Tag Archives: Skunk Works

8 January 1944

Lockheed XP-80 prototype, 44-83020, at Muroc AAF, 8 January 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
The Lockheed XP-80 prototype, 44-83020, at Muroc AAF, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company)
Milo Burcham
Milo Garrett Burcham

8 January 1944: At Muroc Army Air Field (later to become Edwards Air Force Base), Lockheed’s chief engineering test pilot, Milo Garrett Burcham, took the prototype Model L-140, the Army Air Forces XP-80 Shooting Star, 44-83020, for its first flight.

Tex Johnston, who would later become Boeing’s Chief of Flight Test, was at Muroc testing the Bell Aircraft Corporation XP-59 Airacomet. He wrote about the XP-80’s first flight in his autobiography:

Early on the morning of the scheduled first flight of the XP-80, busload after busload of political dignitaries and almost every general in the Army Air Force arrived at the northwest end of the lake a short distance from our hangar. Scheduled takeoff time had passed. I was afraid Milo was having difficulties. Then I heard the H.1B fire up, and he taxied by on the lake bed in front of our ramp. What a beautiful bird—another product of Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s famed chief design engineer—tricycle gear, very thin wings, and a clear-view bubble canopy. Milo gave me the okay sign.

This was the initial flight of America’s second jet fighter, and what a flight it was. Milo taxied along in front of generals and politicians, turned south and applied full power. I could see the spectators’ fingers going in their ears. The smoke and sand were flying as the engine reached full power, and the XP-80 roared down the lake. Milo pulled her off, retracted gear and flaps, and held her on the deck. Accelerating, he pulled up in a climbing right turn, rolled into a left turn to a north heading, and from an altitude I estimated to be 4,000 feet [1,219 meters] entered a full-bore dive headed for the buses. He started the pull-up in front of our hangar and was in a 60-degree climb when he passed over the buses doing consecutive aileron rolls at 360 degrees per second up to 10,000 feet [3,048 meters]. He then rolled over and came screaming back. He shot the place up north and south, east and west, landed and coasted up in front of the spectators, engine off and winding down. I have never seen a crowd so excited since my barnstorming days. I returned to the office and dictated a wire to [Robert M.] Stanley [Chief Test Pilot, Bell Aircraft Corporation] “WITNESSED LOCKHEED XP-80 INITIAL FLIGHT STOP VERY IMPRESSIVE STOP BACK TO DRAWING BOARD STOP SIGNED, TEX” I knew he would understand.

Tex Johnston: Jet-Age Test Pilot, by A.M. “Tex” Johnston with Charles Barton, Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C., 1 June 1992, Chapter 5 at Pages 127–128.

A few minor problems caused Burcham to end the flight after approximately five minutes but these were quickly resolved and flight testing continued.

The XP-80 was the first American airplane to exceed 500 miles per hour (805 kilometers per hour) in level flight.

Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson with a scale model of a Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. Johnson's "Skunk Works" also designed the F-104 Starfighter, U-2, A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Company)
Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with a scale model of a Lockheed P-80A-1-LO Shooting Star. Johnson’s “Skunk Works” also designed the F-104 Starfighter, U-2, A-12 Oxcart and SR-71A Blackbird. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company)

The Lockheed XP-80 was designed by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson and a small team of engineers that would become known as the “Skunk Works,” in response to a U.S. Army Air Corps proposal to build a single-engine fighter around the de Havilland-built Halford H.1B Goblin turbojet engine. This engine used a single-stage centrifugal-flow compressor and single-stage axial-flow turbine. It had a straight-through configuration rather than the reverse-flow of the Whittle turbojet from which it was derived. It produced 2,460 pounds of thrust (10.94 kilonewtons) at 9,500 r.p.m., and 3,000 pounds (13.34 kilonewtons) at 10,500 r.p.m.

Milo Burcham, on the left, shakes hands with Clarence L. Johnson following the first flight of the Lockheed XP-80, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed)
Milo Burcham, on the left, shakes hands with Clarence L. Johnson following the first flight of the Lockheed XP-80, 8 January 1944. (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.)

