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Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed

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From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, the never-before-told story behind the high-stakes quest to dominate the skies Skunk Works is the true story of America's most secret & successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich, the operation's brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works is a drama of cold w From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, the never-before-told story behind the high-stakes quest to dominate the skies Skunk Works is the true story of America's most secret & successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich, the operation's brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works is a drama of cold war confrontations and Gulf War air combat, of extraordinary feats of engineering & achievement against fantastic odds. Here are up-close portraits of the maverick band of scientists & engineers who made the Skunk Works so renowned. Filled with telling personal anecdotes & high adventure, with narratives from the CIA & from Air Force pilots who flew the many classified, risky missions, this book is a portrait of the most spectacular aviation triumphs of the 20th century.


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From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, the never-before-told story behind the high-stakes quest to dominate the skies Skunk Works is the true story of America's most secret & successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich, the operation's brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works is a drama of cold w From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, the never-before-told story behind the high-stakes quest to dominate the skies Skunk Works is the true story of America's most secret & successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich, the operation's brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works is a drama of cold war confrontations and Gulf War air combat, of extraordinary feats of engineering & achievement against fantastic odds. Here are up-close portraits of the maverick band of scientists & engineers who made the Skunk Works so renowned. Filled with telling personal anecdotes & high adventure, with narratives from the CIA & from Air Force pilots who flew the many classified, risky missions, this book is a portrait of the most spectacular aviation triumphs of the 20th century.

30 review for Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed

  1. 4 out of 5

    Marisa

    “Skunk Works” is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s just as fascinating to me when I read it the 8th time as it was the first. I believe one of the reasons I ultimately majored in aerospace engineering was due to this book (and perhaps my unhealthy space obsession helped). This is a “behind-the-scenes” look at how the United States’ most successful planes were created. The book explains in simple terms WHY the engineering was so impressive and how a group of motivated men managed to create pl “Skunk Works” is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s just as fascinating to me when I read it the 8th time as it was the first. I believe one of the reasons I ultimately majored in aerospace engineering was due to this book (and perhaps my unhealthy space obsession helped). This is a “behind-the-scenes” look at how the United States’ most successful planes were created. The book explains in simple terms WHY the engineering was so impressive and how a group of motivated men managed to create planes that are unmatched even to this day. You certainly don’t have to be an engineer to find the book intriguing. Both engineers and folks who hate math will find this book a fascinating read. I’d highly recommend this to anyone who has the least interest in American history as I believe the story in “Skunk Works” is one everyone should know. Who should read it? Anyone with a remote interest in history, defense or the aerospace industry. See all my reviews and more at www.ReadingToDistraction.com or @Read2Distract

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    Skunk Works is a personal memoir written by the chief engineer of Lockheed’s Skunk Works Ben Rick. The book tells of his first experiences at Lockheed during the 1950s; it ranges all the way past the First Gulf War. The author describes the varied events that occurred and projects that were undertaken at Lockheed’s aerospace development wing. The first four chapters are about building the first stealth bomber. Rich tells how the name Skunk Works came about. He describes the U2 project and Blackb Skunk Works is a personal memoir written by the chief engineer of Lockheed’s Skunk Works Ben Rick. The book tells of his first experiences at Lockheed during the 1950s; it ranges all the way past the First Gulf War. The author describes the varied events that occurred and projects that were undertaken at Lockheed’s aerospace development wing. The first four chapters are about building the first stealth bomber. Rich tells how the name Skunk Works came about. He describes the U2 project and Blackbird. Rich also tells about his co-workers and particularly his boss the genius Kelly Johnson. He also discusses his colleagues from other agencies such as the Air Force and the CIA. Rich covers many of the technical details and challenges that the Skunk Works’ team faced overcoming engineering problems as well as the difficulties of funding and politics. Rich also covers his personal life including the death of his wife. I enjoyed the comment from various fellow workers from Lockheed, Air Force offices and the various Secretary of Defenses and other political appointees. This is a great book as it describes the almost impossible challenges the engineers rose to solve. The book is well written and moves right along. This is a book you will want to keep to use as a reference book. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. Pete Larkin narrated the book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Philippe

    I picked this book up after having read Don DeLillo's Libra, which pictures the protagonist, Lee Harvey Oswald, at a USAF base in Atsugi, Japan during his military service. The U2 spy plane that was based there definitely adds to the aura of mystery and fatefulness that pervades the whole of DeLillo's excellent novel and aroused my curiosity. Rich's account of the Skunk Works' history entirely satisfied my interest in this mysterious airplane. The book can be read in different ways: as a thrilli I picked this book up after having read Don DeLillo's Libra, which pictures the protagonist, Lee Harvey Oswald, at a USAF base in Atsugi, Japan during his military service. The U2 spy plane that was based there definitely adds to the aura of mystery and fatefulness that pervades the whole of DeLillo's excellent novel and aroused my curiosity. Rich's account of the Skunk Works' history entirely satisfied my interest in this mysterious airplane. The book can be read in different ways: as a thrilling account of the Cold War, a captivating portrait of the complex and brilliant designer Kelly Johnson, and as a treatise on corporate innovation, cutting edge management methods and industry-government relationships. I found the book to be exceedingly well written, with just the right dosage of technical details, humour, personal anecdotes and historical drama. The integration of 'other voices' from test pilots, high level policy makers and air force top brass complements Rich's narrative nicely and helps in modulating the sometimes breathless pace. An excellent book. I enjoyed it a lot.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Yusef Asabiyah

