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Skunk works are a top-secret US military defense works.

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Skunk works is a term used in engineering and technical fields. Skunk works is used to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy. The Skunk works is tasked with working on advanced or top-secret projects.

Lockheed's Skunk Works.

Skunk works.
A modern Skunk works project leverages an older: LASRE atop the SR-71 Blackbird.
Skunk Works.
Entrance plaza at the Skunk Works in Palmdale, California.

Skunk Works-an official alias for Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs, formally Lockheed Advanced Development Projects Unit-has been responsible for a number of famous aircraft designs, including the U-2, the SR-71, and the F-117. Its largest current project is the F-35 JSF (Joint Strike Fighter), which will be used in the air forces of several countries around the world. Production is expected to last for up to four decades.

The Skunk Works was founded at Burbank, California when Lockheed was tasked with building a high speed, highly maneuverable fighter to compete with the aircraft coming out of the Messerschmitt factory. Lockheed Model 22, rolled out in December 1938 and had her maiden flight on January 27, 1939. This plane would later be known as the P-38, and would be one of the most successful aircraft in the U.S. military for its time. Later, near the close of World War II Skunk Works was tasked with developing the United States' first operational jet fighter-the P-80 Shooting Star. A small team of engineers led by Kelly Johnson created the first prototype in only 143 days. (Kelly Johnson headed the Skunk Works until 1975. He was succeeded by Ben Rich.)

In 1955, the Skunk Works received a contract to build a spyplane known as the U-2 with intention of overflying the Soviet Union and photographing sites of strategic interest. The U-2 was tested at Groom Lake in the Nevada desert. The first overflight took place in July 1956. The U-2 ceased overflights when Francis Gary Powers was shot down during a mission on May 1, 1960, when over Russia.

The Skunk Works had predicted that the U-2 had a limited operational life over the Soviet Union. The CIA agreed. The Skunk Works got a contract in late 1959 to build five A-12 aircraft at a cost of $96 million dollars. Building a Mach 3.0 aircraft out of titanium posed enormous difficulties and the first flight did not occur until 1962. Several years later, the U. S. Air Force became interested in the design, and it ordered the SR-71 Blackbird, an improved two seater version of the A-12. This aircraft first flew in 1966 and remained in service until 1989.

The D-21 drone, similar in design to the Blackbird, was built to overfly China. This drone sat on top of a specially modified A-12, known as M-21, of which there were two built. No D-21s were successfully launched from M-21s, although a few were deployed from B-52s.

After the Cold War ended in 1989, Lockheed reorganized its operations and relocated the Skunk Works to Site 10 at U. S. Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California where it remains in operation today.

The term "Skunk Works" is a registered trademark of Lockheed Martin; the company also holds several registrations of it with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They have filed several challenges against registrants of domain names containing variations on the term under anti-cybersquatting policies.

Skunk works aircraft.

Term origin of Skunk works.

Skunk Works logo.
The Skunk Works logo as seen on one of Lockheed Martin's hangars.

The term "Skunk works" came from the Al Capp comic strip Li'l Abner, which was popular in the 1940s. In the comic, the "Skonk Works" was a backwoods still operated by Big Barnsmell, known as the "inside man at the Skonk Works." In his secret facility, he made "kickapoo joy juice" by grinding dead skunks and worn shoes into a smoldering vat.

The original Lockheed facility, during the development of the P-80, was located downwind of a malodorous plastics factory. According to Ben Rich's memoir, an engineer showed up to work one day wearing a civil defense gas mask as a gag. To comment on the smell and the secrecy the project entailed, another engineer, Irving Culver, referred to the facility as "Skonk Works". One day, when the Department of the Navy was trying to reach the Lockheed management for the P-80 project, the call was accidentally transferred to Culver's desk. Culver answered the phone in his trademark fashion of the time, by picking up the phone and stating "Skonk Works, inside man Culver". "What?" replied the voice at the other end. "Skonk Works," Culver repeated. The name stuck. Culver later said at an interview conducted in 1993 that "when Kelly Johnson heard about the incident, he promptly fired me. It didn't really matter, since he was firing me about twice a day anyways."

At the request of the comic strip copyright holders, Lockheed changed the name of the advanced development company to "Skunk Works" in the 1960s. The name "Skunk Works" and the skunk design are now registered trademarks of the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

References in popular culture to the Skunk works.

On TV's King of the Hill, Hank Hill's boss, Mr. Strickland, refers to the men's room as the "skunk works," on account of the smell. He frequently holds meetings there while on the toilet. In addition, in the episode "Dog Dale Afternoon", Dale refers to his mower as "code named Redeemer at the Mason Mower Skunk works inside Mount Hood," comparing his mower to a jet.

The computer game, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, includes a base facility, 'Skunkworks,' which allows any base in which it is built to construct units that have not yet been prototyped without the usual increased mineral penalty.

In the Star Trek: Titan novels Dr. Xin Ra-Havreii, designer of the USS Titan, refers to the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards as the Skunkworks.

In homage to the Skunk Works, Specialized Bicycles named their advanced products division "S-Works"

Daniel Hecht's 2001 novel The Babel Effect refers to a group of cutting-edge genetic researchers as the "Skunk Works" team.

Why not also search for...

  • Area 51.
  • Have Blue.
  • USAF Plant 42.
  • Cormorant.

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