The XP-80 was a single-seat, single-engine airplane with straight wings and retractable tricycle landing gear. Intakes for engine air were placed low on the fuselage, just forward of the wings. The engine exhaust was ducted straight out through the tail. For the first prototype, the cockpit was not pressurized but would be on production airplanes.

As was customary for World War II U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft, the prototype was camouflaged in non-reflective Dark Green with Light Gull Gray undersides. The blue and white “star and bar” national insignia was painted on the aft fuselage, and Lockheed’s winged-star corporate logo was on the nose and vertical fin. Later, the airplane’s radio call, 483020 was stenciled on the fin in yellow paint. The number 20 was painted on either side of the nose in large block letters. Eventually the tip of the nose was painted white and a large number 78 was painted just ahead of the intakes in yellow block numerals. Early in the test program, rounded tips were installed on the wings and tail surfaces. This is how the XP-80 appears today.

Lockheed XP-80 parked at Muroc Dry Lake, 1944 (Lockheed)
The highly-polished Dark Green and Light Gull Gray Lockheed XP-80 prototype parked at Muroc Dry Lake, 1944 (Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.)

The XP-80 is 32 feet, 911/16 inches (9.9997 meters) long with a wingspan of 37 feet, ⅞-inch (11.2998 meters) and overall height of 10 feet, 21/16 inches (3.1004 meters). It had a Basic Weight for Flight Test of 6,418.5 pounds (2,911.4 kilograms) and Gross Weight (as actually weighed prior to test flight) of 8,859.5 pounds (4,018.6 kilograms).

The XP-80 has a maximum speed of 502 miles per hour (808 kilometers per hour) at 20,480 feet (6,242 meters) and a rate of climb of 3,000 feet per minute (15.24 meters per second). The service ceiling is 41,000 feet (12,497 meters).

Unusual for a prototype, the XP-80 was armed. Six air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns were placed in the nose. The maximum ammunition capacity for the prototype was 200 rounds per gun.

The Halford engine was unreliable and Lockheed recommended redesigning the the fighter around the larger, more powerful General Electric I-40 (produced by GE and Allison as the J33 turbojet). The proposal was accepted and following prototypes were built as the XP-80A.

Lockheed built 1,715 P-80s for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. They entered combat during the Korean War in 1950. A two-seat trainer version was even more numerous: the famous T-33A Shooting Star.

Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star 44-83020 was used as a test aircraft and jet trainer for several years. In 1949, it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. 44-83020 is on display at the Jet Aviation exhibit of the National Air and Space Museum. It was restored beginning in 1976, and over the next two years nearly 5,000 man-hours of work were needed to complete the restoration.

The prototype Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star, 44-83020, at teh Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
The prototype Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star, s/n 140-1001, 44-83020, at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

14 October 1962

This is one of the reconnaissance photographs taken by Major Richard S. Heyser  from his Lockheed U-2, flying at 72,500 feet over Cuba, 14 October 1962. (U.S. Air Force)

14 October 1962: Major Richard Stephen (“Steve”) Heyser, a pilot with the 4028th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, United States Air Force, boarded Item 342, his Top Secret reconnaissance airplane, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Over the next seven hours he flew from Edwards to McCoy AFB, near Orlando, Florida, landing there at 0920 EST.

Major Richard S. Heyser, U.S. Air Force, with a Lockheed U-2. Major Heyser is wearing a MC-3 capstan-type partial-pressure suit for protection at high altitudes. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Richard S. Heyser, U.S. Air Force, with a Lockheed U-2. Major Heyser is wearing a MC-3 capstan-type partial-pressure suit for protection at high altitudes. (U.S. Air Force)

But first, Steve Heyser and Item 342 flew over the island of Cuba at an altitude of 72,500 feet (22,098 meters). Over the island for just seven minutes, Heyser used the airplane’s cameras to take some of the most important photographs of the Twentieth Century.

Item 342 was a Lockheed U-2F. Designed by Clarence L. (“Kelly”) Johnson at the “Skunk Works,” it was a very high altitude, single-seat, single-engine airplane built for the Central Intelligence Agency. Item 342 carried a U.S. Air Force number on its tail, 66675. This represented its serial number, 56-6675.

