Development of the First Stealth Fighter

From Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Ben Rich)…

Development of the first flying stealth aircraft, “Have Blue,” circa 1977:

Since this was just an experimental stealth test vehicle destined to be junked at the end, it was put together with avionics right off the aviation version of the Kmart shelf: we took our flight control actuators from the F-111 tactical bomber, our flight control computer from the F-16 fighter, and the inertial navigation system from the B-52 bomber. We took the servomechanisms from the F-15 and F-111 and modified them, and the pilot’s seat from the F-16. The heads-up display was designed for the F-18 fighter and adapted for our airplane. In all we got about $3 million worth of equipment from the Air Force. That was how we could build two airplanes and test them for two years at a cost of only $30 million. Normally, a prototype for an advanced technology airplane would cost the government three or four times as much.

We decided to use the onboard computer system of General Dynamics’s small-wing lightweight fighter, the F-16, which was designed unstable in pitch; our airplane would be unstable in all three axes—a dubious first that brought us plenty of sleepless nights.

The pilot tells the flight control system what he wants it to do just by normal flying: maneuvering the throttle and foot pedals directing the control surfaces. The electronics will move the surfaces the way the pilot commands, but often the system will automatically override him and do whatever it has to do to keep the system on track and stable without the pilot even being aware of it. Our airplane was a triumph of computer technology. Without it, we could not even taxi straight.

Bobby didn’t worry about the Navy very long, because we gave him far bigger worries than that: four months before we were supposed to test-fly Have Blue our shop mechanics went out on strike.

The International Association of Machinists’ negotiations with the Lockheed corporation on a new two-year contract failed in late August 1977. Our workers hit the bricks just as Have Blue was going into final assembly, perched on its jig with no hydraulic system, no fuel system, no electronics or landing gear. There seemed to be no way we would be ready to fly by December 1, our target date, and our bean counters wanted to inform the Air Force brass that we would be delayed one day for each day of the strike. But Bob Murphy, our veteran shop superintendent, insisted that he could get the job done on time and meet our commitment for first flight. To Murphy, it was a matter of stubborn Skunk Works pride.

Bob put together a shop crew of thirty-five managers and engineers who worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, over the next two months. Fortunately, most of our designers were all great tinkerers, which is probably why they were drawn to engineering in the first place. Murphy had Beswick, our flight test head, working with a shop supervisor named Dick Madison assembling the landing gear. Murphy himself put in the ejection seat and flight controls; another shop supervisor named John Stanley worked alone on the fuel system. Gradually, the airplane began coming together, so that by early November Have Blue underwent strain gauge calibrations and fuel system checkout. Because Have Blue was about the most classified project in the free world, it couldn’t be rolled outdoors, so the guys defied rules and regulations and ran fuel lines underneath the hangar doors to tank up the airplane and test for leaks. But how could we run engine tests? Murphy figured out a way. He rolled out the plane after dark to a nearby blast fence about three hundred yards from the Burbank Airport main runway. On either side he placed two tractor trailer vans and hung off one end a large sheet of canvas. It was a jerry-built open-ended hangar that shielded Have Blue from view; security approved provided we had the airplane in the hangar before dawn.

Security and regulations changed substantially over the years at the Skunk Works:

Kelly evolved his own unorthodox security methods, which worked beautifully in the early days of the 1950s. We never stamped a security classification on any paperwork. That way, nobody was curious to read it. We just made damned sure that all sensitive papers stayed inside the Skunk Works.

But security’s dragnet poked and prodded into every nook and cranny of our operation. Keith Beswick, head of our flight test operations, designed a coffee mug for his crew with a clever logo showing the nose of Have Blue peeking from one end of a big cloud with a skunk’s tail sticking out the back end. Because of the picture of the airplane’s nose, security classified the mugs as top secret. Beswick and his people had to lock them away in a safe between coffee breaks.

Security would snoop in our desks at night to search for classified documents not locked away. It was like working at KGB headquarters in Moscow.

I had to tuck away workers so they couldn’t see or guess what it was they were really working on. I had to make us inefficient by having them work on pieces of the airplane that would not reveal the nature of the airplane itself. I couldn’t tell them how many pieces they had to make, and we had to redo drawings to eliminate the airplane’s serial numbers. That alone required significant extraneous paperwork. The majority of the people we hired had no idea that we were building a fighter, or whether we were building ten or fifty.

Kelly had operated in a paradise of innocence, long before EPA, OSHA, EEOC, or affirmative action and minority hiring policies became the laws of our land. I was forced by law to buy two percent of my materials from minority or disadvantaged businesses, but many of them couldn’t meet my security requirements. I also had to address EEOC requirements on equal employment opportunity and comply with other laws that required hiring a certain number of the disabled. Burbank was in a high-Latino community and I was challenged as to why I didn’t employ any Latino engineers. “Because they didn’t go to engineering school” was my only reply. If I didn’t comply I could lose my contract, its high priority notwithstanding. And it did no good to argue that I needed highly skilled people to do very specialized work, regardless of race, creed, or color. I tried to get a waiver on our stealth production, but it was almost impossible.

