to the rise of the Delta variant, the participants still had to distance themselves physically and wear masks.

The guests entered a lobby before entering the new factory while Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” pulsed through the sound system. On the left wall of the lobby was a plaque in honor of Michele Evans, former head of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, who died of cancer on January 1st. When exiting the lobby and entering the factory under the bright lights, a new car smell lingers while guests stroll around various stations with drawings showing how the space is being designed with a view to a fluid future.

Digital engineering is the big new trend in weapon development. The move will enable Skunk Works to manufacture aircraft at a low cost by owning a project from birth to adulthood, Babione said.

The new factory is being built as the USA faces increasing competition from China. Lockheed, like other companies, needs to rethink its operations to remain relevant as Beijing continues to develop advanced capabilities such as hypersonic weapons and fifth generation aircraft to bolster its position as a regional power.

When guests walk through an underground tunnel to one of the dozen buildings on campus, guests emerge at a different facility. That’s where NASA’s supersonic flight demonstrator X-59 is assembled. It’s one of the few unclassified programs at Skunk Works.

On a normal day it would be buried under a swarm of workers, but today the fuselage hull sits quietly behind a chain link fence. A floor-to-ceiling steel wall runs the length of the factory floor, blocking other top-secret aircraft that are born on the other side.

The X-59, a supersonic transport jet, was designed to reduce the noise signature of sonic booms over land, notes Atherton Carty, vice president of strategy and business development. “It’ll sound like a car door is closing,” Carty said. Due to noise regulations, the Concorde was only allowed to reach supersonic speeds over the ocean, which ultimately affected its viability in consumer travel space.

Skunk Works is re-using parts from previous projects to build the 30 meter long and 30 meter wide X-59. For example, the program uses the T-38 canopy, F-16 landing gear, and F / A-18 engine, which will cut costs, Atherton said. Lockheed Martin won the contract for $ 247.5 million 2018 from NASA.

In September 2020, Skunk Works released another sub-project, Speed ​​Racer. For the first time a program will go from the first concept to the flight test to certification with digital engineering. The aircraft configuration appears to be a winged airborne cruise missile or an unmanned aircraft system.

Skunk Works, meanwhile, is also betting big on the development of hypersonic weapons such as the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response weapon that failed a flight test in July. And it’s also chasing the Next Generation Air Dominance program for the Air Force and Navy to replace the F / A-18 and F-22.

While the visit here made it clear that there will be no public updates on these programs, a look behind the curtain shows what is possible.

“We have long been a big top in World War II,” said Babione. “For many of you, this may be the last time you will be in this facility.”

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