It had been built at Burbank, then its sub-assemblies were flown aboard a C-124 Globemaster transport to a secret facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, called “The Ranch,” where it was assembled and flown.

Originally a U-2A, Item 342 was modified to a U-2C, and then to a U-2F, capable of inflight refueling.

Major Heyser had been at Edwards AFB to complete training on the latest configuration when he was assigned to this mission.

A Lockheed U-2A, 56-6708, “Item 375”. (U.S. Air Force)

Major Heyser’s photographs showed Russian SS-4 Sandal intermediate range nuclear-armed missiles being placed in Cuba, with SA-2 Guideline radar-guided surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile sites surrounding the nuclear missile sites.

President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba and demanded that Russia remove the missiles. Premier Nikita Khrushchev refused. The entire U.S. military was brought to readiness for immediate war. This was The Cuban Missile Crisis. World War III was imminent.

(Left to Right) Major Richard S. Heyser, General Curtis E. LeMay and President John F. Kennedy, at the White House, October 1962. (Associated Press)

Richard S. Heyser died 6 October 2008.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

9 October 1999

9 October 1999: At a Saturday air show at Edwards Air Force Base, California, NASA Research Pilot Rogers E. Smith and Flight Test Engineer Robert R. Meyer, Jr., flew Lockheed SR-71A-LO 61-7980, NASA 844, on what would be the very last flight of a Blackbird. Although it was scheduled to fly again for the Sunday air show, a serious fuel leak prevented that flight.

61-7980 (Lockheed serial number 2031) was the final SR-71A to be built.

NASA 844 was retired after the final flight and placed in flyable storage, but in 2002, it was placed on static display at the Dryden Flight Research Center,¹ Edwards Air Force Base, California.EC92-02273 

¹ In 2014, DFRC was renamed the NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC).

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

1 August 1955

Right profile illustration of the first Lockheed U-2. Image courtesy of Tim Bradley Imaging, © 2015
Right profile illustration of the first Lockheed U-2, Article 341. Image courtesy of Tim Bradley Imaging, © 2015
Anthony M. “Tony” LeVier.

1 August 1955: Test pilot Anthony W. LeVier made the first flight flight of the Lockheed U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance airplane at Groom Lake, Nevada. LeVier was conducting taxi tests in preparation for the planned first flight a few days away, when at 70 knots the U-2 unexpectedly became airborne.

LeVier later said, “I had no intentions whatsoever of flying. I immediately started back toward the ground, but had difficutly determining my height because the lakebed had no markings to judge distance or height. I made contact with the ground in a left bank of approximately 10 degrees.”

On touching down on the dry lake, the U-2’s tires blew out and the brakes caught fire. A landing gear oleostrut was leaking. Damage was minor and the airplane was soon ready to fly. Tony LeVier was again in the cockpit for the first actual test flight on 4 August.

The Lockheed U-2A is a single-place, single-engine aircraft powered by a turbojet engine, intended for very high altitude photographic reconnaissance. Thirty U-2A aircraft were designed and built for the Central Intelligence Agency by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s secret “Skunk Works” under the supervision of Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson.

Lockheed U-2, “Article 341,” at Groom Lake, Nevada, 1955. (Lockheed Martin)

The company designation for the proposed aircraft was CL-282. Its fuselage was very similar to the XF-104 Starfighter and could be built using the same tooling. The reconnaissance airplane was produced under the code name Operation AQUATONE.

The U-2A was 46 feet, 6 inches (14.173 meters) long with a wingspan of 80 feet (24.384 meters). Its empty weight was 10,700 pounds (5,307 kilograms) and the gross weight was 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms). The engine was a Pratt and Whitney J57-P-37A which produced 10,200 pounds of thrust. This gave the U-2A a maximum speed of 528 miles per hour (850 kilometers per hour) and a ceiling of 85,000 feet (25,908 meters). It had a range of 2,200 miles (3,541 kilometers).