In desperation I called the Secretary of the Air Force to get those OSHA inspectors off my back. I was told, that’s too hot for us to tackle, thank you very much. So I called OSHA and told them to send me the same inspector who worked the Atomic Energy Commission—a guy cleared for the highest security and used to working with highly sensitive materials. This inspector came out and nickel-and-dimed me into a total of two million bucks in fines for no fewer than seven thousand OSHA violations. He socked it to me for doors blocked, improper ventilation, no backup emergency lighting in a workspace, no OSHA warning label on a bottle of commercial alcohol. That latter violation cost me three grand.

A disgruntled employee, bypassed for promotion, contacted a staff member on the House Government Operations subcommittee and accused the Skunk Works of lax security and claimed that we lost secret documents.

So Congress reached into our board room, and Larry Kitchen was sent to the Hill as the sacrificial lamb instead; he was browbeaten unmercifully before the House Subcommittee on Procedures and Practices. Then the subcommittee’s chairman, John Dingell, a feisty Michigan Democrat, sent a few of his committee sleuths to Burbank to investigate our security procedures. They ordered an audit of all our classified documents from year one—and I almost had a stroke. The first thing I did was drive over to Kelly Johnson’s house and grab back cartons of documents and blueprints and God knows what else, all stored in Kelly’s garage. Kelly operated by his own rules. He said, “Damn it, if they can’t trust Kelly Johnson by now, they can go straight to hell.”

Government auditors discovered some classified documents missing. The documents in question had been properly shredded, but our logging was antiquated and no one recorded the date of the document destruction. It was a bureaucratic foul-up rather than any serious security breach, but tell that to Congress. The government cut my progress payments on the stealth fighter project by 30 percent until I could prove to their satisfaction that I had taken specific steps to eliminate security logging laxness and lost documents. From then on, we were monitored unceasingly. Toward the end of the stealth project I had nearly forty auditors living with me inside our plant, watching every move we made on all security and contract matters. The chief auditor came to me during a plant visit and said, “Mr. Rich, let’s get something straight: I don’t give a damn if you turn out scrap. It’s far more important that you turn out the forms we require.”

More: Read the book.

5 thoughts on “Development of the First Stealth Fighter

  1. Ben Rich, stated during a 1993, Alumni Speech at UCLA:

    “We found an error in the equations and we now know how to travel to the stars, and it won’t take us a lifetime to do it.”

    “We already have the means to travel among the stars, but these technologies are locked up in black projects and it would take an Act of God to ever get them out to benefit humanity…Anything you can imagine, we already know how to do.”

    He ended his talk with a black disk zipping out into outer space, and he ended it with these words: ‘We now have the technology to take ET home.’”

  2. Just finished listening to the Audible version of the book last week. I feel like they skipped the lines on Latinos in the Audible version…or maybe I just didn’t catch it.

    Overall, it’s a great book on the motivation crushing power of excess regulation and bureaucracy- just imagine the places where those organizations operate freely. When there was an urgent need, we were able to react quickly and get things done. Now that the bureaucracy has entrenched itself even in places like the SkunkWorks, how are we ever going to get things done quickly again? Do we need to create other even more secret projects where productivity can hide from these kind of silly requirements?

  3. In the late 1970s-early 1980s the United States was so far ahead of the Soviet Union or anybody else in strategic aerospace programs. The US developed:
    *a stealth attack aircraft (F-117) that Soviet radar couldn’t see, based upon calculations from a Soviet scientists paper.
    *KH-11 KENNAN satellites that could digitally image targets less than 20 cm in size and relay the image in near real time using a satellite and ground station network, and the Soviet had no idea what they were source. Contemporary Soviet reconnaissance satellites were film based.
    *Trident I SLBMs solid fueled rather than liquid fueled like Soviet submarine ballistic misses, and more accurate by almost an order of magnitude
    Actually all of the above programs were developed by different divisions of Lockheed around the same time. I believed they helped win the cold war.

    Now, the Russians have Personal satellite, Bulava SLBM and PAK FA fighter, which are close in capability to current US systems (I know Russian jet engines suck). . The fact that they don’t quite match US capability is not the point, but the fact that they spent FAR less money to do so, I think in no small part due to the things Ben Rich enumerated.

  4. It seems to me that in contrast with say theoretical physics where they are over represented, Jews (Rich was [partly?] Jewish) are somewhat underrepresented in engineering and in aviation. Does anyone have an explanation for this?

    Another Jewish aviation pioneer that comes to mind is Gerhard Neumann, head of GE’s jet engine division. I recommend his autobiography – it’s a quick and entertaining read. Although he was Jewish, he mostly preferred to mention it as little as possible. The strangest thing about his book is that he maintains that he (perhaps alone out of all the Jews of Germany) experienced no anti-Semitism or trouble from the Nazis. I don’t know whether this was in the interest of selling jet engines to Lufthansa, but it mars an otherwise good book.

    One interesting factoid is that the father of Igor Sikorsky was a medical professor who was an expert witness for the prosecution in the Mendel Beilis blood libel trial. He testified that Jews definitely practiced ritual murder of Christian children and that the murder in this case was consistent with the methods that Jews normally use for carrying out ritual murder.

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