Read: 2024-06-12
Rating: 5/5

On Skunk Works

I learned a lot about Skunk Works. Arguably, it is the best and most badass division of engineers anywhere in the world.

We created the P-80, America’s first jet fighter; the F-104 Starfighter, our first supersonic jet attack plane; the U-2 spy plane; the incredible SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s first three-times-the-speed-of-sound surveillance airplane; and the F-117A stealth tactical fighter that many Americans saw on CNN scoring precision bomb strikes over Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm. (Page 13)
Saddam Hussein had sixteen thousand missiles and three thousand antiaircraft emplacements in and around Baghdad, more than the Russians had protecting Moscow. The F-117A was the only coalition airplane that would be used to hit Baghdad in this war. We got the missions most hazardous to a pilot’s health. But we destroyed them on the first night. To put it in domestic terms, if Baghdad had been Washington, that first night we knocked out their White House, their Capitol building, their Pentagon, their CIA and FBI, took out their telephone and telegraph facilities, damaged Andrews, Langley, and Bolling air bases, and punched big holes in all their key Potomac River bridges. And that was just the first night. We went back night after night over the next month. (Page 111)

The stealth fighters composed only 2 percent of the total allied air assets in action and they flew 1,271 missions—only 1 percent of the total coalition air sorties—but accounted for 40 percent of all damaged targets attacked and compiled a 75 percent direct-hit rate. The direct-hit rate was almost as boggling as the no-casualty rate (Page 114).

The Russians tried to stop our U-2s by trying to ram us with their fighters like a ballistic missile. They stripped down some of their MiG-21s and flew straight up at top speed, arcing up to sixty-eight thousand feet before flaming out and falling back toward earth. Presumably they got a relight down around thirty-five thousand feet. I’m sure they lost some airplanes and pilots playing kamikaze missile. It was crazy, but it showed how angry and desperate they were becoming. (Page 164)

Building the U-2 was absolutely the smartest decision ever made by the CIA. It was the greatest bargain and the greatest triumph of the cold war. And that airplane is still flying and is still tremendously effective. (Page 177)

During the Vietnam War, we launched gliders from our U-2s as decoys—a Kelly Johnson idea. The gliders carried tiny transmitters that fooled the North Vietnamese missile batteries into thinking they were actually B-52 bombers or fighter-bombers. So for $500 a decoy we forced them to launch missiles costing thousands of dollars. (Page 203)

Most missiles exploded harmlessly two to five miles behind the streaking SR-71. Often the crew was not even aware they had been fired upon. The Blackbirds flew 3,500 operational sorties over Vietnam and other hostile countries, photographed 100,000 square miles of terrain per hour, had more than one hundred SAM SA-2 missiles fired at them over the years, and retired gracefully in 1990 after twenty-four years of service as the only military airplane never to be shot down or lose a single crewman to enemy fire. Which was truly amazing because the Blackbird and its crews continuously drew the most dangerous missions. (Page 258)

  • That’s beyond incredible. They didn’t just create 0-1s, they created 0-100s on a routine basis. They later created the F-22 and F-35, which still are the world’s best fighter planes.

And I actually learned to love our slumlike working conditions. Everyone smoked in those days and the smoke clouds resembled a thick London fog. Since no outsiders, including secretaries or janitors, were allowed near us, we did our own sweeping up and took turns making our own coffee. Working to giddiness, we acted like college sophomores a shocking amount of the time. We hung “daring” pictures of petty girls in scanty swimsuits which could be flipped around to reveal on the opposite side a reproduction of waterfowl. Once we had a contest to measure our asses with calipers. Leave it to me, I had never won a contest before in my life and I won that one. I was presented with a certificate proclaiming me “Broad Butt of the Year.” From then on, “Broad Butt” was my nickname. It was still better than Dick Fuller’s, though. Everyone called him “Fulla Dick.” And we were supposedly an elite group doing momentous work. (Page 141)

