Skunk Works’ Irven Culver Dies


Irven H. Culver, a self-trained aviation engineer who named Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works division and whose ingenuity earned him many of his field’s highest honors, died Aug. 13 at a Bakersfield hospital. He was 88.

Culver was a member of the elite group of two dozen engineers chosen during World War II to design the XP-80, the nation’s first operational fighter jet.

The top-secret design group initially was housed in circus tents next to a Burbank plastics factory that sent noxious fumes into the engineers’ quarters. The stink made Culver think of the evil-smelling “Skonk Works” distillery for Kickapoo Joy Juice depicted in the then-popular “L’il Abner” comic strip by Al Capp.


One day during the war, Culver answered the division’s telephone by saying, “Skunk Works, inside man Culver speaking.” The call was from a Navy officer who “laughed and asked me to repeat it while he put on a loudspeaker in his Washington office so everyone else could hear it,” Culver once said.

Division chief Kelly Johnson did not laugh, however, and fired Culver. But Culver, whose antics got him fired “at least twice a day,” survived the incident, as did the Skunk Works name. A few years ago, in fact, the nickname was officially embraced by the Palmdale aerospace outfit, now known as Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.

Culver worked for nearly three decades at Lockheed, where he helped solve difficult design problems on a wide range of craft, including the Constellation transport craft, the supersonic F-104, the Polaris missile, the X-7 reentry test vehicle and helicopters, said Thomas Hanson, a former Lockheed engineer and president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Helicopter Society.

He also was valued as an accident investigator for Lockheed, and he was a guest lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Royal Aeronautical Society despite his lack of a college degree.

Culver “was arguably the most brilliant of the behind-the-scenes engineers who produced the great Lockheed aircraft of the 1940s through the 1960s,” Hanson said.

Born in Saugus, Culver was crazy about flying from an early age; he founded a Riverside model airplane club in the early 1920s. As a teenager during Prohibition, he ferried contraband for local bootleggers, who thought the authorities would go easy on such a young pilot if he was caught.

After graduating from high school in 1930, Culver studied aerodynamics and advanced mathematics on his own because he could not afford college. In 1938, his work paid off with a job as a draftsman at Lockheed.

In 1942, Culver was recruited for the Advanced Development Projects unit, later dubbed the Skunk Works, to develop secret military aircraft. Culver’s lack of college training often was an advantage, Hanson said, because he “was not saddled with the conventional wisdom of how to approach a problem.”

He worked with Albert Einstein at Caltech on a study examining the feasibility of using nuclear reactors for aircraft propulsion. He also helped to design an experimental helicopter, distinguished by a forward-sweeping blade, that was extremely easy to fly.

He later invented a rigid rotor system for Lockheed helicopters that set world speed records. It earned him the Dr. Alexander Klemin Award from the American Helicopter Society.

“He was a brilliant engineer, an extremely brilliant technical person. He did a lot of things other people got credit for,” said aviation historian Harry Gann.

Culver also held honorary memberships in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, the American Rocket Society and the National Soaring Museum. He also was an honorary colonel in the Air Force.

He is credited as the co-inventor with Volmer Jensen of the first controllable hang glider in 1941.

In retirement, Culver devoted many hours to flying sailplanes. He lived in a house that was just 200 feet from the runway of the Mountain Valley Airport in Tehachapi.

He is survived by daughters Diane Watkins of Fallbrook and Joan Warren of Costa Mesa, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.