Kelly's Skunk Works

Lockheed Martin's renowned Skunk Works marked its 60th Anniversary in 2003. An informal name for the Lockheed organization led by Clarence L "Kelly" Johnson that produced many of America's most technologically advanced aircraft, the Skunk Works has made an indelible mark on aviation history. It is regarded worldwide as one of the most respected design and development names in aeronautics.

    During the heat of World War II, Johnson, Lockheed's legendary aircraft designer, forged a team of engineers behind tightly closed doors in makeshift facilities in Burbank and designed and developed the P-80 Shooting Star, the Air Force's first truly operational jet fighter, in a mere 143 days.

    Since then that organization continued within Lockheed and has given shape to many firsts like the F-104 Starfighter, the first Mach 2 aircraft, the U-2 recon, which is still the highest-flying single-engine airplane, and the SR-71 Blackbird, first to fly at speeds in excess of Mach 3.

    The Skunk Works was also responsible for development of the F-117 Nighthawk, the world's first operational stealth fighter, and led development of the YF-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter, the forerunner of today's F/A-22 Raptor, the first aircraft to combine stealth, supercruise, super maneuverability, and highly integrated avionics.

But how did the Skunk Works name come into being? The actual facts have been clouded by time and shaped by legend, but it most likely derived from the "Skonk Works" in Al Capp's popular '40s-era "Li'l Abner" comic strip appearing in newspapers nationwide. It is believed that Irven Culver, a talented designer who worked on Johnson's original 1943 P-80 development team, was responsible for first using the name.

    Johnson, who died in 1990, noted in his autobiography: "The legend goes that one of our engineers—I guess it was Culver—was asked, 'What is Kelly doing in there?' 'He's stirring up some kind of brew,' was his answer. This brought to mind Li'l Abner and the hairy Indian1 in that strip who regularly stirred up a big brew, throwing in skunks, old shoes, and other material to make his 'Kickapoo Joy Juice.'"

    Culver's version differed. He recalled that World War II secrecy was such that Lockheed engineers could not even identify their office when answering the phone. The isolation reminded him of the covert Kickapoo Joy Juice distillery in the comic strip. So, one day when a group of Pentagon military officers placed a conference call, he answered, "Skonk Works, inside man Culver." After an pregnant pause, one of the officers asked, "What?" Culver repeated, "Skonk Works," and the name stuck. Disney artists came up with a cartoon mascot, and the name became a registered Lockheed trademark.

    There are conflicting versions of how and when the name morphed from dialectic "Skonk" to "Skunk." One is that, after Capp's death in 1979, copyright holders objected to its use without royalties, and the other says that Capp—who apparently early on did object to its use—finally relented and granted permission to Lockheed2. Since no exact date is known about the changeover (once source says c.1960), which might weight one claim over the other, it's anybody's guess. There is also another version of source, claiming the name came about from a nearby plastics plant in Burbank that released foul odors, which prompted Culver to show up one day wearing a gas mask, but no Works old-timers were found who could substantiate that one.

Nestled on the fringes of California's Mojave Desert, Advanced Development Programs (less formally, Skunk Works) today continues its notable tradition by developing transformational strategies and classified products in a "quick," "quiet," and "quality" manner to support its varied customers. It continues to brew innovations that will serve our nation's defense for decades to come. The Skunk Works' unique unmanned products, Desert Hawk and FPASS, recently saw action in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Frank Cappuccio, its current Vice President and General Manager, started his Lockheed Martin career in the Skunk Works and is committed to keeping this national asset in the forefront of aeronautical technology and products. His vision, like Kelly Johnson's, is simple: Superior products through innovation. (2/15/06)

(1) The actual proprietors of Dogpatch's still were the very hairy Hairless Joe and his Indian sidekick (and inventor of Kickapoo), Lonesome Polecat.

(2) Al Capp was passionately tight-fisted about control over his characters and rights protection and, if this one is true, his only other known non-commercial grant was for use of the name, "Earthquake McGoon's," by friend and jazz musician, Turk Murphy, for his famed saloon in San Francisco.