Despite the dreadful hours and the problems they caused in family life, the Skunk Works was for me far more splendid than a misery. Each day I found myself stretching on tiptoes to keep pace with my colleagues. Working with that crew was invigorating and fun. One of my favorites was our hydraulics guru, Dave Robertson, who in his spare time built toy square shells for a toy square cannon he invented, just to prove it could work. One Sunday I went over to his house and we lit the powder charge on the front lawn. Boom! The square projectile shot in a high arc across the street and blasted through the neighbor’s upstairs window. “Wow,” Dave grinned, “that little sucker really works!” (Page 151)

  • It reminds me of my own experiences. The best and smartest people I know are oftentimes casual, funny, and just unexpectedly naive. Maybe great people know not to take themselves seriously.
  • The great team dynamics was the core of Skunk Works’ culture. Everyone trusted each other, which is sort of expected when you work 80 hours a week on the world’s most top-secret projects together. Impossible challenges are demotivating in the short term. The team culture is what enables you to get through. In a way, the abundance of top talent led them to believe in overcoming impossibility. Replicate that, and you can weather any storm. But in the long term, you will reflect on your life reminiscing over the difficult periods, not the easy ones.

Companies give Skunk Works lip service because we’ve been so successful running ours. The bottom line is that most managements don’t trust the idea of an independent operation, where they hardly know what in hell is going on and are kept in the dark because of security (Page 309)

  • Skunk Works was so successful, but people are still opposed to the idea of “Skunk Works” within their own companies because of ego issues.
  • Skunk Works was so successful because they were given the freedom to operate. No overbearing managers. No office politics. Just build whatever that gets the mission done.

Also if Kelly Johnson was alive today, he would be the definition of a badass builder leading the American Dynamism movement.

Models of the design were sent to the wind tunnel labs at the University of Michigan, where a young engineering student named Clarence Johnson contradicted the positive findings of his faculty advisers, who praised the design to Lockheed’s engineering team. Johnson, who was twenty-three, warned Lockheed’s chief engineer at the time that the design was inherently directionally unstable, especially with one engine out. Lockheed was sufficiently impressed to hire the presumptuous young engineer. (Page 123)

  • Challenge the status quo! Risk to be exceptional than to be merely average.

Kelly surrounded himself only with the kind of can-do guys that made American aerospace technology preeminent. To him, the word “impossible” was a gross insult. (Page 210)

  • To be exceptional, surround yourself with the exceptional who can challenge any “impossibles.”

Kelly turned to retired General Jimmy Doolittle, who was a key Eisenhower adviser on military and intelligence matters, as well as a board member of Shell Oil. Doolittle put the muscle on Shell to develop a special low-vapor kerosene for high altitudes. The fuel was designated LF-1A. The rumor about the LF abbreviation was that it stood for “lighter fluid.” The stuff smelled like lighter fluid, but a match wouldn’t light it. Actually, it was very similar in chemistry to a popular insecticide and bug spray of that era known as Flit. Once our airplane became operational, Shell diverted tens of thousands of gallons of Flit to make LF-1A in the summer of 1955, triggering a nationwide shortage of bug spray. (Page 139)

  • Maintain a good network.

That night we had a big party and we all got smashed. “Tony, you did a great job today,” Kelly said to me. Then he challenged me to an arm wrestle. The guy was strong as two oxen, but what the hell. He banged my arm down so hard he almost busted my wrist. I had it all bandaged up the next day. “What in hell happened to you?” he asked me. He was so soused he didn’t even remember arm-wrestling me.” (Page 148)

  • Somehow not only the best aerospace engineer that ever lived, but was buff as fuck and parties regularly.

Hell, in the main plant they give raises on the basis of the more people being supervised; I give raises to the guy who supervises least. That means he’s doing more and taking more responsibility. But most executives don’t think like that at all. Northrop’s senior guys are no different from all of the rest in this business: they’re all empire builders, because that’s how they’ve been trained and conditioned. Those guys are all experts at covering their asses by taking votes on what to do next. (Page 309)

  • Kelly Johnson on recognizing talent, being fair, and being a fearless builder-leader.

