Military Review

At the speed of reason

At the speed of reason
History about how skillful people broke all the rules and created the most amazing high-tech weapon The world.

The American generals missed everything. Shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they laughed at German plans to create a new engine for a high-speed aircraft. Now, in 1943, when the Allied forces were preparing the invasion of France, intelligence reported that the Germans were completing the creation of a high-speed fighter equipped with the same “propeller” jet engine, which the Americans had recently rejected.

The US military department wanted to get a miracle plane and turned to the only person who could make such an apparatus in six months - design engineer Clarence Johnson, nicknamed Kelly. At 33, Kelly Johnson was already a respected person in the world. aviation. His twin-beam aircraft P-38 Lightning, capable of speeds of 650 km / h, was not only the most maneuverable fighter, but also the most beautiful aircraft of the Allies of the Second World War. The military department wanted Kelly to create an apparatus flying another 300 km / h faster, actually near the sound barrier itself.

Kelly knew exactly what to do. He rented a circus tent tent and pitched it in the huge complex of Lockheed Aircraft in the town of Burbank, California. Officially, this simple workshop was called the Lockheed Advanced Development Department. The smell from the nearby plastic factory easily penetrated under the tent and was so unpleasant that the engineers began to call the department "skunk workshop". This name was borrowed from the popular comic book "Lil Abner" (Li'l Abner), where a particularly strong "combustible" drink was prepared from finely skinked skunks and old shoes. Despite such harsh conditions, the Kelly group, consisting of 23 engineers and 30 workers, took just 143 a day to give birth to Lulu Belle, the P-80 Shooting Star prototype. America entered the jet age a month ahead of schedule.

SR-71, which develops speeds of more than three Machs, to this day remains the holder of several world aviation speed records

P-80, later renamed F-80, received a baptism of fire in the Korean War, where he confronted the Soviet MiGs. In the entire history of Lockheed, almost 9000 aircraft of this model were released. The Kelly group moved permanently to a windowless hangar where bombers had previously assembled. The foul odor that gave rise to the department’s name has sunk into oblivion, but the name itself has remained. At least until the lawyers for the authors of comics about Lil Abner didn’t make a fuss. Then one letter was changed in the title, and instead of Skonk Works, the current Skunk Works turned out.

The Skunk Works group was the same for Aviation as Edison's Menlo Park for the world of electricity. The daily pursuit of the impossible creates technologies that are almost indistinguishable from magic. The successful start of the Skunk Works team helped them to survive in difficult times. According to Ben Rich, the protégé and subsequently successor to Kelly, the second and third projects - the Saturn cargo plane and the deck plane with vertical takeoff XFV-1 - ended in complete failure. Ben Rich wrote in his memoirs: “It was not a secret for anyone at the company that director Robert Gross looked at Kelly with adoration and believed that he was able to walk on water.”

Kelly Johnson earned his reputation on the famous Р-38

Making aircraft

This attitude was well deserved. While still a 23-year-old student at the University of Michigan, Kelly saved Gross's investment in Lockheed. He discovered and corrected a serious error in calculating the stability of a twin-engine Electra aircraft. Kelly's decision was a two-beam tail pattern, which later became the company's trademark. This arrangement was used in Constellation, P-38 and Hudson bombers. The latter were commissioned by the British Royal Air Force.

All who worked with Kelly quickly recognized his genius. Hall Hibard, Kelly's boss at Lockheed, witnessed how he converted the Electra into a Hudson bomber during the 72-hour design marathon. “This bloody Swede seems to be able to see even the air!”, He later told Ben Richu (Kelly's parents were immigrants from Sweden). When Kelly found out about these words, he said that this was the best compliment in his life.

Kelly made no secret of how he works miracles. Work in the Skunk Works was almost like that of car fanatics, who in garages collect real racing cars from old wrecks. Engineers and workers made the coolest aircraft that ever plied the ocean of air. Such outstanding American planes of the twentieth century as the F-104 Starfighter, the reconnaissance aircraft U-2 and SR-71, and the “invisibility” F-117A were created here. Skunk Works' participation in the creation of the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 fighter according to the Joint Strike Fighter program confirmed their solid position in the formation of the air forces of the 21st century. An experimental, inconspicuous ship Sea Shadow outlined the prospects for the development of the future naval forces.

