A desert hamlet in America’s Aerospace Valley is home to one of the world’s most secretive aircraft design and production programs.
Skunk Works is covered with signs of work in progress behind huge gates topped with barbed wire at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, about 62 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
A U-2 spy plane or a Janet 737, a highly classified fleet of aircraft used to ferry troops and contractors between Palmdale and sites like the historic Nevada facility Area 51, are common sights at Lockheed Martin’s research and development center.
For these reasons jet spotters and spies from across the world converge on the facility, for a sneak peek of the newest, most top-secret aircraft. This is the only opportunity to see them because there is no publicly accessible view of the runway or jets parked on the tarmac, according to Politico. Approximately 85 percent of the work done here is classified.
Lockheed selected some reporters to tour the vast complex for the first time in eight years during August 2021. BL understands this invitation can be compared to a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s fictional factory for military tech writers and aviation buffs.
Skunk Works created the U-2 spy plane, which can take photos from 70,000 feet above sea level. It also produced stealth fighters SR-71 Blackbird, and F-117 Nighthawk.
The official reason for the visit was to cut the ribbon at a new state-of-the-art plant on the 539 acre complex. However, BL understands Lockheed Martin is unofficially trying to drum up support for more Pentagon business in the face of flat defense spending.
Capital Alpha Partners managing director Byron Callan believes Lockheed has many reasons to show off its operations. Skunk Works is investing heavily in digital engineering to outperform competitors Boeing and Northrop Grumman–which are all vying for a spot in the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance fighter jet program.
“So many of these things are being done in classified program settings,” he said according to the publication. “It is probably really just a way to say, ‘Hey, we are competitive, we have made investments in some of these areas.'”
Den of Skunks
Skunk Works’s reputation has been legendary since inception in 1943. The Army’s Air Tactical Service Command authorized Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to build and manufacture the nation’s first fighter jet for World War II.
Lockheed appointed engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson to oversee the XP-80’s development. However, there was a problem: the project would take up too much space at the company’s headquarters in Burbank, Calif.
Kelly’s crew rented a circus tent to work on the project and completed it in just 143 days. The tent was rumored to have a foul odor due to its close proximity to the Burbank plastics manufacturing facility. BL understands the stench is how the complex became known as Skunk Works.
In the past 80 years the facility has become increasingly high-tech. Skunk Works recently finished constructing a 215,000 square foot advanced manufacturing facility that is capable of producing aircraft for the United States and its allies.
The new site is one part of Skunk Works’s entire desert footprint. The operation comprises of 58 buildings spread over 2.4 million square feet, sitting on a table-flat patch of land–surrounded by scorching highways. The temperature climbed to 105 degrees Fahrenheit during the visit.
The Skunks’s Den is the only declassified chamber at the complex. The contemporary environment resembles any ordinary meeting room, with a huge conference table and additional seating available. There are also 60 toaster-sized versions of exhibition stands, bordering glass-encased walls.
A plain briefcase is displayed in one of the glass cases. This is one example Johnson used when visiting the CIA headquarters to exhibit an early model of the A-12, the SR-71’s progenitor.
Despite all of its accomplishments, Lockheed has had its share of issues and criticism in recent years. Lawmakers are concerned about price and performance of Skunk Works’s tri service F-35 aircraft, which has become the Pentagon’s most costly program.
Factory of future
Skunk Works vice president and general manager Jeff Babione revealed his vision for the “factory of the future.”
The development, which is the company’s first since the 1980s, involves erecting structure without fixed equipment or tooling instead of a purpose-built facility. This gives the flexibility to be quickly modified to accommodate different projects.
It will be the first facility to offer secure classified wireless communications, allowing personnel to send data digitally. Everything used to be done by hand and on paper for security reasons. Lockheed Martin will spend more than $2 billion on the digital transformation in the next five years.
Digital engineering is a rather new trend in weapon development. Skunk Works will be able to produce airplanes at a minimal cost by owning the project from conception to completion.
The new facility comes as the United States faces rising competition from mainland China. Lockheed, and other corporations, must rethink how to do business in relevant way. Beijing continues to develop sophisticated capabilities–like hypersonic missiles and fifth-generation aircraft–to bolster its position as a regional power.
“We have come a long [way] since a circus tent in World War II,” Babione said according to Politico. “For many of you, this may be the last time you are in this facility.”