    I wanted to read this book because I wanted an example of "nomad science", a kind of guerrilla approach to engineering and problem solving, where a relatively small group of intensely-involved engineers or scientists take on relatively large challenges--actually, nearly impossible looking challenges-- and triumph...All innovation, all mobile strike force, no bureaucracy, no backbiting politics, no ego, no external reward,( this latter not entirely true, but relatively true - Ben Rich received re I wanted to read this book because I wanted an example of "nomad science", a kind of guerrilla approach to engineering and problem solving, where a relatively small group of intensely-involved engineers or scientists take on relatively large challenges--actually, nearly impossible looking challenges-- and triumph...All innovation, all mobile strike force, no bureaucracy, no backbiting politics, no ego, no external reward,( this latter not entirely true, but relatively true - Ben Rich received recognition and rewards but sometimes he either couldn't tell others he'd received the award, or couldn't tell others why he had received the award because the work was classified.) The "Skunk Works" is the nickname of a small aerospace engineering unit within Lockheed Corporation responsible for the development of the U-2 high altitude spy plane, the stealth bomber, and many other notable, breakthrough aerospace technologies. Ben Rich, the author of this book, specialized in thermodynamic engineering problems at the Skunk Works before eventually becoming head of the Skunk Works. This book is the story of his career there. I resisted reading the book because this is in part a story of the development of military-industrial complex and the conflict of interest between the needs of the death industry and the real need for national security, and real economic needs (and career needs?) versus propping up vested interests. There is the exciting story of the development of spectacular technology in remarkably short periods of time,under budget, but one can't forget (actually, I found it quite easy to forget, I had to prod myself to remember, and this is significant,) the technology is weapon technology. Everyone at the Skunk Works had high security clearance ( rightfully so); everyone was selected in part because of anti-Soviet sentiment. Ben Richardson seems to consider his greatest contribution being to help the US win the Cold War. Therefore, I found these four items from the book, (which I hadn't known or fully appreciated before reading the book,)particularly striking: 1)During the 1950's, information from CIA director Allen Dulles supplied to US citizens regarding Soviet military strength suggested a crushing military superiority of the Soviets over the US...Dulles' data at the time did not support his conclusions... The CIA's misinformation helped to create a climate of fear in the US-- at this time, polls showed a majority of Americans believed death in a nuclear war was a likelihood; 2)During his time as President, Eisenhower was scoffed and resented by management in the aerospace industry because he moved slowly, cautiously, and was conservative on military spending; 3)The Eisenhower administration was not alarmed by the revelation of Soviet Sputnik technology because Sputnik technology was not superior to existing American satellite technology. The US had superior technology...Sputnik was not a demonstation of technological prowess; really, it was more of a public relations coup. Eisenhower wished to ignore it, in fact. He was finally persuaded to mount what was in essence a public relations counter-measure to the Soviets and also a strengthening of the hand of the political-economic element in the US which benefited from the crisis mentality of the Cold War. 4)Lockheed scientists and engineers and production craftsmen require continuing engineering and scientific challenges in order to keep their skills up. If they are engaged in developing military technology but military threats are not present, the government's motivation for developing military technology disappears; investment in these skills disappears, and the skills disappear. I consider keeping these skills up a very real consideration, but coupling this consideration to continuing an arms race very problematical. 5)Lockheed, a private corporation, makes its profits in production runs...For example, after the Stealth bomber design was completed, Lockheed made money building Stealth bombers. But it turned out that Stealth bomber design was completed when the Cold War was by and large over. There was, for Lockheed, an incentive to build large numbers of Stealth bombers anyway, to encourage policies where the building of Stealth bombers can be seen as necessary. Stealth bomber technology was "proven" in battle during the first Gulf War. Private profit incentivizes deployment of war technologies, and I am uncomfortable with this. The story of the relationship between Ben Rich and his boss at the Skunk Works, Kelly Johnson, is touching. Two great men. Can I wholeheartedly honor them when I feel such reluctance and ambivalence about what was going on during the Cold War era, the role of the US in the world at that time?

  5. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    Despite the Tom Clancy recommendation glaring on the cover of this edition, Skunk Works isn't a bad read. Whatever the writing skills of engineer Rich, cowriter Janos's collaboration with him resulted in an engrossing text. Of course I've long had a special interest in the history of espionage, so the subject-matter went far towards keeping me involved. The Skunk Works is a part of the Lockhead Corporation, one of the few major contractors for high-tech defense contracts with the U.S. government- Despite the Tom Clancy recommendation glaring on the cover of this edition, Skunk Works isn't a bad read. Whatever the writing skills of engineer Rich, cowriter Janos's collaboration with him resulted in an engrossing text. Of course I've long had a special interest in the history of espionage, so the subject-matter went far towards keeping me involved. The Skunk Works is a part of the Lockhead Corporation, one of the few major contractors for high-tech defense contracts with the U.S. government--a relationship described as "paternalistic socialism". Unlike most corporate divisions, Skunk Works (named for a device in Al Capp's cartoons) operated semi-autonomously from the end of WWII until at least the end of the directorship of the author in 1991. During this period it developed the first military jet, the U-2, the SR-71 and the first stealth jets. Although most of this story is told by the voice of Rich, the book includes short sections from various individuals ranging from test pilots to Defense Secretaries who had meaningful association with the Works and its products. Pointedly, the book ends with a lengthy section about how to do R&D, especially for defense and intelligence, with optimal accomplishment at minimal cost, using the Skunk Works' history as an example of success contrasted with normal corporate-government contracts as examples of inefficiency and waste. Interestingly, the authors never once mention Nellis or Groom Lake (home of the fabled Area 51) in their text, although one of the minor contributors does. Instead, they refer to the "secret base" where the U-2 and other hush-hush products were flight tested.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Carlex

