For Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, It’s All About Getting To The Prototype Stage

Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works advanced design bureau is in the midst of celebrating its 75th anniversary and has been revealing various heretofore unseen prototypes and information to mark the occasion. The firm has been particularly keen to stress how good it is at rapid prototyping, recently using a tongue-in-cheek principle to help explain how they’re continually able to get new aircraft flying so quickly.

On June 25, 2018, in a presentation at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ (AIAA) annual Aviation Forum in Atlanta, Georgia, representatives from Skunk Works showed a chart derived from one of Norm Augustine’s “laws” next to a list of some of their most famous aircraft and how long it took them to put it in the air for the first time. Norman Augustine served in senior civilian roles in the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army and was the first president of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, which came into being in 1995 when Lockheed merged with Martin Marietta.

“The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems” is the 15th of 52 laws that he first published in 1984. These were based on his experience both as an industry executive and a senior military official.

Though Augustine put it into writing more than four decades after what we now know as Skunk Works came into being, the aphorism almost perfectly encapsulates the reality that it and Kelly Johnson, its legendary first chief engineer, sought to change. The briefing slide in the presentation at the AIAA gathering was itself titled “Skunk Works Golden Rule: Get to a Prototype.”

According to the chart, the “skunking” to avoid as many potential pitfalls as possible starts with around 20 percent left to go on the project, but what that necessarily entails isn’t entirely clear. The goal is clearly to do everything possible to avoid getting bogged down in Augustine’s figurative final “10 percent” of the process and get as much as you can get done and finalized up front.

It can only require more time and effort to make significant changes and additions to an aircraft as time goes on and as an underlying design becomes firmer. This has only become truer as military aircraft have continued to become more complex over time in general. 

Still, right from its beginnings in 1943, the Skunk Works has been able to meet the deadlines despite complicated demands, truncated timetables, and limited resources. At that time, what was still the War Department, gave Lockheed and Johnson just six months to come up with a working fighter jet prototype that could hit 600 miles per hour.

Kelly Johnson sits in the cockpit of an F-104 Starfighter., Lockheed Martin

In something that seems perfect for a Hollywood biopic, Johnson took nearly 30 engineers and other 30 mechanics and set up shop in a circus tent next to a plastics factory spewing vile fumes. He had little choice since Lockheed’s actual facilities and the bulk of its personnel were all occupied building existing aircraft for the war effort.

The smell at the site is credited with being the basis for the Skunk Works name. In the comic strip Li’l Abner, the “Skonk Works” makes oil from the ground up dead skunks for some unknown purpose. The parallels led to the Lockheed group calling its own workspace the Skonk Works, which then became the Skunk Works. The organization’s mascot to this day is a cartoon skunk and the logo is an easy way to identify its projects.

The smell didn’t prevent Johnson’s team from building the first generation XP-80 fighter jet and having it take its first flight in just five months. Though too late to see service in World War II, the aircraft was an important development and led directly to the T-33 Shooting Star trainer and the F-94 Starfire radar-equipped interceptor. It only took three and four months respectively for those aircraft to go from the drawing board to their first flight.

Skunk Works was essentially inventing “rapid prototyping” before anyone had even coined that phrase. And in something of a precursor to Augustine’s Laws, Johnson established three ground rules for his team to help keep them on track.

A P-80 Shooting Star., USAF

These were “It’s more important to listen than to talk; second, even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision; and third, don’t halfheartedly wound problems–kill them dead,” according to a story on his management style by Fast Company. On top of all of that, he insisted that no one work on anything they didn’t believe in.

These principles eventually evolved into 14 rules, which Lockheed Martin still has on their website. They’re less humorous than Augustine’s maxims, but they’re no less important.

“There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly,” Johnson wrote. “There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.”

Whether they sound like truisms or not, it was an underlying philosophy that famously allowed Lockheed to go from a concept for a high-altitude spy plane to flying prototype of the U-2 spy plane in just eight months. This remains one of the shortest and most efficient projects in Skunk Works history.