Because of the very high altitudes that the U-2 was flown, the pilot had to wear a David Clark Co. MC-3 partial-pressure suit with an International Latex Corporation  MA-2 helmet and faceplate. The partial-pressure suit used a system of capstans and air bladders to apply pressure to the body as a substitute for a loss of atmospheric pressure. Each suit was custom-tailored for the individual pilot.

Robert Sieker
Robert Sieker

On 4 April 1957, Article 341 was flown by Lockheed test pilot Robert Sieker. At 72,000 feet (21,946 meters) the engine flamed out and the cockpit pressurization failed. Parts of the U-2 had been coated with a plastic material designed to absorb radar pulses to provide a “stealth” capability. However, this material acted as insulation, trapping heat from the engine inside the fuselage. This lead to a number of engine flameouts.

Sieker’s partial-pressure suit inflated, but the helmet’s faceplate did not properly seal. He lost conciousness and at 65,000 feet (19,812 meters) the U-2 stalled, then entered a flat spin. Sieker eventually regained consciousness at lower altitude and bailed out. He was struck by the airplane’s tail and was killed. The first U-2 crashed northwest of Pioche, Nevada, and caught fire. Robert Sieker’s body was found approximately 200 feet (61 meters) away.

Because of the slow rate of descent of the airplane while in a flat spin, the impact was not severe. Portions of Article 341 that were not damaged by fire were salvaged by Lockheed and used to produce another airframe.

The first Lockheed U-2A, Article 341. (Lockheed)
The first Lockheed U-2, “Article 341.” (Lockheed Martin)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

18 June 1981

Lockheed Full Scale Development YF-117A, 79-10780, in light, three-tone desert camouflage. (Lockheed Martin)
Lockheed Full Scale Development YF-117A, 79-10780, in three-tone desert camouflage. (Lockheed Martin)

18 June 1981: At 6:05 a.m., Pacific Daylight Time (1305 UTC), the first Full Scale Development Lockheed YF-117A Nighthawk, 79-10780, made its first flight at Groom Lake, Nevada with Skunk Works test pilot Harold “Hal” Farley, Jr. at the controls. The super-secret airplane was made of materials that absorbed radar waves, and built with the surfaces angled so that radar signals are deflected away from the source.

Harold "Hal" Farley, Jr., with a Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk.
Harold “Hal” Farley, Jr., with a Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk. (Lockheed Martin)

Hal Farley is a former U.S. Naval Aviator, who spent eight years testing F-14 Tomcat fighters for Grumman before going to work at Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” on the Have Blue proof-of-concept prototype and the Senior Trend F-117 program. When he retired from Lockheed, he had more that 600 flight hours in the F-117s. His call sign is “Bandit 117.”

Commonly called the “Stealth Fighter,” the Nighthawk is actually a tactical bomber. Five developmental aircraft and 59 operational F-117As were built. They were in service from 1983 until 2008, when the Lockheed F-22 Raptor was planned to assume their mission. They are mothballed and could be returned to service if needed.

A Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk takes off from Groom Lake, Nevada.
A Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk takes off from Nellis Air Force, Base, Nevada. (Lockheed Martin)

The Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk is a single-seat, twin-engine tactical bomber with swept wings and tail surfaces. It is 65 feet, 11 inches (20.091 meters) long with a wingspan of 43 feet, 4 inches (13.208 meters) and height of 12 feet, 9½ inches (3.899 meters). It has an empty weight of 29,500 pounds (13,380.9 kilograms) and a loaded weight of 52,500 pounds (23,813.6 kilograms).

The F-117 is powered by two General Electric F404-F1D2 turbofan engines which produce 10,600 pounds of thrust, each. These give it a maximum speed of 0.92 Mach (617 miles per hour, 993 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling is 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) and range is 930 nautical miles (1,070.2 miles, 1,722.4 kilometers), though inflight refueling capability gives it world-wide range.

F-117A drops GBU-28
A Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk drops a 2,000-pounds GBU-27 Paveway III laser-guided bomb. (U.S. Air Force)

The Nighthawk has no defensive armament. It can carry two 2,000 pound (907.2 kilogram) bombs in an internal bomb bay.

Scorpion One, 79-10780, is now mounted on a pylon as a “gate guard” at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk in flight. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather