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Skunk Works by Ben Rich
Way back during World War 2 an elite team of engineers, designers and craftsmen was assembled by the Lockheed aircraft corporation under the leadership of a certain Kelly Johnson. Ben Rich became Kelly's 2nd in command. Within the organization this new venture soon became known as the Skunk Works, where state of the art 'planes were conceived, designed, built and put into service with amazing speed and efficiency, greatly enhancing the reputations of Lockheed, Kelly and of course, Ben Rich. Upon Kelly's retirement, through ill health, Rich took over the reigns, partly due to Johnson's endorsement but also to his proven brilliance as an engineer and his undoubted skills at man-management.
Skunk Works produced a staggering array of planes, the like of which had never been seen before. The U2 spy plane was so light and fast and flew so high that although the Russians knew it was there they were powerless to stop its spy missions. The infamous Francis Gary Powers incident only occured due to a malfunction of his plane which forced him down below his usual 85000 feet operating level. As a matter of interest, check out James May of Top Gear fame, having an almost out of world experience in a U2, "Life changing". I think he described it.
Then they invented the Stealth. Can you imagine an 80ft plane with the radar image of a peanut? Parked in it's hangar at night, so invisible that nature's very own "radar"experts, the bats, would crash into it and be killed. By modern standards Stealth is very slow at 600 mph, but then The Invisible Man doesn't need to be as quick as Usain Bolt. I was visiting relatives in L.A. in 2003 which happened to coincide with the centenary of the Wright brothers' 1st flight and was fortunate enough to attend a great air show at Van Nuys Airport. One of the stars was , without doubt, the Stealth, which flew slowly and silently past at 50feet, looking totally sinister and menacing.
The team at Skunk Works also developed, in an incredibly short time, the technology which enabled pin point accuracy during bombing raids. It was no longer neccessary to obliterate whole cities, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Given the right intelligence it now became possible to take out military targets with minimum collateral damage. This system was fitted to Stealth and was used to great effect in Operation Desert Storm during the 1st Gulf Warand subsequent conflicts throughout the region.
The Blackbird was another product of this remarkable outfit. Designed and built in an age when the most sophisticated computers were about as powerful as a calculator which you can buy today for a fiver in W H Smith's, the team worked mainly with slide rules. "What's that?" I hear you ask. Well, rather like a cross between a set of log tables and an abacus. If you'd like one, forget Amazon, try The Antiques Road Show.
Blackbird was and is just about unstopable. At 40% faster than Concorde, it could fly from London to Dover in 2 MINUTES! Can you imagine that? That's faster than a high velocity bullet. Mind you, the comparison with Concorde is unreasonable. Blackbird was designed to be flown by fit young athletes, cocooned in space-suits and surounded by life support systems. Concorde on the other hand, fullfilled the dream of many civil aviation fantasists. She was designed to transport, in resonable comfort, a hundred or so overweight , middle-aged businessmen (or women), dressed in nothing more protective than a Saville Row suit, ignoring their high blood pressure and angina, at mach 2, whilst sipping their Bollingers. Quite different criteria and just as great a challenge and achievement.
This book is not merely a glorification of weapons but much much more. The role that the armaments industry plays in the major economies of the world, the development of civil application of the technology, the funding of civil aircraft development and the employment of hundreds of thousands of workers in avionics and their supply industries is well documented. The intense rivalry between the major U S aircraft manufacturers, resulting in the huge gambles taken by the board of Lockheed in committing many millions of dollars to such futuristic and untried avionic endeavour suggests an almost blind faith in Kelly Johnson, Ben Rich, and the Skunk Works. Not a trait normally associated with hard-nosed businessmen.
Throughout this book numerous contributions in the form of mini chapters have added flesh to the bones. The authors of these cameos are varied, from the pilots of these incredible machines, designers, military hierarchy and even high-flying politicians whose names will be familiar to many. Successive Presidents and their administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, all had an influence on the progression of events, sometimes good, somtimes not so..
It is perhaps sad that such a talented and exclusive collection of talents and skills could not have been harnessed to more peacefull activity.
An absolutely absorbing read, I couldn't put it down, but neither did I wish to reach the end.
For, A very unusual and informative book, never too technical to follow.
Against, I shall just have to read it again.
At present, available from Amazon UK from £00.01 for used paperback,or £4.91 new.