    A good look at the military aviation industry in the US from the end of the World War II, with the first jet aircraft, until the end of the 20th century. Particularly interesting are the development and further clandestine use of these aircraft ahead of its time: the magnificent U-2 and SR-71 "Blackbird" spy planes and also the incredible F-117, the first fighter jet with stealth technology. A good look at the military aviation industry in the US from the end of the World War II, with the first jet aircraft, until the end of the 20th century. Particularly interesting are the development and further clandestine use of these aircraft ahead of its time: the magnificent U-2 and SR-71 "Blackbird" spy planes and also the incredible F-117, the first fighter jet with stealth technology.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Michael Burnam-Fink

    Skunk Works is one of those phrases which sets aviation fans' hearts a-flutter. The secretive engineering team from Burbank was responsible for some of the most incredible planes of all times. The SR-71 was built in the 1960s, and it remains the highest flying, fastest plane in aviation. It's a marvel of engineering built with slide rules. Ben Rich, the second director of the Skunk Works, writes a fun account of his views on aviation, engineering, and procurement politics. The Skunk Works was an Skunk Works is one of those phrases which sets aviation fans' hearts a-flutter. The secretive engineering team from Burbank was responsible for some of the most incredible planes of all times. The SR-71 was built in the 1960s, and it remains the highest flying, fastest plane in aviation. It's a marvel of engineering built with slide rules. Ben Rich, the second director of the Skunk Works, writes a fun account of his views on aviation, engineering, and procurement politics. The Skunk Works was an elite brotherhood devoted towards the best in aviation, with rules to minimize management bullshit and keep every engineer within a stone's throw of the production floor. Rich discusses in detail his work on the F-117 stealth fighter, the U-2, and the SR-71, with dips into Navy stealth boats ("never work for the Navy, they don't know what they want and they'll break your heart"), and the red tape of military bureaucracy. Kelly Johnson stories are another major theme of the book. I've no doubt that Ben Rich is a great engineer, but Johnson, the founder of the Skunk Works, was a legend who won two Collier Trophies and could estimate an aviation problem to 95% accuracy that'd take hours of calculation to prove. Johnson was a genius, but his abrasive personality alienated Air Force generals, who hated a man who built the best planes for the CIA and castigated their procurement efforts as fuck-ups that'd kill pilots and lose wars. The book is lived up by 'other perspective sections', with pilots describing what flying these planes was like, and five or six Secretaries of Defense talking about how vital the planes were to US national security. Rich also tries to get at the culture of engineering excellence that defined the Skunk Works. As someone with a sideline in organizational studies, this is really hard. How do you know your asshole leader is a real genius and not a cargo-culting lunatic (see Musk, Elon)? It's a difficult challenge, and one not quite clear aside from 'get good people, give them hard but specific goals, and get the hell out their way', but Rich tries. I just wonder what he'd think of Lockheed's latest stealth wonder-blunder, the F-35...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mark Jr.

    Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day made me do it. Not my normal fare. But truly enjoyable and instructive. I had no idea what achievements the U2, the SR-71, and the various stealth aircraft I’ve always sort of known were. And I had no idea how long ago they were made.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    Ben Rich worked at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works from 1954-1991, and spent nearly 20 years overseeing the legendary engineering organization. His memoir is equal parts a Cold War history, a how-to manual for running high-output engineering organizations and a meditation on how technology progresses, not by random stochastic chance but by sheer force of will and a commitment to excellence. The Skunk Works was responsible for an incredibly large number of the major breakthroughs that occurred in th Ben Rich worked at Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works from 1954-1991, and spent nearly 20 years overseeing the legendary engineering organization. His memoir is equal parts a Cold War history, a how-to manual for running high-output engineering organizations and a meditation on how technology progresses, not by random stochastic chance but by sheer force of will and a commitment to excellence. The Skunk Works was responsible for an incredibly large number of the major breakthroughs that occurred in the 20th century; their list of production-quality aircraft included the U-2, the SR-71, the C-130, and then, finally, the F-117, the world's first stealth fighter, and Ben Rich was in the arena on all of it. It's hard to summarize this book - there's just a lot here. But as someone who builds technology for the US government, the sense of patriotism and true American creativity the permeated Lockheed Martin during the Cold War was a notable theme, as was the impact that the technological breakthroughs made in those secret labs had on the national security posture of the US. Finally, Ben Rich articulates a positive and deterministic vision for America and American technologists that has become rare in the 21st century's worship of market efficiency and indeterminate optimism. He ran one of the most high-performing engineering teams in the world, and he's completely confident that without those people, working together, the world of aviation would be totally different. In the face of the statistical historians of technology, Rich provides a full-throated defense of exceptionalism, not just at the individual level, but exceptionalism at the organizational level. There are places that are special, and the Skunk Works during the mid 20th century was one of them. Some other notes: - During his career, Rich worked on 27 different airplanes! - The increasing layers of bureaucracy over his career added crazy paper, lots of oversight and huge numbers of people to the staff. - Commodity, rather than military-grade manufacturing kept them lean. - Tiny lockheed teams were able to outperform huge military team maintaining the SR-71s. - They hired top people, paid them top dollar, and put the engineers next to the shop workers. - All workers were responsible for Quality Control. - B2 Bomber was a wildly crazy failure of procurement.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Julius Cerniauskas

    BOYS WILL BE BOYS!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    Cool memoir. Very interesting read. A great time (and place!) to be an aeronautical engineer.

