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Saturday, Mar 2, 2024

A Peek Inside Skunk Works

Lockheed Martin Corp. broke ground in December on an expansion of its top-secret Skunk Works facility in Palmdale. The new 208,000-square-foot manufacturing factory is the first new building in 30 years at Air Force Plant 42, the military-owned property where Lockheed and other large aerospace companies are located. Jeff Babione, vice president and general manager of what is officially known as the Advanced Development Programs division of the Bethesda, Md., defense and aerospace giant, said that the new facility will follow on the legacy created by Skunk Works when it started more than 75 years ago in Burbank. Skunk Works has always been on the cutting edge of technology for aircraft but also the manufacturing technology to build the planes, Babione said. “It is a necessity to modernize the facility in order to produce these advanced systems at the performance level they need,” he added. The expansion will cost in excess of $200 million and is scheduled to be completed in about 15 months, or early to mid-2021. In the meantime, work goes on inside the current 886,000-square-foot plant at 1011 Lockheed Way. A staff of engineers, designers and fabricators are thinking eight or nine steps ahead of what regular aircraft can do. Its customers are three branches of the U.S. military and research centers, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The Skunk Works’ legacy includes some of the most advanced aircraft ever built: the XP-80, a prototype jet fighter during World War II; the U2 high-altitude spy plane; the SR-71 Blackbird, one of the fastest planes ever flown; and the F-117 Nighthawk, the first stealth bomber. While much of the work there remains classified, current programs include hypersonic aircraft; a compact fusion reactor; and unmanned aircraft, or drones, according to the Skunk Works website. The Skunk Works facility ranked No. 2 on the Business Journal’s list of largest manufacturers last year based on 3,700 area employees. Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with aerospace research firm Teal Group, in Fairfax, Va., said that the expansion at the facility implies there are a lot of programs being done there that the general public doesn’t know about. Both the research and procurement budgets of the Pentagon have seen nice increases in recent years, Aboulafia said. “Even though it’s hard to identify any one program that’s driving this growth, there’s probably a lot of stuff in the secret world that is helping them along,” he added. Robotic manufacturing Skunk Works was founded in 1943 by Lockheed engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson when the aircraft manufacturer was located in Burbank. The name was a play on a backwoods moonshine called “skonk works” from Al Capp’s “L’il Abner” comic strip and has since been trademarked by Lockheed. What Johnson and his team started – a fast-paced, secretive workshop turning out cutting-edge aircraft technology – continues to this day. “We began the design and development; now we want to be able to produce the highest quality, most advanced technology for our customer and that is what our customer expects,” Babione said. The Palmdale operations, which includes Skunk Works and other work the company does there, are part of the aeronautics division, one of five that make up Lockheed. Skunk Works also has facilities in Fort Worth, Texas, and Marietta, Ga. In total, Skunk Works has an employee base of about 5,000 workers. Lockheed had a presence in Palmdale before Skunk Works relocated there from Burbank in the early 1990s, bringing with it some 4,000 employees. Around the same time, Lockheed was constructing other buildings on the 500-plus acres it had in the Antelope Valley, including one with laboratories for the production of aircraft parts from composite materials. The buildings Skunk Works currently occupies were used to build the L-1011, the last commercial jet produced by the company, and so have large ceilings – 100 feet tall, Babione said. The design of the new building will incorporate the latest technology. That includes being able to control the temperature inside in an area of northern Los Angeles County where the temperature can reach up to 120 degrees during the summer. There will also be advanced communications and not just between the employees, who will have access to digital data on an iPad, but between the machines themselves. The structure will be a “flexible factory,” Babione explained, where robots will move to the work rather than the work coming to the robot. It will accomplish that through a combination of information inputted by employees and the robotic machines using their own sensors to locate and understand needed tasks, he added. “It is a complete different way of doing it that will involve not only machine learning but perhaps artificial intelligence so that the machine can learn how to continuously do the process better,” Babione continued. “That way the quality goes up, the time to do the operation goes down and enables us to get the (final product) to our customer sooner.” Research with impact This expansion has two implications for Lockheed, Babione said. One is that it marks Skunk Works’ continued journey of innovation. The second is that it gives the division the opportunity to be a vanguard of new technology that can then be used in the production lines of other aircraft. Lockheed is the main contractor on the F-35 Lightning II stealth jet being made for both U.S. and foreign militaries, as well as the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-22 Raptor. “We plan on taking those lessons learned from the new facility that will enable us to accelerate the rate at which we build and reduce the cost for existing systems like the F-16, the F-35 and ultimately the C-130 (military transport aircraft),” Babione said. J.J. Murphy, the city manager for the city of Palmdale, is pleased to see the expansion at the Skunk Works. The city was represented by Mayor Steve Hofbauer at the groundbreaking on Dec. 4; he also presented a certificate of appreciation to Lockheed at the event. “It is a substantial impact every time Lockheed expands or purchases equipment,” Murphy said. “It has a direct impact on the general fund budget.” The city brings in about $2.2 million a year from Lockheed, including from property taxes and purchase use taxes. “Being the hub of the aerospace industry, to see not only Lockheed Martin but the other defense contractors growing is a great indicator for our local economy,” Murphy said. Northrop Grumman Corp., also located at Plant 42, has been adding employees in anticipation of doing final assembly work on the next generation long-range stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider. When Northrop received that contract it was bad news for Skunk Works, which also bid on it, but that probably freed up capacity and cleared the way for the Pentagon to give them some consolation prizes, said Aboulafia, the analyst. “These are smaller and lower production run programs that help keep their design team capabilities intact,” he added. Such “consolation prizes” can be a good way to keep Skunk Works well positioned for the when the next big military contract comes along, such as the sixth-generation fighter jets that would happen by the end of the decade. That generation aircraft would likely replace the Air Force’s F-22 and the Super Hornet, used by the Navy and built by Boeing Co., Aboulafia said. U2 legacy While much of what goes on at the Skunk Works is classified, there are some unclassified projects that Babione could talk about. One is the X-59, an experimental aircraft being made for NASA that can demonstrate how humans can fly faster than the speed of sound without the sonic booms associated with flying at that speed. The first flight of the X-59 is scheduled for early- to mid-2021, Babione said. “It has the opportunity to really revolutionize the way people travel,” he added. “That is why this is so important to NASA to demonstrate this technology. Maybe someday we’ll all be going supersonic and you won’t be able to tell from anything more than the sound of distant thunder.” Another unclassified project is the venerable U2 spy plane. Skunk Works does the maintenance work on the planes to this day. “While the U2 we fly now are a different model, it is just as valuable to our government as it was back in the ’50s when it was first developed,” Babione said. The aircraft remains in use for its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and is often used as a test vehicle for many of Skunk Works’ classified efforts, he added. It is a footnote to the Skunk Works’ legacy that a plane created 65 years ago remains relevant in the digital age, he continued. “Something that was borne of slide rules and well before there were computers is a testament to the brilliance of Kelly and the continued innovations by the Skunk Works teams,” Babione said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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