“The Skunk Works.”


Lockheed XP-80A (44-83021)

In late 1944 the Army pilots visited Muroc to fly the Gray Ghost and Lulubelle in mock combat against such front-line fighters as the P-38, P-47, and P-51 and various bombers. The secret tests were designed to find out what tactical formations, if any, could be used against the German jets then being seen in combat over Europe. The jets bested the propeller-driven planes every time. The results of the exercise made production of American jet fighters all the more urgent to counter the German threat.

On January 8, 1944, the Lockheed XP-80 Shooting Star Jet fighter made its first flight at Muroc. At the controls was Milo Burcham. The plane soon proved capable of reaching over 500 mph. Tex Johnston knew what it meant for the P-59. After seeing the first flight, he telegraphed Bob Stanley: “Witnessed Lockheed XP-80 initial flight STOP Very impressive STOP Back to the drawing board.” Later, a mock dogfight was held between a P-80 and a Grumman F8F Bearcat, the navy’s latest prop fighter. Unlike the YP-59A, the P-80 held the initiative, controlling the fight. The F8F was never able to catch the jet in its sights long enough to get a shot. The era of the prop fighter was over.

The XP-80 contract specified that the prototype was to be delivered in 180 days. Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson, Lockheed’s chief designer, went to company chairman Robert Gross. Gross told Johnson, “Go ahead and do it. But you’ve got to rake up your own engineering department and your own production people and figure out where to put this project.”

For some time, Johnson had been asking Lockheed management to set up an experimental department where there would be direct links between designer, engineer, and manufacturing. Johnson decided to run the XP-80 program on this basis. The only place for the new section was next to the wind tunnel. The tools came from a small machine shop Lockheed bought out. The walls were wooden engine boxes, while the roof was a rented circus tent. Johnson assembled a group of twenty-two engineers; the new group had its own purchasing department and could function independently of the main plant. Working ten hours a day, six days a week, they had the XP-80 ready in 163 days.

Part of the secrecy surrounding the project was that Johnson’s new section had no name. Soon after the makeshift shop was finished, Lockheed engineer Irving H. Culver was at the phone desk. The phone rang, Culver was alone, and he had not been told how to answer the phone. Culver was a fan of Al Capp’s comic strip “L’l Abner.” In the strip, “Hairless Joe” brewed up “Kickapoo Joy Juice” using old shoes, dead skunks, and other ingredients. On impulse, Culver answered the phone with the name of that brewery.

It was called “the Skunk Works.”