  12. 5 out of 5

    An Idler

    This memoir has multiple angles. The best part is the narration of the development of the U2, the Blackbird, and the Stealth "Fighter". Another angle is advice on how to apply the Skunk Works model to general business and industry, and a third angle is commentary on the inefficiencies of US defense spending. The first is entertaining and fascinating, the second is perhaps of interest only to middle managers, and the third is as frustrating as only government waste can be. A good blend of engineer This memoir has multiple angles. The best part is the narration of the development of the U2, the Blackbird, and the Stealth "Fighter". Another angle is advice on how to apply the Skunk Works model to general business and industry, and a third angle is commentary on the inefficiencies of US defense spending. The first is entertaining and fascinating, the second is perhaps of interest only to middle managers, and the third is as frustrating as only government waste can be. A good blend of engineering yarns and history.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Adam McNamara

    A fantastic look at how Skunk Works works, told through stories of designing the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-117 stealth fighter. Three factors led to the success of Skunk Works. The first was how the Skunk Works defined its mission: "to develop low cost and rapid prototypes to achieve extremely difficult but specific objectives." The combination of extreme difficulty and extreme specificity is the recipe for innovation. The second was how it operated with a high degree of autonomy an A fantastic look at how Skunk Works works, told through stories of designing the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-117 stealth fighter. Three factors led to the success of Skunk Works. The first was how the Skunk Works defined its mission: "to develop low cost and rapid prototypes to achieve extremely difficult but specific objectives." The combination of extreme difficulty and extreme specificity is the recipe for innovation. The second was how it operated with a high degree of autonomy and minimal bureaucracy. Skunk Works wasn't held to the same profit standards as other departments of Lockheed. Instead, it was free to experiment so long as it did so at modest expense. Finally, Skunk Works passed the autonomy it received from Lockheed on to employees of the department. Skunk Works recruited the best engineers and technicians and encouraged them to try imaginative and unconventional approaches to problem solving, take risks, and fail if necessary.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Oktawian Chojnacki

    This book is a must read. Skunk Works is the best R&D team in the world and you can see a little bit - do you need more encouragement? I don’t think so.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    Summary: The story of Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” operation that produced innovative planes and other products for the military including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-117 Stealth fighter. The term “skunk works” has become common parlance in the business and technical worlds for a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic control to work on advanced or secret projects. The development of the original Apple Macintosh computer is an exa Summary: The story of Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” operation that produced innovative planes and other products for the military including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-117 Stealth fighter. The term “skunk works” has become common parlance in the business and technical worlds for a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic control to work on advanced or secret projects. The development of the original Apple Macintosh computer is an example of a “skunk works” project. This book is the story of the original Skunk Works, a top secret operation with Lockheed responsible for building some of the most cutting-edge and innovative military aircraft. Ben Rich was the second boss over the Skunk Works, mentored under the legendary (and formidable) Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. The book opens with the first test flight of the F-117, the first real stealth fighter, and the first plane built under Rich’s leadership after he took over from Kelly Johnson in 1975. He describes the process of winning the contract to develop the plane, and the incredible engineering work to make the plane practically invisible to enemy radar through a combination of flat surfaces and absorptive materials. One of the biggest problems turned out to be designing a canopy that would deflect radar while being able to be seen out of. Otherwise, the pilot’s head actually had a bigger radar profile than the plane! The biggest test of the plane was the bombing mission the first night of Operation Desert Storm, against heavily defended Baghdad, in which key command and control facilities, and communication facilities were taken out under heavy anti-aircraft fire without a single plane being lost, not only that night but throughout the conflict. This was just one in a long line of innovative planes designed by the Skunk Works. Rich tells the story of how Kelly Johnson formed this secret operation within Lockheed in 1943 to develop a jet fighter (the P-80) to counter German development of similar technology. Rich describes his own initiation into the Skunk Works as a thermodynamicist brought on to help with the inlet design on the F-104 Starfighter, the first supersonic jet fighter. He was unsure how long he would work there. Rich made the grade and goes on in the book to narrate the histories of two of the most innovative planes designed under Kelly Johnson’s leadership, the U-2 and the SR-71, both involved in overflights over the Soviet Union and other countries. The U-2 was designed to fly at 70,000 feet, with wings two-thirds as long as the fuselage which entailed special design challenges. It was put into use on overflights over the Soviet Union in 1956, securing critical intelligence on nuclear and conventional military capabilities until Gary Powers was shot down in 1960 (they actually thought they would only get two years of overflights in before this happened). Later it was used over Cuba, and the remarkable fact is that this plane is still in use, having gone through its latest upgrade in 2012. Rich and his fellow engineers faced a whole different set of engineering challenges in designing the SR-71 Blackbird, capable of sustained Mach 3.2 speeds and flight at over 80,000 feet while taking crystal clear pictures. The plane still holds sustained speed records that have not been surpassed. It was the first titanium-bodied plane, used a special inlet cone design to force air into the engine at high altitudes, and one of the first to use stealth technology to reduce radar cross-sections. The book mixes Rich’s narrative with “testimonials” from pilots who flew the planes, defense secretaries like Bill Perry, and national security figures like Zbigniew Brzezinski. More than simply a narrative of building innovative aircraft (and even a stealth ship), it is a narrative of what it was like to work under Kelly Johnson and how he shaped the Skunk Works. One of the most significant contributions Johnson made, referenced by many texts on “skunk works” was Kelly’s 14 Rules, that articulated the requirements of a top secret, lean, innovative, cost-effective organization free of bureaucratic control that inflates costs, bogs down development and stifles creativity. One of the rules also established alternative compensation policies that compensated for performance rather than number of reports. Kelly was a formidable leader. He did not suffer fools gladly, losing him some contracts. He would not build a plane he didn’t believe in. He had zero tolerance for pretense. He had an amazing knowledge of every aspect of aviation engineering. He insisted that engineers work in close proximity to the shop floor. Rich speculates that such a leader probably would not be possible in his own era. Rich’s concluding chapter, “Drawing the Right Conclusions” outlines his own ideas for more sensible procurement policies throughout the defense industry. He anticipates the widespread use of drones. I don’t know enough to determine whether any of his idea have been adopted, but they make sense if one wants both to control costs, and maintain a technological edge in weaponry. It is fascinating to me that most of the applications of “skunk works” ideas have been in the technology world. I’m curious about the application of these ideas to the non-profit world, coming up with innovative ways to deliver services that better people’s lives. Often the challenge here is money to fund something outside of line management or support services, and satisfying funding entities that such an operation is not frivolous. My hunch is that there is a need for clear mission and bench marks, leadership that can manage lightly yet effectively a talented group of people, and good bridges back into the rest of the organization to test and implement ideas. All that said, Rich has given us a fascinating narrative of the original Skunk Works, fascinating both for anyone interested in military aviation, and instructive for those wanting to learn key principles for skunk works-type operations.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Noah Goats