A U-2C spy plane., USAF

It took less than three years to get to the first flight of the much more complicated supersonic A-12, the predecessor to the SR-71 spy plane and less time than that to craft the Have Blue stealth demonstrator aircraft. With its growing knowledge base and experience with quickly prototyping designs, Skunk Works was able to get the first F-117 Nighthawk stealth jet into the air in the same time it had taken them to develop the famous C-130 airlifter.

It took almost 50 months for the YF-22 and X-35 prototype stealth fighters, the latter of which led to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, to see their first flight. This might seem like a dramatic increase compared to how long things took with the F-117, but it’s impressive nonetheless when one considers that these schedules are still less than twice what it took to craft the Nighthawk and the resulting aircraft were significantly more complex.

A pair of F-117 Nighthawks., USAF

Skunk Works has only continued to improve its rapid manufacturing and prototyping capabilities since then. The most obvious of these projects was the experimental X-55A Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA), which was part of a dedicated U.S. Air Force program to explore the benefits of building aircraft using large sections made out of composite materials. 

It took just 20 months for Skunk Works to get the X-55A flying and organization pioneered a number of composite manufacturing techniques to get there. You can read more about that project in detail here.

But perhaps where Skunk Works has shown off the most in this regard is in its unmanned aircraft projects. It only took 18 months for the P-175 Polecat demonstrator drone to ready for its first flight. This almost certainly helped along by the development of the recently revealed X-44A, which itself was in part an effort to further advance Lockheed Martin’s existing rapid production methods. We don’t know how long that drone, or the secretive RQ-170 Sentinel that came after Polecat, took to get to its first flight.

The X-44A with a very prominent “Skunk Works” logo, photographed earlier in 2018., Matt Hartman/

It also helps explain the defense contractor’s confidence in deciding not to produce a physical prototype of its proposed design for the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray drone tanker program unless it actually wins the competition. Skunk Works has used the X-44A as a testbed for visual cueing systems it would include on its future MQ-25, creating a direct link between one rapid prototyping effort and another prospective one.

But there’s little doubt that the design group is continuing to build on this experience, as well as that from other projects in the classified realm that we still don’t know about yet. Having turned rapid prototyping and manufacturing into a science, Skunk Works can use that advantage, as well as existing design knowledge, to help keep development timelines for new aircraft as short as they can even when dealing with systems of ever-increasing complexity.

A rare shot of an RQ-170 in a special testing configuration., Matt Hartman/

If nothing else, Lockheed Martin’s advanced design teams are clearly eager to continue finding ways around Norm Augustine’s 15th law. But there are significant questions about whether or not these rapid prototyping mechanisms translates into positive gains when a particular aircraft goes from the prototype stage to series production. By that point, it’s out of Skunk Works’ hands.

Rushing to have 80 percent of an aircraft’s design done and a prototype flying as quickly as possible might be good for smaller programs the Skunk Works will ‘own’ throughout its life cycle, and for capturing larger development contracts, at least initially, but it doesn’t really change Augustine’s Law about growing complexities and resulting costs in the final stages of the project. And this is true especially for larger production programs the Skunk Works ‘passes off’ to a large degree after winning the initial contract. 

Lockheed Martin itself only needs to look at how successful it was in getting the X-35 flying and how long it is still taking to solve a host of subsequent challenges in the production version of the jet. Also, keep in the mind that the X-35 flew nearly two decades ago and the F-35’s first flight was well over a decade ago.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighters under construction., Lockheed Martin

To be fair, much of the fault there lies in the concept known as “concurrency,” in which the U.S. military agreed to buy a large number of aircraft under the premise that the larger orders up front would drive down production costs. Problems identified during the development phase would then get fixed on existing planes during depots maintenance and get inserted into jets on the production line “concurrently.” 

The entire plan has turned out to be inherently flawed, as many warned from the beginning, and has not only not delivered on the supposed cost savings, but led to substantial delays and overruns. Of course, the whole idea violated one of Kelly Johnson’s three core principles—that problems with a design shouldn’t be allowed to fester under the idea that they’ll get fixed later on.

As such, Skunk Works, and Lockheed Martin as a whole, might want to be mindful of another one of Augustine’s Laws, which comes right after the one they chose to cite in their presentation.

“In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft,” the former Lockheed Martin executive quipped in Law 16. “This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.