Kelly said what he meant and meant what he said, and he couldn’t care less about who was offended. I remember attending one black-tie affair with him in late 1974 at which Barry Goldwater, a general in the Air Force Reserve, was being honored with an award, and half the Air Force high command was present. Kelly was asked to make a few remarks. He said: “I’ve never got in trouble making a speech on engineering. But over the years I’ve learned what not to say. I’m an expert at that. For instance, I will not say that if we had followed the policies of the man we are honoring tonight we would not have made such a shambles of the Vietnam War as we did. Nor would I say how stupid we were in the same war to take the guns out of our fighter aircraft and then send our pilots into combat with such a cost-saving training program that few of them had fired even a handful of air-to-air missiles before facing the enemy. And for gosh sakes, I won’t say that the Israeli air force using the same kind of U.S. aircraft against the same kind of MiGs scored about four times the victory ratios that we did, using better pilot training and tactics!” (Page 312)

  • Be honest. Say what you mean.

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was an authentic American genius. He was the kind of enthusiastic visionary that bulled his way past vast odds to achieve great successes, in much the same way as Edison, Ford, and other immortal tinkerers of the past. When Kelly rolled up his sleeves, he became unstoppable, and the nay-sayers and doubters were simply ignored or bowled over. He declared his intention, then pushed through while his subordinates followed in his wake. He was so powerful that simply by going along on his plans and schemes, the rest of us helped to produce miracles too. (Page 320)

On Venture Capital, People, and Leadership

There were surprisingly a lot of lessons applicable to understanding venture capital, people, and leadership.

On several occasions, Kelly actually gave back money to the government, either because we had brought in a project under budget or because he saw that what we were struggling to design or build was just not going to work. Kelly’s motto was “Be quick, be quiet, be on time.” (Page 14)

After the first two batches of deliveries we achieved phenomenal efficiency. So much so that we made about $80 million on the deal. At one point I offered to give the government some of its money back because even in the Reagan years I was scared of being accused of making excessive profits. That was a federal offense, punishable with heavy fines. The Air Force told me it had no bookkeeping methods for taking back money, so I gave them $30 million worth of free engineering improvements on the airplane. (Page 93)

  • Similar to returning unused capital back to VCs… be realistic, be generous, and be honest.

”Don’t build an airplane you don’t really believe in. Don’t prostitute yourself or the reputation of the Skunk Works. Do what’s right by sticking to your convictions and you’ll do okay.” (Page 20)

Angels belong in heaven, not in the tough competitive world of aerospace, but I kept my word to Kelly and never did build an airplane that I didn’t believe in. Like him, I turned down projects I felt were wrongly conceived. I never lied to a customer or tried to dodge the heat when we screwed up. I knew how other companies operated, and I was convinced that our reputation for integrity would gain more business than we would ever lose by turning away questionable ventures. And I was right. (Page 322)

  • Do what you believe in. Don’t chase things just because other people are.

I take credit for immediately recognizing the value of stealth before it became apparent to everyone else, and for taking major risks in expending development costs before we had any real government interest or commitment. The result was that the F-117A was the most significant advance in military aviation since jet engines, while rendering null and void the enormous 300-billion-ruble investment the Soviets had made in missile and radar defenses over the years. (Page 20)

The SR-71 was about one hundred times stealthier than the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat fighter, built ten years later. (Page 29)m

  • Same as above. Build near-impossible things and push yourself.

During those early months of the Hopeless Diamond (F-117A), I dug in my heels. I forced our in-house doubters to sit down with Denys and receive a crash course on Stealth 101. That helped to improve their confidence quotient somewhat, and although I acted as square-shouldered as Harry Truman challenging the Republican Congress, deep down I was suffering bouts of angst myself, wondering if Kelly and some of the other skeptics had it right while I was being delusional. I kept telling myself that the financial and personal risks in pursuing this project were minimal compared to its enormous military and financial potential (Page 37)

  • When you build great things for the future, it isn’t apparent how it is useful now. There will always be naysayers and skeptics. Push back. Be confident. Don’t regress to the mean. Understand that most people would rather risk being average than risk being exceptional.