The story of Skunk Works headed by Johnson began with the jet XP-80

Create myths

Kelly took the Skunk Works reputation as seriously as his planes. He formulated the organization's philosophy in the form of 14 working rules. To this day, Skunk Works employees remain loyal to simplicity, speed, and mutual assistance, while rejecting paperwork and organization. Testing commissions believed their word, penetrating the spirit of Skunk Works. But the two most important rules were unwritten. “All planes were Kelly planes. And if a man appeared in blue with stars on his shoulders (military representative), only Kelly was authorized to speak with him, ”says Rich. Kelly extended his “star” rule to contacts with the CIA. He always insisted that he should be the only contact with the intelligence agencies, which ultimately received from him two of the most outstanding reconnaissance aircraft of the Cold War - the high-altitude U-2 aircraft and, later, the high-speed SR-71.

The U-2, resembling a hybrid of a sailboat with an airliner, was the most important intelligence tool of the cold war era. When he was ready to fly, President Dwight Eisenhower found his mission so important to the country's security that he insisted that each flight over the territory of the USSR be coordinated with him personally. “The effect was as if our intelligence had a cataract removed,” recalls former CIA director Richard Helms. “The camera installed on the U-2 literally opened up a new dimension for us.” One of the earliest victories of U-2 was associated with dispelling the myth that the Americans are lagging far behind with their strategic bombers B-52 from the Soviet "Bison" (this is how Myasishchev called M4 in the USA). Photographs from U-2 showed that a hundred "Bison", flying over the stands at the May Day military parade in Moscow, depicted a total of thirty aircraft that flew in a circle.

Star Warrior. F-104 Starfighter, created to counter the Soviet MiGs, developed speed in 2 Mach

"A tan"

Even before the U-2 aircraft, piloted by Francis Powers, was shot down and Soviet flights were officially stopped, the plane’s camera recorded something that caused Skunk Works to force the most impressive aircraft from those that were never completed CL-400.

The work of intelligence, as a rule, is reduced to the search for anomalies. In the hot days of the Cold War, not one anomaly was as sinister as the liberation of scientists from the Gulag camps. When Peter Kapitsa, a famous scientist in the field of low-temperature physics, who was arrested in 1946, was transferred to one of the closed Soviet research institutes, the CIA immediately had a question - why? Photos of the Soviet cryogenic complex for the production of liquid hydrogen, taken by the same U-2, gave rise to a frightening conjecture: Kapitsa was “rehabilitated” to work in a plant that was built as part of a project of an orbital plane running on hydrogen. In the last days of the war, the Germans were actively working on a similar apparatus, which was supposed to take off from Germany, go into space, and launch a bombing attack on New York. However, after the end of the war, no evidence of the existence of this project was found. Therefore, the version that everything connected with it was exported to the USSR is not without reason.

The prospect that Soviet intelligence aircraft would fly over US territory with impunity as U-2 flew over Mother Russia, did not inspire the CIA at all, and Skunk Works received $ 96 million and the task to build a top-secret orbital plane with a hydrogen propulsion system, which will be the answer to the new "red threat".

Shortly before the Suntan project (Tanning) was given a green light, Kelly had the idea to burn hydrogen cooled to –212 degrees Celsius in a jet engine slightly modified for this purpose. Theoretically, the hydrogen apparatus could easily slide in the upper atmosphere at an altitude of 30 km with a speed of Mach 2. The Kelly team worked hard to provide the military with a complete set of equipment, including refueling aircraft and a plant for the production of liquid hydrogen. Almost in one day, Skunk Works has become the world's largest manufacturer of liquid hydrogen - 750 liters per day!

At this time, the CL-400, in accordance with the Suntan hydrogen aircraft concept, began to take on specific shapes. The plane was shaped like a deltoid wing and was essentially a huge thermos the size of two B-52s. Kelly ordered 4000 running meters of aluminum profiles. Pratt & Whitney was commissioned to modify the engine for hydrogen fuel. The control system was handled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But suddenly a fundamental problem emerged.

