Secrets of the Skunk Works

Exclusive photographs of once-classified inventions from Lockheed’s famous brain trust.


When the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works began marking its 70th birthday this year, media specialist Bob Driver dragged an old suitcase into a company director’s office. Opening it, he asked if the contents could finally be shown to the public.

Inside was a 55-year-old model of the A-3, Lockheed’s first try at blending stealth with speed—and a direct predecessor of the triple-sonic A-12 Blackbird. It had been designed by Skunk Works founder Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, and Driver had hidden it away for decades, defying periodic management directives to purge company archives.

The director he approached was Stephen Justice, who runs Advanced Systems Development at Skunk Works. “I treasure that the people here want to protect our history,” says Justice. “Bob recognized the A-3 model as being something special, and important to hold onto.”

Seventy years earlier, Kelly Johnson had stood on a desert lakebed in California and grinned as an XP-80 screamed past him on its maiden flight. Seven months before that, he had walked out of U.S. Army Air Forces General “Hap” Arnold’s office with a contract to design what became the first U.S. jet fighter to see combat. In just 215 days, 23 handpicked engineers built it in a drafty hangar so awash in the fumes from a nearby factory that wags started calling it the Skunk Works.

Justice began canvassing program managers for other artifacts and documents that could be released to honor the anniversary. The objects in this gallery had never before been seen by anyone without a security clearance.

Why so much secrecy? “It takes about one-tenth the time and one-tenth the resources to develop a countermeasure to anything that’s introduced,” Justice says. “To maintain your edge over any threat, you need to protect what your capabilities are. And sometimes you need to protect their existence.”

Today’s Skunk Works employs 3,700 employees at facilities in Palmdale, California, Marietta, Georgia, and Fort Worth, Texas. They are working on over 500 projects, from radar coatings to war games to compact fusion reactors to a Mach 6 spyplane.

Sifting through the archives revealed breathtaking technologies and capabilities. Some were too early for their time; some cost too much; some filled a need that didn’t yet exist. But everywhere, Justice says, “you see clear examples of the creativity and unbounded imaginations of the grandfathers of the Skunk Works.”

Archangel A-3 model: Precursor to the A-12 Blackbird

Though an order came down to clean house, an employee hid this A-3 concept model for 45 years. Kelly Johnson originally carried it to a 1958 meeting in a suitcase. Making the tail optional was a rudimentary attempt at stealth; without it, the aircraft would have appeared smaller on radar screens. Nine months later, the concept evolved into the A-12 Blackbird.

National Medal of Technology and Innovation, 2007

In a White House ceremony, President George W. Bush presented the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to the Skunk Works, citing its “record of developing cutting-edge aircraft, technologies, and systems for the U.S. Government.” Sculptor Mico Kaufman designed the three-inch bronze medal. This is the only time it has been awarded to an aerospace company.

Box of Slides Depicting Aircraft Concepts

Intended for classified briefings, this 1960s wood box holds 100 three- by four-inch glass slides showcasing everything from zero-speed (hover) attack helicopters to Mach 25 spaceplanes. The Aerospaceplane was a classified orbital bomber study, created as planners looked beyond the Mach 6 X-15 toward sustained hypersonic flight. The Skunk Works foresaw requirements for research aircraft to explore spaceplane technologies and define their operational systems.

VS-07 Next Generation Long Range Strike Bomber 2006 Concept Model

For every design that makes it into the air, there are thousands that don’t. This one didn’t. The designation was for Variable Sweep, seventh configuration. A two-seat bomber proposed in 2006, it was engineered around a variable-cycle engine that flew efficiently at both subsonic and supersonic speeds. This bomber concept explored the advantages and tradeoffs of swinging versus fixed wings. “Stealth is a fundamental enabler for access to denied areas,” says company director Stephen Justice, “but future bombers will first need to fly very far, arrive very quickly, and then persist. That’s a very conflicting set of requirements, a design nightmare. But that’s where the fun is for us.