    This book is a fascinating tour through the development of the most groundbreaking planes built by the legendary Skunk Works division of Lockheed. From the U-2, through the SR-71 Blackbird, to the stealth fighter, it’s an impressive record of engineering might. My brother, who is an engineer, has been recommending this book to me for years, but I’ve always thought “Sure, YOU like it, because you’re exactly the kind of nerd it would appeal to. I’m a different kind of nerd entirely.” But it was ve This book is a fascinating tour through the development of the most groundbreaking planes built by the legendary Skunk Works division of Lockheed. From the U-2, through the SR-71 Blackbird, to the stealth fighter, it’s an impressive record of engineering might. My brother, who is an engineer, has been recommending this book to me for years, but I’ve always thought “Sure, YOU like it, because you’re exactly the kind of nerd it would appeal to. I’m a different kind of nerd entirely.” But it was very accessible from beginning to end, and written in a very conversational and easy to digest style. I enjoyed every minute of it. And there’s more to the book than the story of technical achievements. For one thing, it includes some of the more interesting failures. We also get to hear the dramatic stories of men who flew these planes, like the U-2 pilot who accidentally flew into the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, nearly sparking WW3, to the stealth bomber pilot whose bomb bay doors didn’t close after he dropped his payload in Iraq. With the doors open he was uncomfortably exposed to enemy radar, and he had to crank the doors shut by hand as a missile streaked towards him (once the doors were shut he became invisible again and the missile missed). I listened to this on audiobook and the reader was very good.

  17. 4 out of 5

    The Vince

    A fascinating insights into the very secretive Skunk Works. Covering mostly the famous U2, SR-71 and F-117 with a bunch of side stories. It didn't top my ratings despite some entertaining stories and intriguing anecdotes about technical, political and personal aspects of spy plane development after WW2 and during the cold war. Story-telling is ok but not great, but this is what you usually get from this kind go biographie. Sometime over-romanticized and repetitive but sufficiently entertaining ov A fascinating insights into the very secretive Skunk Works. Covering mostly the famous U2, SR-71 and F-117 with a bunch of side stories. It didn't top my ratings despite some entertaining stories and intriguing anecdotes about technical, political and personal aspects of spy plane development after WW2 and during the cold war. Story-telling is ok but not great, but this is what you usually get from this kind go biographie. Sometime over-romanticized and repetitive but sufficiently entertaining overall. The early part of the book is the most interesting- about how they came up with stealth technology and the testing around it. But I could have done without the last part of the book which is mostly whining about the state of the aerospace industry and ramblings about politics. That part felt way too long and did not really fit with the rest of the book. Read it if you have a general interest in the topic and want entertaining, slightly technical stories surrounding those iconic planes/jets.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    This is a wonderful book, especially if you have a bit of interest in airplanes. Ben Rich was the head of Lockheed's Skunk Works in the late 70's to early 90's, and delivers interesting stories about the development of the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, stealth technology (including the creation of the F-117), and his admiration for Kelly Johnson. Also included are short passages by other Lockheed employees and military officials, which give a slightly different spin on each given story. Th This is a wonderful book, especially if you have a bit of interest in airplanes. Ben Rich was the head of Lockheed's Skunk Works in the late 70's to early 90's, and delivers interesting stories about the development of the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, stealth technology (including the creation of the F-117), and his admiration for Kelly Johnson. Also included are short passages by other Lockheed employees and military officials, which give a slightly different spin on each given story. The explanations of how Lockheed worked, and Johnson's legendary achievements are related well, and Rich's own accomplishments with stealth are explained well, too. It ends with some suggestions on how to improve the defense acquisitions programs with lessons from Skunk Works (and really, suggestions for companies in general given the right circumstances). Some of them have been tried (such as concurrency with the F-35), but it's hard to say if they have been successful, as Rich makes it clear that one has to do concurrency in a specific way to be successful. Mostly, though, it is a fun read to see US history through the lens of making amazing planes which were wonders for their time, and still impressive today. If that sounds interesting to you, I think you'll like it. If you don't care about airplanes and airplane technology, you probably will not like it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Vicki

