Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Visit To The Skunk Works

This Steven Trible story reminds me of when I was in Air Force ROTC. I went on a trip to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. As part of the visit we had a tour of the Foreign Technology Division (FTD). As we toured the facility at the height of the Cold War, a person preceded us through the halls ringing a bell, you could see people closing up work as we passed keeping the secrets safe...at least from our prying eyes. It was a fascinating peak into a world that I had no clue (at that time) about.

To aviation aficionados the Lockheed Skunk Works founded by the legendary Kelly Johnson has always held a certain fascination. I'm sure Mr. Tremble had the time of aviation loving life there.

PALMDALE, Calif. -- I suppose getting invited to enter Skunk Works shouldn't make much sense. The secret-squirrel types like it that way. You can ask the public relations office repeatedly for several years, as I did, for a site visit, and get nowhere. Then one day you ask for a phone interview about a semi-obscure project, and -- voila! -- they ask you to come to Palmdale to see it in the hangar. If the Skunk Works organization has a motto, it should be: "Don't call us, we'll call you. ... Really, don't call us."
Actually getting inside the Skunk Works site is fairly straightforward. There's a "visitor control" building, which also includes a bank and Palmdale's coolest gift shop. I gave the clerk my driver's license and she gave me a visitor badge. The PR representative met me outside the door, and we drove inside the sprawling complex. Lockheed used to build the L-1011 Tristar here. Skunk Works arrived only in 1994, relocated to the desert from Burbank.

I had come to see the Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA), and interview the program manager. On paper, this is a project with enormous significance to the future of aerospace manufacturing, but I'll post more about that later. The aircraft I saw inside the hangar is a Fairchild Dornier 328Jet modified with a widened, mid- and aft-fuselage and all-new vertical tail. It is about to receive an X-plane designation from the Air Force Material Command as the next aircraft in the long-dormant XC-series for experimental cargo planes.

Walking around a Skunk Works hangar can be tricky. You never know what you might see. As we turned to leave, I looked up at a makeshift wall dividing the hangar. Just over the 30ft-tall barrier, I could clearly see the bulbous top of an enormous aircraft. It could only be one thing. "Hey, that's the P791!" I said. A worried look crossed the unfailingly polite program manager's face. "Is he supposed to see that?" he asked the PR rep. She assured him it was okay. He smirked at me and said, "We might not have let you leave." I decided to interpret this as a joke, and laughed...

Go read the rest HERE

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