Helmet Worn by Early U-2 Test Pilot With Hand-Painted Skunk

This late 1950s helmet belonged to Skunk Works test pilot Ross Cooper. It completed the partial pressure suit worn during the first U-2 flights, and was hand-painted with the company’s then-secret emblem. The helmet’s soft shell protected the cramped cockpit’s low canopy from scratches. For nearly four decades, the skunk was itself a very protected image, never seen outside classified areas.

Little Harvey, Concept B

A May 1975 Skunk Works report, “Progress Report No. 2, High Stealth Conceptual Studies,” includes this early drawing from a stealth aircraft study called Project Harvey (named after the invisible rabbit in the 1950 James Stewart movie); the program eventually led to the F-117. Based on results from D-21 drone flights, Kelly Johnson believed that Little Harvey’s smoothly blended shapes offered the best combination of speed and stealth. Ben Rich, Johnson’s protégé, argued for faceted angles. It was one of the rare times Johnson’s design did not prevail.

Batori Analog Flight Instrument From Early U-2 Cockpit

U-2 engineers borrowed off-the-shelf hardware whenever possible, like this circular slide rule modified for cockpit mounting. Pilots used it to calculate the airplane’s exact performance, which was critical information when overflying the Soviet Union in an aircraft whose speed needed to be maintained within a five-knot range. It was probably used only in early testing, since its density altitude maxes out at 60,000 feet—two miles below the U-2’s eventual operational ceiling.

Vintage Blueprint, Signed by Kelly Johnson, Depicting A-3 Details

In November 1958, Kelly Johnson took a Lockheed JetStar to a secret meeting organized by the CIA in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He carried this blue-print, carefully folded inside the same ordinary suitcase that held his A-3 concept model, to show a panel of experts determined to develop an airplane that would outpace Soviet missile advances.

F-117 Facet Arrangement Model

Engineers used this 24-inch-long model, made from balsa wood and meticulously scribed with India ink, to show placement of the F-117’s internal structure and access doors. The model shop found it nearly impossible to make all the flat surfaces come to a single point on one corner. Engineers later encountered the same difficulty fabricating the prototype on the factory floor.

Detail From “Hopeless Diamond” Schematic

Project Harvey, an initiative to develop a radar-undetectable aircraft, was followed by a tailless rhomboid design, quickly renamed the Hopeless Diamond when Lockheed engineers discovered that while it was truly stealthy, it was uncontrollable in flight. This drawing shows the outboard wings and single tail that were tacked on to improve stability. The Harvey studies evolved into Lockheed’s Have Blue stealth demonstrator, the direct precursor to the F-117.

VentureStar SsTO Concept Model

Intended as an operational follow-on to the X-33 suborbital spaceplane technology demonstrator, the single-stage-to-orbit VentureStar never left the drawing board. Skunk Works pitched a mission-ready version, carrying a payload of two Militarized Space Planes and 16 Common Aero Vehicles (warhead-equipped hypersonic gliders), to the Air Force with this 20-inch-long stereo lithograph model, made in 1999.

Slide Depicting Airplane III

This faded glass slide illustrates a study for a NATO competition, which was seeking a vertical-takeoff-and-landing interceptor to replace the F-104 Starfighter. Power came from the supersonic variant of Rolls-Royce’s Pegasus engine; The notation “PCB” in the description of the propulsion system meant “plenum chamber burning,” an afterburner-like thrust booster for the front fan.

XST Experimental Survival Testbed Progress Report

Dated March 1976, this 250-page document gave the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency a technical summary of the XST, the design that evolved into the Have Blue flying prototype and eventually led to the F-117. It showed program personnel that every stealthy configuration choice involved tradeoffs, affecting radar signature, flight stability, cost, and performance. Crammed with engineering data, it was not declassified until 2012—and there are still pages off-limits to the public.

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