Book: Skunk Works by Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos

Good story about designing interesting airplanes

Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos
Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed
Little, Brown, 1994
ISBN: 0-316-74300-3
350 pages (main text)

Anyone who is an aviation geek like me will recognize the name Skunk Works. It's the unofficial name of a very-independent division within Lockheed that has produced many of the firm's most impressive and secret military planes. That geek would probably also recognize the name of the division's first boss, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. Ben Rich isn't quite such a famous figure in aviation, but he was the division's second boss.

Skunk Works is interesting and Mr Rich seems to have been ably assisted by his co-author. The book is mostly the story of the creation of three tremendously impressive and successful aircraft, the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes and the F-117 stealth fighter (really more of a light bomber). All three were generations ahead of what anyone else was doing at the time they were new, and the U-2 is still in service today, despite its first flying in 1955.

The first four chapters are about Mr Rich's first years as the head of the Skunk Works and the development of the stealth fighter, which was his project from the start. It's worth the price of the book just to read the story of how American anti-radar stealth technology came about as a result of a Skunk Works engineer, Denys Overholser, having read a technical article on radio waves by a Russian scientist that was published in an open Russian journal.

Most of the rest of the book is about Mr Rich's years working for Kelly Johnson on the U-2, the SR-71 and a few other, less successful projects. The last chapter is advice to military planners and people who build things for them. It may well be right, but it's probably not especially interesting unless you fall into one of those categories.

If you're at all interested in airplanes and you don't know the story of the Skunk Works, of a small number of very clever and independent engineers working closely (both figuratively and literally) with very good production workers, by all means read the book. The Skunk Works is a remarkable place and Messrs Rich and Janos tell its relatively recent history well.

People who are familiar with the story of the Skunk Works will naturally find less that's new. The story of the stealth fighter is a good one and there are several more good stories, albeit on a smaller scale. Some of them are in sections called "Other Voices" in which other people (pilots, spies, defense secretaries, other engineers, and so on) amplify what Mr Rich says by telling their own stories for a few paragraphs or a few pages. There aren't very many non-fiction books in which you'll read something like:

    I crossed the Russian border with only a hundred
    gallons of fuel remaining. Really getting hairy. I
    didn't see any smoke, so I came in and landed with
    less than twenty gallons left in the tank. One of the
    agents had a six pack of beer icing. (p. 150)

Of course, any reader will wonder what fascinating things had to be left out because they're still secret.

There are a couple of small editing errors. There's "worst" where "worse" is wanted (p. 184). I suspect that something like "alloy of titanium" is meant rather than "alloy called titanium" (p. 202). And "over-rotated the engines" should almost certainly be just "over-rotated" (p. 219). That last one would look odd to an editor, but not to a pilot.

Posted: Thu - September 14, 2006 at 08:01 PM   Main   Category: