Skunk Works is an official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), formerly called Lockheed Advanced Development Projects. Skunk Works is responsible for a number of famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor. Its largest current project is the F-35 Lightning II, which will be used in the air forces of several countries around the world. Production is expected to last for up to four decades.
The designation “skunk works”, or “skunkworks”, is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.
The original Lockheed facility, during the development of the P-80 Shooting Star, was located adjacent to a malodorous plastics factory. According to Ben Rich’s memoir, an engineer showed up to work one day wearing a Civil Defence gas mask as a gag. To comment on the smell and the secrecy the project entailed, another engineer, Irving Culver, referred to the facility as “Skonk Works”. As the development was very secret, the employees were told to be careful even with how they answered phone calls. One day, when the Department of the Navy was trying to reach the Lockheed management for the P-80 project, the call was accidentally transferred to Culver’s desk. Culver answered the phone in his trademark fashion of the time, by picking up the phone and stating “Skonk Works, inside man Culver”.
In 1955, the Skunk Works received a contract from the CIA to build a spy-plane known as the U-2 with the intention of overflying the Soviet Union and photographing sites of strategic interest. The U-2 was tested at Groom Lake in the Nevada desert. The first over flight took place on July 4 1956. The U-2 ceased over flights when Francis Gary Powers was shot down during a mission on May 1, 1960, while over Russia.
The Skunk Works had predicted that the U-2 would have a limited operational life over the Soviet Union. The CIA agreed. The Skunk Works got a contract in late 1959 to build five A-12 aircraft at a cost of $96 million. Building a Mach 3.0+ aircraft out of titanium posed enormous difficulties and the first flight did not occur until 1962. (Titanium supply was largely dominated by the Soviet Union so the CIA had to set up a dummy corporation to acquire source material.) Several years later, the U.S. Air Force became interested in the design, and it ordered the SR-71 Blackbird, a two-seater version of the A-12. This aircraft first flew in 1966 and remained in service until 1998.
The D-21 drone, similar in design to the Blackbird, was built to overfly the Lop Nur nuclear test facility in China. This drone sat on top of a specially modified A-12, known as M-21, of which there were two built. No D-21s were successfully recovered after being launched from M-21s, although a few were deployed and recovered from B-52s.
In 1976 The Skunk Works began production on a pair of stealth technology demonstrators for the U.S. Air Force named Have Blue in Building 82 at Burbank. These scaled down demonstrators, built in only 18 months, were a revolutionary step forward in aviation technology. After a series of successful test flights beginning in 1977, the Air force awarded Skunk Works the contract to build the F-117 stealth fighter on November 1, 1978.
During the entirety of the Cold War, the Skunk Works was located in Burbank, California on the eastern side of Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport (34.200768°N 118.351826°W). After 1989, Lockheed reorganized its operations and relocated the Skunk Works to Site 10 at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California, where it remains in operation today. Most of the old Skunk Works buildings in Burbank were demolished in the late 1990s to make room for parking lots. One main building still remains at 2777 Ontario Street in Burbank (near San Fernando Road), now used as an office building for digital film post production and sound mixing.