    If you love reading books about the early days of the American space program and all the efforts in the air around the 1950s and 1960s, this is a fantastic book. It goes into the history of what it took to build the SR-71 Blackbird, a reconnaissance aircraft that was probably 30 years ahead of its time. It combines a number of fascinating approaches: philosophies around project management, the interaction with the Soviet Union during those years, geopolitics, and the author's perspective on lead If you love reading books about the early days of the American space program and all the efforts in the air around the 1950s and 1960s, this is a fantastic book. It goes into the history of what it took to build the SR-71 Blackbird, a reconnaissance aircraft that was probably 30 years ahead of its time. It combines a number of fascinating approaches: philosophies around project management, the interaction with the Soviet Union during those years, geopolitics, and the author's perspective on leadership, as well as how federal spending works. I'm only giving it four stars because it's definitely aged in terms of where the author's opinions fall in the social spectrum: he mentions his wife in a passing way for about a page and a half - when he mentions she dies! Of course, none of this can be helped and actually provides a valuable perspective on opinions in that era. But it still takes the shine off the book for me.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jaak Ennuste

    Enthusiasm, engineering brilliance, out of the box thinking. Solving the problems, never solved before in aerodynamics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, material science.... Just wow! Only bureaucracy could kill Skunk Works method...

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Gubbrud

    Super interesting! Highly recommend to all, especially engineering folks!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Oleh

    More then just a fascinating book about story of planes development. Absolutely loved it!

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sara Swart

    There are many wonderful non-fiction, semi-technical books that appeal beyond their own field. For me, Michael Lewis' ability to create drama around the financial sector is the pinnacle. Michael Pollen has dome similar for the industrial food complex, etc. I hoped Skunk Works would have the same effect on me, but it didn't. It's not that the book was overly technical, but rather that the author doesn't stop to reflect between technical sections. This got worse as the book went on (the editing was There are many wonderful non-fiction, semi-technical books that appeal beyond their own field. For me, Michael Lewis' ability to create drama around the financial sector is the pinnacle. Michael Pollen has dome similar for the industrial food complex, etc. I hoped Skunk Works would have the same effect on me, but it didn't. It's not that the book was overly technical, but rather that the author doesn't stop to reflect between technical sections. This got worse as the book went on (the editing was stronger in the first 20%, after which the book became increasingly linear in its technical narrative). As a person who considers string theory, modern middle east history, or the earlier-mentioned topics light reading, I have no issue with reading about aerospace or the arcane workings of the US government. But I want to know the author's take on it - what he learned - the emotional impact it had on him and others - how it might apply to me today. No doubt Skunk Works could have been that book, but it wasn't. At least not for me.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Hilary Mason

    If you love history of science and engineering stories, this one is great. The books covers both the technical side of aerospace innovation (and stealth technology!) and the human side of how the skunk works organization managed to pull off some of their most famous projects. It's a compelling story and moves quickly. That said, the author comes across as having a bit of an ego and an outdated notion of how society ought to function. For example, I think the only women mentioned in the book are w If you love history of science and engineering stories, this one is great. The books covers both the technical side of aerospace innovation (and stealth technology!) and the human side of how the skunk works organization managed to pull off some of their most famous projects. It's a compelling story and moves quickly. That said, the author comes across as having a bit of an ego and an outdated notion of how society ought to function. For example, I think the only women mentioned in the book are wives, and there's a few pages dedicated to how annoying it was that he was told to hire a more diverse staff.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jay Pruitt