The first day we placed our F-117A model on the pole, the pole registered many times brighter than the model (in terms of radar). The technicians had a fit. They had thought their poles were invisible, but the trouble was nobody had ever built a model that was so low in radar signature to show them how wrong they really were. (Page 40)

Have Blue flew against the most sophisticated radars on earth, I think, and broke every record for low radar cross section. At one point we had flown right next to a big Boeing E-3 AWACS, with all its powerful electronics beaming full blast in all directions. Those guys liked to brag that they could actually find a needle in a haystack. Well, maybe needles were easier to find than airplanes. (Page 68)

  • Through luck and sheer will, you can do things that were previously thought impossible. From then on, everything else will suddenly look dull in comparison. Fight for that moment!

Denys thought he would need six months to create his computer software based on Ufimtsev’s formula. I gave him three months. We code-named the program Echo I. Denys and his old mentor, Bill Schroeder, who had come out of retirement in his eighties to help him after serving as our peerless mathematician and radar specialist for many years, delivered the goods in only five weeks. (Page 26)

  • Good people build. Great people build fast. Good leaders push people from good to great.

At the Skunk Works we designed practical, used off-the-shelf parts whenever possible, and did things right the first time. My wing man, for example, had designed twenty-seven wings on previous Skunk Works’ airplanes before tackling the Hopeless Diamond. (Page 34)

Since this was just an experimental stealth test vehicle destined to be junked at the end, it was put together with avionics right off the aviation version of the Kmart shelf: we took our flight control actuators from the F-111 tactical bomber, our flight control computer from the F-16 fighter, and the inertial navigation system from the B-52 bomber. We took the servomechanisms from the F-15 and F-111 and modified them, and the pilot’s seat from the F-16. The heads-up display was designed for the F-18 fighter and adapted for our airplane. In all we got about $3 million worth of equipment from the Air Force. That was how we could build two airplanes and test them for two years at a cost of only $30 million. Normally, a prototype for an advanced technology airplane would cost the government three or four times as much. (Page 51)

  • Don’t try to reinvent the wheel in your ventures. Saving costs is always a priority.

The Skunk Works program manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should have the authority to make quick decisions regarding technical, financial, or operational matters. (Page 58)

  • As a CEO or a manager of your team, the ability to move fast is important. Don’t create complicated, time-blocking hierarchies.

Seventy-two hours before the first test flight, the airplane began to seriously overheat near the tail during engine test runs. The engine was removed, and Bob Murphy and a helper decided to improvise by building a heat shield. They noticed a six-foot steel shop tool cabinet. “Steel is steel,” Murphy said to his assistant. “We’ll send Ben Rich the bill for a new cabinet.” They began cutting up the cabinet to make the heat shield panels between Have Blue’s surface and its engine. And it worked perfectly. Only in the Skunk Works… (Page 60)

He offered five hundred bucks to anyone who could come up with an effective high-temperature fuel-tank sealant. No one collected that dough either, and our airplane would sit on the tarmac leaking fuel from every pore. But fortunately the tanks sealed themselves in flight from the heat generated by supersonic speeds. (Page 222)

  • What a true MVP looks like and what a fast builder looks like. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just build it fast so that it works.

The first Russian overflight occurred on July 4, 1956. A CIA pilot named Harvey Stockman flew over northern Poland into Belorussia and over Minsk, then turned left and headed to Leningrad. He was tracked on radar all the way, and dozens of Soviet interceptors tried in vain to reach him, but he made it back safely into Germany having flown for nearly nine hours. (Page 158)

  • And that your MVP can fail even with lots of engineering. Or succeed by chance.

The heads of three screws were not quite tight and extended above the surface by less than an eighth of an inch. On radar they appeared as big as a barn door! (Page 77)

  • Similar to Pareto’s Principle. Sometimes small things can have an outsized effect. In your ordinary day to day life, you make thousands of decisions. Each small decision can have an outsized effect. Don’t waste them.

