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03/11/2012 · 3:32 PM

My Day at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works

One of the most anticipated tours of our Southern California tour series was to Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP), otherwise known as Skunk Works. Being a Michigan student, we are engulfed into the legend of Kelly Johnson. Going into our 5 x 7 wind tunnel building is always a stark reminder of why I chose to go to Michigan for my aerospace engineering studies. So as you can imagine, this was a dream come true.

Our destination was a close one. We departed from your hotel in Lancaster and made the 15 minute drive through the desert to Palmdale. With blues skies, sand, and mountains all around us, it was easy to spot the beautifully plain white and blue building that housed the Skunk Works. The entire group was excited for a trip that seemed very impossible.

The Legend of Kelly Johnson

I don’t think anyone in the group could of ever imaged being able to see such an icon of american aviation. The SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, and the Lockheed U-2 spy plane were just a few of the many secret aircraft to be designed here. This moment had an especially large effect on me because of my profound interest in Kelly Johnson. I’m still awe struck that we were able to go inside…

Enough reminiscing… At 7am we passed a few security check points to make sure there were no terrorists on board. After everything checked out and we parked the vehicles we made our way to our first event of the morning. A group picture in front of Skunk Works! The 16 students and our host posed for a couple shots as we braved the apparently uncommon chilliness that Southern California was experiencing.

Our second activity for the day was to gather in one of the Skunk Work’s meeting rooms. As we walked through the hallways down to our destination we were surrounded by amazing pictures on the wall of past and current projects. In one of the larger entrance rooms we were presented with one of the coolest displays of the day, the six Collier Trophies, which is awarded annually ”for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year.” My particular favorite was their most recent trophy, which was won due to Pual Belivaqua’s design on the F-35 JSF engine design.

During our time in the meeting room we had some great talks with leading engineers at the company, including one of my favorite aircraft designers, Leland Nicolai. We got a taste for what the Skunk Works looks for in new graduates as well as some rich history of Lockheed Martin.

F-22 Raptor

Our first big tour of the day was especially amazing! The group was guided though the hallways to one of the large hangars, were we were getting an up close look at some new work that was being done to the F-22 Raptor. I’ve been on the production line at Mariette, GA for the F-22 (which was amazing, by the way), but this was a completely different experience. Instead of a bunch of F-22's everywhere, there were only three, but intricate work was being done to them on the inside. Like no brain surgeon could ever image, panels from this beautiful bird were taken off and the Raptor’s intricately detailed interior was exposed. The room we were in was insanely clean, and unlike production lines, this room was relatively quiet.

P-791 Hybrid Airship

After spending some time with the Raptors, we moved on to an area, which was much more accessible and less “secret” than the F-22s. It was time for the P-791 Hybrid Airship! Most people may think that blimps are dead, but I can assure you that their resurgence into the aviation field is in full swing. Using the principles from buoyant lift and aerodynamic lift, this aircraft is ultra-efficient… as long as you’re going under 100 mph. I’ll talk more about the P-791's applications in a later post, for now check out the great video below.

X-55 All Composites Cargo Aircraft

After spending a healthy hour all with the P-791, we were off to the X-55 ACCA. I was excited to see yet another experimental airplane on the same day! The Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft (ACCA) is an experimental twin jet engined transport aircraft. Its primary role is to demonstrate the new cargo-carrier using advanced composites. On this part of the tour we didn’t get to just stand behind some hefty red tape, no we were going inside! I think the coolest part of being inside the ACCA was seeing and touch all of the composites on board as well as being able to see the pulley system, which controls all the flight flight controls. We learned that during flight tests the inside of cargo area gets extremely loud. We definitely noticed this, while we were exploring this beauty.

Being able to be at the Skunk Works was great! A trip that I never thought possible. We learned one important thing from the Skunk Works that day, and that was a quote:

I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution. -Wernher von Braun

11 Responses to My Day at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works

Artur Bove 04/12/2012 at 12:16 pm

After being there, read my article about the Blackbird (http://www.engineerstoolkit.net/the-fastestest-ever-aircraft). As a member of the new generation, it will be, at least, interesting to know how they were done a few decades ago.

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