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's clearly not for everyone, but if you grew up like I did daydreaming about all the incredible fighter, bomber and recon planes that were rumored (but never confirmed) to be in development or in use by the military, then this may be the perfect book for you. The book is all about Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works, but focuses mostly on the U-2 spy plane, the mach-3 Blackbird, and the technology known as "stealth". It's simply amazing how this group of engineers, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's clearly not for everyone, but if you grew up like I did daydreaming about all the incredible fighter, bomber and recon planes that were rumored (but never confirmed) to be in development or in use by the military, then this may be the perfect book for you. The book is all about Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works, but focuses mostly on the U-2 spy plane, the mach-3 Blackbird, and the technology known as "stealth". It's simply amazing how this group of engineers, cooped up in buildings with no windows, could design technologies that were well beyond anything conceivable in their time.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    It was interesting to contrast the tone of this book with Kai Bird's virtuoso Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus. Oppenheimer, the dovish intellectual, worked to prevent proliferation of the weapon he designed after the scientific and engineering obstacles had been cleared. By contrast, here is a book from the inner sanctum of the military-industrial complex, proud and unapologetic. Ben Rich spent several decades running Lockheed's (now Lockheed Martin) Skunk Works, the secretive team bui It was interesting to contrast the tone of this book with Kai Bird's virtuoso Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus. Oppenheimer, the dovish intellectual, worked to prevent proliferation of the weapon he designed after the scientific and engineering obstacles had been cleared. By contrast, here is a book from the inner sanctum of the military-industrial complex, proud and unapologetic. Ben Rich spent several decades running Lockheed's (now Lockheed Martin) Skunk Works, the secretive team building projects such as the F-117A stealth bomber. A staunch hawk - like Edward Teller, his immigrant hyperpatriotism is akin to the zeal of the convert - he describes the (newly declassified) bombers raining death from the skies onto the militarily laggard Iraqis like a sports match, captivated by the push and pull, the absoluteness of the victory. This is not a book to reflect on how that war misled the Pentagon into the belief that America's technological edge had obviated another Vietnam, a lesson which has been painfully relearned in the ongoing, bloody and futile conflicts beginning in 2001. (To be fair, Rich also died in 1995.) And it is also quite possible to be caught up in the thrill. Weird-shaped planes designed to scatter radar, that only get off the ground with computer-assisted stabilisation, are pretty cool. Rich is a storyteller to a fault, reducing everything to short anecdotes; but some of them are corkers. Finding piles of dead bats next to stealth planes each morning - they're invisible to sonar. Seeing a plane's stealth cloaking suddenly stop working, only because a tiny screw hadn't been completely fastened. Rich is not one of what he calls "nerd's nerds", who would dive deep on the physics (to my chagrin). With two engineering degrees, he is no slouch, but he seems like a backslapping good old boy who keeps his crew motivated with "farmer's daughter jokes" (should I ask?) and describes a tense moment as "you couldn't drive a needle up my ass with a sledgehammer". His coauthor, former LBJ speechwriter Leo Janos, does a fair job of shaping the book, adding "other voices" to flesh out the narrative. Rich's version of the CIA's covert U2 surveillance program is also...quite different from that described in Legacy of Ashes, with the agency going behind Eisenhower's back and ultimately causing a fiasco when Francis Gary Powers was shot down. While admitting it was an embarrassment, Rich claims that the intelligence was priceless: for example, U2 reconnaissance led to the discovery of the Soviet missile buildup in Cuba several years later. (Happily, the Skunk Works gave the pilot a job after he returned to the US and was shunned by the CIA for embarrassing them.) Rich also discusses the SR-71 Blackbird, and aborted plans involving drones, liquid hydrogen fuel, and a stealth ship. (Never work with the Navy, is his advice.) At the end Rich discusses what made the Skunk Works great and ways to improve defence manufacturing. He calls out excessive bureaucracy, which was caused by corruption and ballooning costs. Things seem only to have gotten worse. (When Peter Thiel sought an image of America's decline in his 2016 speech to the Republican National Convention, he lampooned Lockheed's latest model, the F-35, which cannot fly in the rain.) Rich worries that budget cost-cutting has caused manufacturing know-how and traditions to be lost in the US. But it also seems that the sector is much larger and less competitive than it needs to be, essentially operating as a sheltered jobs program in politically powerful states. Seemingly the overlap of military secrecy and large-scale manufacturing is a perfect formula for boondoggles. Making large aeroplanes isn't like a start-up, and even the somewhat agile Skunk Works was never able to produce planes on the mass scale of its parent company. Besides, one might wonder if the Skunk Works really was like a Bell Labs of defence aeronautics as Rich claims, consistently innovating and coming in under budget. In a field with little competition and much secrecy, all we have is his word.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lekan

    Going back and reviewing books I've read a long time ago... There are many contexts in which to read this book, and it excels at them all. I've gifted this book more times than any other book at this point. Read this to understand what overcoming challenges really means -- they had to invent from whole cloth the methods and tooling to work with titanium before manufacturing the SR-71. Read this as a startup manual -- between Kelly Johnson's 14 rules, and especially the philosophy of only having exc Going back and reviewing books I've read a long time ago... There are many contexts in which to read this book, and it excels at them all. I've gifted this book more times than any other book at this point. Read this to understand what overcoming challenges really means -- they had to invent from whole cloth the methods and tooling to work with titanium before manufacturing the SR-71. Read this as a startup manual -- between Kelly Johnson's 14 rules, and especially the philosophy of only having excellent people, and delegating full authority, has arguably trickled down to every startup. Read this to understand truly complex engineering projects -- I can probably say that nothing I've worked on comes even close to what they're doing, and very few engineering projects today are at the same level. Some of the current chip companies and space companies come close, but keep in mind that these folks were inventing things we take for granted nowadays. Read this for an appreciation of DoD innovation at its best -- depending on your culture, you probably have a lot of preconceived notions about what DoD engineering means. But the pinnacle of innovation in the DoD ecosystem is truly incredible, and it continues to this day. Read this for an understanding of the feeling of the Cold War -- the book beautifully paints the existential dread that inspired so many engineers to work furiously on these projects. And read this for inspiration -- I re-read this every year or two, and it always gives me a kick in the arse to think about what I'm doing, and whether it actually matters in the grand scheme of things -- will it even matter in 5 years? 20? 100? We all work hard. So we may as well work hard on something that matters and you'll look back fondly on.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tõnu Vahtra