You’ve got the brains and personality to do the job. We’ve got a lot of talented engineers around here, but not too many natural leaders. I (Kelly Johnson) like the way you get along, how you deal up-front with everyone, with your good spirit and your energy. So, goddam it, between now and my retirement party, don’t you dare quit Skunk Works.” (Page 310)

  • Being the smartest isn’t usually the way most people get promoted to senior positions (it is also much more difficult). Practice your soft-skills.

But Ben Rich was a Skunk Worker through and through. He was an extrovert, high-intensity, no B.S. kind of guy. He told outrageous jokes and talked faster than a machine gun when he got excited about something, which was most of the time. He was just like Kelly when it came to problem solving and pushing things ahead—they were a couple of terriers who never let go or gave up. (Page 316)

  • Be optimistic! Help others feel energized.

Rules, regulation, hierarchies, and procedures are bad because they slow things down.

Kelly had operated in a paradise of innocence, long before EPA, OSHA, EEOC, or affirmative action and minority hiring policies became the laws of our land. I was forced by law to buy two percent of my materials from minority or disadvantaged businesses, but many of them couldn’t meet my security requirements. I also had to address EEOC requirements on equal employment opportunity and comply with other laws that required hiring a certain number of the disabled. Burbank was in a high-Latino community and I was challenged as to why I didn’t employ any Latino engineers. “Because they didn’t go to engineering school” was my only reply. If I didn’t comply I could lose my contract, its high priority notwithstanding. And it did no good to argue that I needed highly skilled people to do very specialized work, regardless of race, creed, or color. I tried to get a waiver on our stealth production, but it was almost impossible. (Page 83)

The Skunk Works facilities were old, many of them dating back to World War II, and even a myopic OSHA inspector would have had a field day finding inadequate ventilation or potentially unsafe asbestos insulation still in the walls. Our work areas were very skunky, ladders all over the place, lots of wiring to trip over, an oil slick or two. We had worked fast and loose from day one—with seldom an accident or a screwup. That was part of our charm, I thought. We were great innovators, rule benders, chance takers, and when appropriate, corner cutters. We did things like fuel airplanes inside an assembly area—a strictly forbidden act that risked fires or worse—to solve the problem of not having to move a very secret airplane into daylight to see if its fuel system leaked. (Page 83)

This inspector came out and nickel-and-dimed me into a total of two million bucks in fines for no fewer than seven thousand OSHA violations. He socked it to me for doors blocked, improper ventilation, no backup emergency lighting in a workspace, no OSHA warning label on a bottle of commercial alcohol. That latter violation cost me three grand. (Page 86)

Toward the end of the stealth project I had nearly forty auditors living with me inside our plant, watching every move we made on all security and contract matters. The chief auditor came to me during a plant visit and said, “Mr. Rich, let’s get something straight: I don’t give a damn if you turn out scrap. It’s far more important that you turn out the forms we require.” (Page 87)

The Drug Enforcement Agency has 1,200 enforcement agents out in the field fighting the drug trafficking problem. The DOD employs 27,000 auditors. That kind of discrepancy shows how skewed the impulse for oversight has become both at the Pentagon and in the halls of Congress. (Page 335)

  • The first lesson is to optimize for speed no matter what. The second is that to do great things, you sometimes have to break rules and be unconventional. Don’t add unnecessary amounts of procedures, rules, and paperwork that are trivial in nature.
  • For example, long approval processes that exist for the sake of having someone senior sign off on something to kick accountability up the chain. This is common in large organizations.

In fact the entire Skunk Works design group for the Blackbird totaled seventy-five, which was amazing. Nowadays, there would be more than twice that number just pushing papers around on any typical aerospace project. (Page 225)

  • Increasing people often slows projects down. Be lean.

Luck is important.

