Sunday, September 6, 2009

Book Review: Skunk Works

Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed by Ben R. Rich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were to list the most important Aerospace Engineers of the 20th Century, your list would have to include Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. He designed the P-38 Lightning, the P-80, the U-2, the A-12/SR-71 Blackbird, the C-130, among many others.

His right hand man/successor wrote a history of the the Skunk Works, Lockheed's independent wing that develops secret aircraft.

The first third of the book goes through the development of Have Blue & the F-117. The rest of the book backs up and gives

There are a few stories that were told for the first time in this book. For example, they talk about a certain secret desert test facility. They aren't allowed to say its commonly known name, but they mention its in a dry lake bed somewhere North of Las Vegas near a weapon testing range. Hmm, wonder what he's talking about...

One of the surprising aspects was how much respect he has for "the ebil librils" Carter & Clinton and how much he bashes Reagan's administration. One thing that was revealed in the book was when Carter canceled the B-1 (a plane obsolete when it was first authorized, thanks to look-down-shoot-down radar), he was actually taking the money to fund stealth research and constructing the F-117. Reagan bashed Carter over and over and eventually refunded the B-1. It was a flying porkbarrel project from start to finish. He laments the "defense-industry socialism" the military practices. Also, he highlights the ridiculous claims Reagan's science advisors made about Star Wars and the National Space Plane. Ben Rich was constantly mystified at why his favorite president, Reagan, made such bad decisions, while he singles out
William Perry, one of Clinton's SecDef's, as the best SecDef in modern US history.

The SR-71 chapters make for great reading. It was an aircraft that was literally (almost) out of this world. Mach 3.2. 80,000 feet. Not a single aircraft lost to enemy fire, despite the most hazardous assignments in the S military. The plane comes to a really tragic end, though. First, the US government orders all tooling destroyed, to prevent the Soviets from learning its secrets (also preventing another Mach 3 plane from being built for the rest of the 20th Century). The decision to kill the Blackbird was made by Dick Cheney. A few weeks after Cheney killed it, Schwarzkopf asked for it to be reactivated to hunt for Skuds. NASA still had 3 in flying condition and the Skunk Works offered to reinsert surveillance packages and have them shipped to the front lines. The Air Force Brass, who long hated the plane for sucking up chunks of the budget they're rather have for bombers and fighters, nixed the idea. One of them confessed, 'If we crack open the door an inch and it does well, like we know it will, we'll never be rid of the plane!' Forget about protecting the troops...

It's cool to get a real evaluation of US aircraft. Here are some of the planes he talks about:
* F-16: great, but low fuel capacity.
* F-111: Overly complicated. Huge EM emissions made it a magnet for missiles. Only was built because its factory was in LBJ's hometown.
* B-70. Obsolete even in its early years of development. Should have been canceled way earlier than it was.
* B-1. See above.

As interesting as the book was, I was only going to give it three stars, but then I read the last chapter. It's filled with tips on successful project management and his vision of the future (from 1995-ish). It includes lots of drones like the Preadator, bashes the B-2 and F-22 for deliberately spreading out contracts, to the detriment of the budget, to make the planes "cancellation proof" in Congress, and emphasizes the importance of a strong US industrial base. He doesn't talk about machines and facilities when he means industry; he's talking about welders, machinists and engineers.


Editilla said...

I really enjoyed that book when I read it back in the early 80s, particularly Rich's (end chapters) take on the Societal Infrastructure needed to maintain such a technological edge as a nation.
By the time he is finished I almost wanted to kiss a defense contractor, but then I realized that our Nation led the world in Weapons sales by a hefty 2/3. That was back when Reagan invaded Granada and also declared massacre on the un-armed citizens of Central America...over 20 years ago.
We still lead the world in Weapons sales by an even larger margin.
We sell them to poorer countries, both sides, to protect each other from themselves.
That is who Rich is speaking of in "Industry". Not the workers. Sorry. Are we a nation of killers, drugged, flood-forgetting and extremely well armed?

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Sorry, forgot to mention how much I enjoyed your Review.

My father, who passed July 11th, knew Kelly and Rich from his own work in electronics engineering at Wright Patterson AFB during the 50s.
All of those people were the last of a breed, which bore the next generation for the Information Age.
Frank Loyd Wright described such innovation as USonian some years before WW2. Engineers were more back then, and, as BF Fuller put it, inclined to believe in Failure as the teacher with Success as the inevitable outcome, but based on the Honesty of the real world.

What we seem (to me) to have in US Engineering today is a sort of "Fail'ya to comoonicate" mixed with a Fear to even try.
That is not how Solomon wanted it and that is not why my daddy wore The Ring.

Thanks youz

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