Burb's Eye View: Learning how the Skunk Works

Remember where you were the first time you saw a picture of a Stealth Fighter? It was probably around the time of the Gulf War, and you may have thought the same thing I did: “How did they get that boomerang to fly?

“And it’s invisible to radar, no less!”

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FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the Fighter as the Stealth Bomber, which is separate aircraft.

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That war machine, officially known as the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, was developed beginning in 1978 in a super-secret division of Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) known as the Skunk Works — a name derived from the Li’l Abner comics.

Day in and day out at the Skunk Works, guys like Sherman Mullin would show up to work on technology like the Stealth Bomber — technology so advanced they couldn’t breathe a word of it to their closest family members.

“So they learned not to ask” about work, Mullin said.

This weekend in Burbank, Mullin will give a rare glimpse into the operations at Burbank’s Skunk Works that, beginning in 1943, gave the world the P-80 jet fighter, several CIA spy planes and the SR-71 Mach 3 Blackbird, among others.

Mullin was the president of the Lockheed Advanced Development Company (the Skunk Works’ formal name) from 1990 to 1994. Though his engineering career spanned five decades at Lockheed, he says “one of the great joys of my life” came during the four years he worked on the Stealth Fighter.

“It amazed me we were able to keep it as secret as it was, considering it was designed next to Burbank Airport,” he said.

The Skunk Works relocated to Palmdale in 1989, but Mullin plans to cover a wide history of the mysterious facility’s projects — plus some of his own experiences.

The entire facility was run independently from Lockheed, and its highly aggressive work ethic was instilled by one of its first team leaders, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson. Its hallmark was a streamlined management structure in which decisions were made quickly and decisively, according to Mullin.

“We ran our own show, and operated on very tight schedules and budgets,” he said. “All of us who succeeded Kelly, we tried very hard to emulate the way he ran the place.”

Like Mullin, many of the engineers traveled winding paths to get to the Skunk Works. He started as an engineer at Lockheed Electronics in New Jersey in 1959 before being transferred to Burbank in 1968. Many of his fellow engineers and factory workers never graduated college — some were hired before they finished, others just had the technical savvy Lockheed was looking for.

“The emphasis was on performance and willingness to take responsibility,” he said. “No great correlation between academic performance and the way they work.”

Though he’s saving some secrets for the talk at the Burbank Historical Society this Saturday, he said one of the best things about top security clearance is you don’t get to take your work home with you.

“I’ve always been a workaholic, but it’s nice to leave at 5 on a Friday and not think about it until 7 a.m. Monday.”

Sherman Mullin’s presentation, “The Lockheed Skunk Works, Burbank, 1943-1992,” will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Gordon R. Howard Museum, 1100 West Clark Ave. The program is free.

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not uncovering super-secret government information, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.
 
 

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