Skunk Works (1994) by Ben Rich and Jay Lenos is the story of the Skunk Works from a long time employee and manager of the remarkable Lockheed design and manufacturing outfit that created the F-104, U-2, SR-71, F-117 & F-22. The book is an inspiration for engineers who build anything. It’s got something of the feel of Soul of a New Machine.
Rich worked for Kelly Johnson, the founder of the Skunk Works and was nominated by Johnson to take over when he left. The technical achievement of creating aircraft like the U-2, that could fly higher than anything that came before it and fly so high it could evade Soviet missiles is well described. The extraordinary difficulty of flying the machines is also described by a number of first hand accounts.
The creation and flying of the SR-71 Blackbird is given a long treatment as well. The way that the daunting technical challenges were overcome is described such that anyone who appreciates engineering will really appreciate. The importance of the retractable cone at the front of the engines is brought to life.
The F-117’s design and manufacture is also fascinating. A Skunk works engineer obtained a Soviet engineer’s insightful paper, figured out what was possible and then convinced Rich and then the US government that a stealth fighter was possible. The Skunk Works team then built a flying prototype in incredibly short time that was a factor of a thousand less visible on radar than most aircraft. The success of the design led the Carter administration to abandon the expensive, doomed from the start B-1 that the Reagan administration would then bring back into existence.
As well as describing the incredible engineering feats Rich also provides an interesting view into how government contracts and construction have evolved since the 1950s. The explosion of paperwork and auditing is remarkable. Both the best and worst of government procurement is highlighted. The peculiar world of an industry where there is effectively one customer subject to a myriad of strange forces is quite something.
For anyone who is curious about the aircraft or who wants to read a well written tale of how first class engineering can be done the book is well worth obtaining. The plethora of anecdotes and descriptions of how problems were overcome is fascinating.