    If you were wondering why Elon Musk wanted to name his most recent child A12 then read this book. One would not believe that such "rocket science" was already possible in 1950s and 60s. The book illustrates the technical concepts and challenges of stealth bombers and spy planes and the struggle to stay ahead in the cold war weapons race with USSR, definitely enlightening and also inspiring. Since all those projects were initially classified then even today you cannot be sure how much in the deta If you were wondering why Elon Musk wanted to name his most recent child A12 then read this book. One would not believe that such "rocket science" was already possible in 1950s and 60s. The book illustrates the technical concepts and challenges of stealth bombers and spy planes and the struggle to stay ahead in the cold war weapons race with USSR, definitely enlightening and also inspiring. Since all those projects were initially classified then even today you cannot be sure how much in the details has been edited out or changed but regardless the narrative is very well written with enough jokes on the way. I still find it hard to believe that the failure rate of such machines and hundreds of missions ended up with so low incident rate. “When Congress approved the decision to retire the SR-71, the Smithsonian Institution requested that a Blackbird be delivered for eventual display in the Air and Space Museum in Washington and that we set a new transcontinental speed record delivering it from California to Dulles. I had the honor of piloting that final flight on March 6, 1990, for its final 2,300-mile flight between L.A. and D.C. I took off with my backseat navigator, Lt. Col. Joe Vida, at 4:30 in the morning from Palmdale, just outside L.A., and despite the early hour, a huge crowd cheered us off. We hit a tanker over the Pacific then turned and dashed east, accelerating to 2.6 Mach and about sixty thousand feet. Below stretched hundreds of miles of California coastline in the early morning light. In the east and above, the hint of a red sunrise and the bright twinkling lights from Venus, Mars, and Saturn. A moment later we were directly over central California, with the Blackbird’s continual sonic boom serving as an early wake-up call to the millions sleeping below on this special day. I pushed out to Mach 3.3.” "We became the most successful advanced projects company in the world by hiring talented people, paying them top dollar, and motivating them into believing that they could produce a Mach 3 airplane like the Blackbird a generation or two ahead of anybody else. Our design engineers had the keen experience to conceive the whole airplane in their mind’s-eye, doing the trade-offs in their heads between aerodynamic needs and weapons requirements. We created a practical and open work environment for engineers and shop workers, forcing the guys behind the drawing boards onto the shop floor to see how their ideas were being translated into actual parts and to make any necessary changes on the spot. We made every shop worker who designed or handled a part responsible for quality control. Any worker—not just a supervisor or a manager—could send back a part that didn’t meet his or her standards. That way we reduced rework and scrap waste. We encouraged our people to work imaginatively, to improvise and try unconventional approaches to problem solving, and then got out of their way. By applying the most commonsense methods to develop new technologies, we saved tremendous amounts of time and money, while operating in an atmosphere of trust and cooperation both with our government customers and between our white-collar and blue-collar employees. In the end, Lockheed’s Skunk Works demonstrated the awesome capabilities of American inventiveness when free to operate under near ideal working conditions. That may be our most enduring legacy as well as our source of lasting pride.” “Overnight, however, he apparently had second thoughts, or did some textbook reading on his own, and at the next meeting he turned to me as the first order of business. “On the black paint,” he said, “you were right about the advantages and I was wrong.” He handed me a quarter. It was a rare win. So Kelly approved my idea of painting the airplane black, and by the time our first prototype rolled out the airplane became known as the Blackbird. Our supplier, Titanium Metals Corporation, had only limited reserves of the precious alloy, so the CIA conducted a worldwide search and, using third parties and dummy companies, managed to unobtrusively purchase the base metal from one of the world’s leading exporters—the Soviet Union. The Russians never had an inkling of how they were actually contributing to the creation of the airplane being rushed into construction to spy on their homeland.” “He told me later that he was surprised to learn that with flat surfaces the amount of radar energy returning to the sender is independent of the target’s size. A small airplane, a bomber, an aircraft carrier, all with the same shape, will have identical radar cross sections.” “We completed our pass over Beirut and turned toward Malta, when I got a warning low-oil-pressure light on my right engine. Even though the engine was running fine I slowed down and lowered our altitude and made a direct line for England. We decided to cross France without clearance instead of going the roundabout way. We made it almost across, when I looked out the left window and saw a French Mirage III sitting ten feet off my left wing. He came up on our frequency and asked us for our Diplomatic Clearance Number. I had no idea what he was talking about, so I told him to stand by. I asked my backseater, who said, “Don’t worry about it. I just gave it to him.” What he had given him was “the bird” with his middle finger. I lit the afterburners and left that Mirage standing still. Two minutes later, we were crossing the Channel.”

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bouke

    The incredibly interesting story of the Skunk Works section of Lockheed, which was responsible for revolutionary technology like the U-2, SR-71, and the F-117. This book shows how small teams of very smart and very driven people can produce incredible results. The initial designs of these planes were done with just around a score of people, but each brought in a revolution in the capabilities of the US military. There’s also a lot of funny anecdotes in this book, some of which I’ve highlighted.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Przemek

    This is something very different from most of the books I read. You don't need to be an engineer to understand the magnitude of discoveries and craftsmanship at Skunk Works. SR-71 still looks like an alien ship to me and to read how it came to be is great. Many different perspectives are presented, pilots, policymakers, airforce generals. Many of the 'Skunk Works rules' are popular today, very frugal, rugged product development, quick iterations, engineers, designers and workers sitting next to This is something very different from most of the books I read. You don't need to be an engineer to understand the magnitude of discoveries and craftsmanship at Skunk Works. SR-71 still looks like an alien ship to me and to read how it came to be is great. Many different perspectives are presented, pilots, policymakers, airforce generals. Many of the 'Skunk Works rules' are popular today, very frugal, rugged product development, quick iterations, engineers, designers and workers sitting next to each other around the prototype they build. They could get from design to flying planes sometimes in less than a year! As a bonus, few mentions of my native Poland, part of the Soviet block back then.

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