Vito had a close call. The ground crew had put his poison cyanide pill in the wrong pocket. We were issued the pill in case of capture and torture and all that good stuff, but given the option whether to use it or not. But Carmen didn’t know the cyanide was in the right breast pocket of his coveralls when he dropped in a fistful of lemon-flavored cough drops. The cyanide pill was supposed to be in an inside pocket. Vito felt his throat go dry as he approached Moscow for the first time—who could blame him? So he fished in his pocket for a cough drop and grabbed the cyanide pill instead and popped it into his mouth. He started to suck on it. Luckily he realized his mistake in a split second and spit it out in horror before it could take effect. (Page 160)

But the pilot on that mission was forced to crash-land short of his base in Thailand and came down in a rice paddy. He was able to negotiate a deal with the village headman: the villagers helped him to cut up the U-2 and put the pieces aboard oxcarts and haul it to a clearing, where a CIA C-124 landed the next day and took him and his plane out. In return, the agency paid the headman five hundred bucks to build a schoolhouse. (Page 197)

  • The villagers could’ve exposed the top-secret technology. But they didn’t – by sheer luck they were convinced over $500.

Why aren’t there more Skunk Works-like groups now?
(See above on rules and regulations.)

There are very few strong-willed individualists in the top echelons of big business—executives willing or able to decree the start of a new product line by sheer force of personal conviction, or willing to risk investment in unproven technologies. As salaries climb into the realm of eight-figure annual paychecks for CEOs, and company presidents enjoy stock options worth tens of millions, there is simply too much at stake for any executive turtle to stick his neck out of the shell. (Page 340)

  • Executives are scared of sticking out and risking stock prices.

Extremely difficult but specific objectives (e.g., a spy plane flying at 85,000 feet with a range of 6,000 miles) and the freedom to take risks—and fail—define the heart of a Skunk Works operation. (Page 340)

  • People are inspired to build near-impossible things.

That means hiring generalists who are more open to nonconventional approaches than narrow specialists. (Page 340)

  • The world has moved to specialized engineers, rather than rewarding those who can think and learn fast.


The book was very enjoyable and there were a lot of funny moments!

The radar operator has no idea that two airplanes should be on his scope—not one—and that he never did pick up Have Blue as it flew overhead. “Sorry, sir,” the young captain says to me with a smug sneer. “Looks like your gizmo isn’t working too good.” Had this been a combat situation, the stealth fighter could have used high-precision, laser-guided bombs against the van and that smug captain would never have known what hit him. Might have taught him a lesson in good grammar too. (Page 10)

Keith Beswick, head of our flight test operations, designed a coffee mug for his crew with a clever logo showing the nose of F-117A peeking from one end of a big cloud with a skunk’s tail sticking out the back end. Because of the picture of the airplane’s nose, security classified the mugs as top secret. (Page 50)

The Saudis provided us with a first-class fighter base with reinforced hangars, and at night the bats would come out and feed off insects. In the mornings we’d find bat corpses littered around our F-117As inside the open hangars. Bats used a form of sonar to “see” at night, and they were crashing blindly into our low-radar-cross-section tails. (Page 109)

  • The first time they knew their stealth technology was good enough to fool even evolution.

About halfway through the Iraq War we began running low on bomb supplies and reverted to using a lighter bomb. Those GBU-10s bounced right off the roof of some hardened hangars at a forward Iraqi airbase called H-2. CIA reported that the Iraqis were gleeful, felt they had finally defeated us at something, so they crammed these hangars with as many of their remaining jet fighters as they could. We waited for a couple of days, then went in with our heavier GBU-27s and blew that damned air base off the map. (Page 112)

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. (Page 219)

  • So Russia provided a bulk of the raw materials to create the SR-71 – the fastest flying manned aircraft (still) that plagued them during the Cold War.