The fact that the CL-400 would fly, no doubt. But he could not fly faster or farther than his kerosene relative. Hydrogen did not give an advantage. Kelly accepted the failure and returned the unspent $ 90 million to military customers. As for the Soviet aircraft, it was never created. Obviously, Kapitsa was engaged in another secret project that had eluded the attention of the CIA, perhaps over the world's first artificial Earth satellite.

There are no end stories to the wonders of aircraft construction. There are rumors of an 300-meter invisible airship that generates a starry sky image on the bottom of the hull.


The myths surrounding the hydrogen reconnaissance aircraft eventually grew and became one of the biggest mysteries of the company, now associated with the Aurora project (Aurora). Air Force and Lockheed officials insisted that Aurora was just the code name of the project that participated in the B-2 stealth bomber competition (Northrop won in this competition). But people who closely followed the fate of the CL-400, insisted that the project had a continuation. Several people claim to have seen an unidentified high-speed aircraft of the same shape as the CL-400. In addition, there is documentary evidence that in one of the projects funded by NASA, the technical problems that were slowing down the Suntan project were solved. At the beginning of 1970, Gerald Rosen, a professor of physics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, one of the leading theoretical physicists in the United States, signed a contract with NASA, according to which he had to find out whether hydrogen could be stored not in a molecular, but in an atomic form. His theoretical studies have proven that this is possible. Moreover, it turned out that atomic hydrogen during storage takes up very little space, so that, for example, a lunar rocket could be made the size of a small truck. But since no one takes the official answers seriously, Aurora remains an eternal topic for rumors.

The fastest

Like the U-2, the SR-71 high-speed high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft began as a CIA project. And, like the U-2, was the victim of a scientific and technological revolution. A bad role was played by the American achievements in the form of satellites of the CIA and the National Intelligence Agency. Today, most SR-71 aircraft and their predecessors A-12 are exhibits of aviation museums. NASA uses the SR-71 for environmental research. The second copy, according to the military, is occasionally used for high-tech experiments.

Kelly saw the future of the SR-71 completely different. He was confident that these planes would produce hundreds in various modifications: bombers, fighters and missile carriers. The state not only rejected this idea, but also ordered the destruction of all technological equipment for the SR-71.

Before SR-71 was destroyed in the prime of life, he took part in an experiment that raised Skunk Works to a new level in the creation of high-altitude reconnaissance vehicles. As part of the Tagboard project, high-altitude high-speed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) D-21, launched from SR-71, was tested. After several sorties, one of which led to the loss of the aircraft and the pilot, the Tagboard project was closed.

Taking into account the lessons learned from the Tagboard, and the new stealth technology developed for the Have Blue project, the prototype F-117A, Skunk Works began working with Boeing on the DarkStar project. Using subtle high-altitude high-speed unmanned aerial vehicles of long-range, the military will be able to carry out reconnaissance operations where it is impossible for manned vehicles and expensive for satellites.

Plans for the future

Legendary airplanes created in Skunk Works are no longer needed by the military. Kelly and Rich retired. After the merger of Lockheed and Martin Marietta in May 1995, a new company, Lockheed-Martin, singled out Skunk Works into a separate unit located in Palmdale, California. A new generation of engineers, workers and pilots adheres to the best traditions of the Skunk Works. One of the latest creations of the Advanced Development Department, as Skunk Works is now officially called, is the P-175 Polecat unmanned aerial vehicle (“Ferret”), which made its first flights this year. “The strategic goal of creating this UAV was to study the 'flying wing' scheme as part of creating combat unmanned aircraft of the future,” explained Frank Cappuccio, executive vice president and head of the Advanced Development and Strategic Planning Division. "Ferret", developed just 18 months, and at his own expense of Lockheed-Martin, clearly demonstrates the strengths of the Skunk Works. “We are testing three technologies on this device: rapid design and creation of composite materials of a new generation, aerodynamics necessary for long-term high-altitude flights, and an autonomous control system,” says Capuccio. At its core, the “black projects” that Skunk Works are engaged in were, are and will be secret. What Popular Mechanics learned from management and test pilots, what they saw in the unclassified part of the territory, is just what Skunk Works considers possible to share. It is clear that they will write more about the work of Skunk Works, but everything has its time. Looking at the high white hangars, sparkling in the bright sun, we can only guess what miracles are happening inside them.
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