Secrecy and Then Illness Work Against Engineer's Public Bows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Ben Rich, the high point and the low point of his life came just about simultaneously. As the story of his secrecy-shrouded career as an engineer and administrator developing some of the military's most advanced aircraft was finally unveiled for a national television audience, Rich lay in a hospital bed recovering from a life-saving operation to remove his cancerous esophagus.

His new book, "Skunk Works," a history of the Lockheed Advanced Development Co. where he worked for 40 years, was the subject of a long, laudatory story on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes."

This is an author's dream. The dream, however, does not include lying in the University of Michigan Medical Center when fame comes knocking, fighting to remain alive.

That's where he was on the night of the show, though he is back home in Oxnard now, saying he expects to recover.

Rich's work at the Lockheed facility in Burbank was under such heavy wraps that in 1975 when he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest military award a civilian can receive, he proudly displayed it to his family. He could not, however, tell them how he earned it.

And then Rich became ill--so ill he couldn't eat a boiled egg--only three weeks before "60 Minutes" explained to the entire nation just what he had accomplished, an irony not lost on Leo Janos, who co-authored the book with him.

"When he finally stands up to take a bow after 40 years in the deep black, this had to happen," Janos said.

Military secrecy prevented many public bows during his career, which ended with his becoming president of the Skunk Works, where he was the driving force behind an awesome list of high-tech military planes, culminating in the F-117 Stealth fighter.

The F-117, the military's top secret for years, won fame when it attacked the forces of Iraqi Premier Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm, and all the planes of that type survived the war without a scratch.

"I think it has been exciting for him to talk about things he couldn't talk about before," said Hilda Rich, his wife, who sat at his hospital bedside in Michigan.

"I think he would have liked to have been out signing his new book or spending time with his colleagues. He loves to speak with children to encourage them."

But while Rich wasn't up to the physical demands of a book-signing tour, the TV show suddenly made him a celebrity at the medical center.

"It was great, like we have a hero in our unit," said Vicki Umaming, a nurse assigned to Rich's unit.

She quoted from the opening lines of the "60 Minutes" segment: "If there is one person that Saddam won't cross . . . "

"Wow!" Umaming said. "It's Mr. Rich!"

"We called every bookstore in town, and I bought four copies," she said. "I wanted him to sign it, it's an honor. For me, my friends, they're interested in all of it."

Rich's national television debut caused such a ruckus at the hospital that Nurse Manager Jean Shlafer had to declare Rich an honorary national disaster so 20 or so nurses could gather around the television and watch their favorite patient on the tube.

"I had sent out a memo that said the television shouldn't be on unless it's a state, national or local disaster, but they paged me at home to ask if they could watch," she said. She couldn't say no.

Dr. Timothy Sell, the chief resident in the thoracic surgery unit, sat in Rich's room to watch the show with him.

Sell describes himself as a regular reader of Popular Science magazine, and while he knew of Rich's work because of his own interests in science, invention and technology, he never matched the name of his patient to those achievements.

"I felt like he spent 36 years working on this stuff, he's in the hospital and normally he would be with a huge crowd of friends at his home. But it was just Mr. Rich and his wife, so I wanted to sit down with him and tell him that I was proud of his achievements.

"The more I talked to him, the more I found out that I had been exposed to the stuff he had worked on in the past," Sell added.

The airing of the show at the same time that Rich was recovering from a life-threatening illness wasn't the first Rich's work at the old Skunk Works site in Burbank collided with another important day in a long and fruitful career.

On Jan. 19, 1991, as the aircraft that Rich worked for 15 years to develop made its debut combat run above the streets of downtown Baghdad, Rich was being honored at a retirement dinner in a small Burbank restaurant.

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Even with the revelations made in his book, there are things that the public will not know about for many years to come.

"They spent more than two years, closer to three, writing the book and one of the things they had to do was to get the entire text reviewed by the CIA and the Defense Department to make sure they did not breach security," said Jim Ragsdale, a spokesman at the Skunk Works facility, which moved to Palmdale three years ago.

"And yes, they were required to leave some things out of the book."

Another thing that few people know, though Rich has never attempted to conceal it, is that he never flew in the Stealth fighter . . . or the SR-71 Blackbird. . . . or any other aircraft he helped design that required a pressure suit.

The father of the Stealth fighter is claustrophobic. The idea of climbing into a confining pressure suit is more than he can take, Ragsdale said.

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