We decided to cross France without clearance instead of going the roundabout way. We were almost across France when I looked out the left window of the SR-71 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 his middle finger. I lit the afterburners, jumped to Mach 3, and left that Mirage standing still. Two minutes later, we were crossing the Channel. (Page 273)

One photo revealed that an errant bomb had accidentally hit an underground ammunition storage facility not far from the presidential palace. The Libyans thought that the hit was intentional and were stunned at our apparent intimate knowledge of their secret storage facilities. “How did the Americans know?” (Page 275)

Soviet spy satellites overflew once a day because the Navy used that desert range for missile testing, and the Russians must have wondered what in hell we were up to out there, stocking a pool near Death Valley for thirsty mules and horses. (Page 296)

Kelly asked me for my appraisal of the Harvard Business School. To accommodate him, I wrote out an equation: ⅔ of HBS = BS. He roared with laughter, had my equation framed, and gave it back to me for Christmas. (Page 304)

  • To this day, many people say that MBAs are useless.

Other random quotes that stuck out to me.

Had Powers killed himself or not survived the missile hit, he would have come home a hero in a flag-draped wooden box. But coming home haggard and alive, he was greeted like a traitor and was whisked off in great secrecy to a CIA safe house in Virginia to be grilled unmercifully for days about his experiences over and inside Russia. (Page 175)

  • That was really sad. You can spend (and risk) your life helping others, but the second you make a mistake, people can turn on you in an instant.

But that was inconsequential compared to another blue-suiter U-2 pilot, Major Chuck Maultsby, who was flying out of Alaska on a routine sampling mission right at the height of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. His mission took him over the North Pole in the middle of the night, and when he turned to return to Alaska, he took the wrong south heading and wound up flying deep into Soviet territory. The Russians picked him up right away and thought SAC was coming in the back way to nuke them and start World War III. We monitored them scrambling jets against Chuck. He could see the contrails of dozens of fighters trying to reach his altitude and shoot him down. Finally, President Kennedy got on the hot line with Khrushchev and told him we have a lost U-2 pilot over your country on a weather mission, and he is not—repeat, not—a hostile aircraft. (Page 200)

  • Honestly, surprised how many times we were an inch away from thermonuclear war.

This happened to a Blackbird over West Virginia. The pilot struggled to relight both engines as the airplane plunged toward earth. Finally at thirty thousand feet, the two engines came alive with a tremendous sonic boom that shattered windows for miles and toppled a factory’s tall chimney, crushing two workers to death. (Page 237)

The drone crashed into the fuselage of the Blackbird, which spun wildly out of control. Park and Torick both ejected with their pressure suits inflated. Bill Park was picked up in a life raft 150 miles at sea. Torick splashed down nearby, but rashly opened the visor of his helmet while he was paddling in the ocean, so that water flooded into his pressure suit through the neck ring and he sank like a stone. (Page 286)

  • Lots of close calls and near deaths for pilots.

The decline of American innovation.

But a Skunk Works is no panacea for much that ails American industry in general or the defense industry in particular. I worry about our shrinking industrial base and the loss of a highly skilled workforce that has kept America the unchallenged aerospace leader since World War II. By layoffs and attrition we are losing skilled toolmakers and welders, machinists and designers, wind tunnel model makers and die makers too. And we are also losing the so-called second tier—the mom-and-pop shops of subcontractors who supplied the nuts and bolts of the industry, from flight controls to landing gears. (Page 343)

  • Too much offshoring (manufacturing to China, now software engineering to India) drains the American workforce of skills necessary for the future.

During the 1980s an incredible $2 trillion was spent on military acquisitions alone, with new aircraft receiving the largest share of the defense budget, about 43 percent, followed in distant second place by missiles and electronics. The development costs of fighters have increased by a factor of 100 since the 1950s, and unit procurement costs have risen 11 percent every year since 1963! Small wonder, then, that there were only seven new airplanes introduced in the 1980s, compared to forty-nine in the 1950s. Only three new airplanes have been produced so far in this decade. Correspondingly, the aerospace industry has lost more than a quarter of its workforce since 1987. (Page 344)

  • As a result of excess regulations, outsourcing and offshoring, and brain-drain, it seems that America’s golden age has passed.