“Skunk Works” was the nickname of the research and development program headed for many years by the late Ben Rich, author of the book of the same title. From that crystallization of American ingenuity came super-speed stealth aircraft that were almost unimaginable when this crew of brilliant engineers made them a reality. Rich worked on more than two dozen aircraft designs in his stellar career, culminating with the amazing U-2 and the awesome SR-71 Blackbird.

My old friend Steve Sager, an engineer like Rich, was kind enough to give me a copy of this book. I had planned to read it on my next plane flight, but when I opened it and read the first page, I got sucked into it and completed the read.

OMG…the Cold War Steve and I both grew up in and lived through was scarier than either of us knew.

I’ll leave it to you to read the book and see that for yourself. This is the firearms blog for Backwoods Home, not the war blog.  But let me share this with you:

One profound lesson from “Skunk Works” is the critical importance of attention to detail, and looking ahead into what can possibly go wrong, however minutely, with any equipment or strategy that will be used in life-or-death situations.  Consider the following examples.

U-2 pilots were given cyanide pills so they couldn’t be taken captive and tortured for secrets if their planes went down. Pilot Marty Knudsen told Rich of the day a ground crew put the cyanide pill in the wrong pocket of the high-tech flight suit and a pilot with a dry throat popped one in his mouth instead of a lemon drop…fortunately, he recognized the deadly mix-up in time to spit it out.

When test pilot Bob Sieker’s U-2 flamed out at 70,000 feet plus altitude, the face mask of his necessary “space suit” blew out, and deprived of oxygen he lost consciousness and fatally crashed. Rich wrote, “The culprit that killed him was a defective faceplate clasp that cost fifty cents.”

Rich wrote, “We also learned the hard way that titanium was totally incompatible with many other elements, including chlorine, fluorine, and cadmium. When one of our engineers drew a line on a sheet of titanium with a Pentel pen, he discovered that the chlorine-based ink etched through the titanium just like acid.”

Indeed, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.  Feel free to share here any comparable experiences you’ve had – with guns, or indeed, with life – and be sure to read “Skunk Works.” My thanks again to Steve Sager for getting me into this excellent book.

21 COMMENTS

  1. Back in the days of yore, we were told to stop using BreakFree CLP to clean our mortar barrels. Apparently the reduced coefficient of friction was changing the range of the fired rounds. Not a big deal on a firing range. Really big deal when firing around troops in contact. A little thing that nobody thought of.

  2. Excellent choice, Mas–Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works Rules are as much words to live by as the Rules of Jeff Cooper or Agent Gibbs. If you can find a copy, Johnson was Rich’s mentor at the Skunk Works and his own autobiography carries just as many valuable life lessons. (I was studying planes long before weaponcraft–with a grandfather who was retired USAF and a mother both at Boeing and a FOunding Member of Seattle’s Museum of Flight, three wasn’t exactly much choice in the matter. 🙂 )

    Please let Gail know that since I don’t have a direct email for you, she may be getting one with a request to relay to you sometime.

    • “Kelly’s Rules” also appear in his autobiography, “Kelly: More Than My Share of It All,” by Clarence L. Johnson, co-written with Maggie Smith if I remember correctly. Boiled down to an essence, sophistication is simplicity rather than complexity. I’ve found this to be a fundamental truth. Thanks for bringing Kelly into this discussion.

      • You recall correctly, sir. It’s another one I read as a kid that helped shape my own view of the world and leadership… and probably explains why I’m as blunt as I am at times. LOL

  3. Mas,
    One of my absolute favorite books, it’s sitting on a place of honor on my bookshelf. As Diamondback said too, Kelly Johnson’s bio is amazing. The level of tech we had with a slide rule in just a few short months from idea to flight amazes me. We can’t get the government to agree to fill in a pothole in the same time frame anymore.
    Though, if you could ever swing a copy of “Sled Driver” I’d be jealous. Just can’t justify that expense.
    Hope you’re well!

  4. When carrying a lever-action rifle in the trail position in remote wilderness country through twiggy brush, which was my favorite position in bear country for the quick handling that it provided, the rifle’s hammer once cocked itself without being noticed right away. Fortunately I saw it before the trigger got pulled. Another time, when carrying a cocked bolt action .375 H&H Model 70 Winchester with the 3-position safety all the way off, the trigger did get pulled, almost killing my dog and nearly breaking his eardrums. One conclusion is that safeties carried switched on can be a very good idea. Just make sure that you extensively practice moving the safety to the off position before you need the trigger.

  5. Warren,
    When I was on active duty as an A-10 instructor pilot I had a student named Brian Shul. Brian has a remarkable story to tell, and went on to fly the SR-71 and wrote a book…”Sled Driver”. Google “Brian Shul” and look for a presentation he made at the Lawrence Livermore Lab…about an hour and 4 minutes…guarantee you’ll enjoy.

  6. “Skunkworks” is one of the best books I’ve read over my 76 years. Well written and spellbinding. I put it on par with “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” and “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors”. All are a must read!

  7. Sounds like Murphy’s Law works on the micro-level, as well as the macro-level. Sounds like it is better to be more like Felix Unger than Oscar Madison (The Odd Couple TV show). I refer to attention to detail, because Felix was like that.

    I believe NASA during the 1960s must have had an incredible team of people working for it. Same thing with Skunk Works, and Special Forces.

    Great things happen when great people work as a team. I’m sure that when Stephen Spielberg makes a movie, he gets the best people in the business to work with him, hence the fine results.

  8. Having read the book well perhaps a decade ago, I can wholeheartedly endorse your recommendation, Mr. Ayoob, which has provoked me to dig out my old copy and give it a good re-reading. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to view an SR-71 up close, at an air show many years ago. It was smaller than what I had previously imagined in my mind’s eyes, but what a awe-inspiring unicorn, created without the use of modern computers and supercomputers.

    Kelly Johnson’s role in the creation of the Lockheed P-38 Lighting, the eye-catching double-tailed most beautiful of all WWII warbirds (IMHO), carried over to his masterful leadership in overcoming mindboggling obstacles to bring about the birth of what I believe to be the greatest terrestrial aircraft in history.

    In spite of satellites (vulnerable to weather conditions) and drones (vulnerable to being shot down and or hijacked), the SR 71 Blackbird would prove invaluable today, and it’s beyond a mere shame that a small handful of USAF generals (one uniform in particular, named Welch) advised politicians that it be immediately decommissioned, and those pols endorsed the recommendation.

    Another general familiar with the Blackbird, one outstanding leader (we are sorely reminded that all generals are not of equal wisdom, talent, and even character, after all) regretted the fact that the SR-71 no longer remained in service at the time of Operation Desert Storm: “During that conflict, many operational commanders, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, lamented the absence of expedited reconnaissance that the SR-71 might have contributed.” https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/rip-sr-71-blackbird-why-air-force-did-away-fastest-plane-ever-69676

    Enough persons familiar with the Blackbird’s singular features and unique abilities—politicians from both sides of the aisle–initiated a quest to undo decommission plans. successfully convincing enough fellow members of Congress to void the plans by passing a bill ordering the SR-71 program to continue.

    Enter Bill Clinton–of Loral Corp. infamy, who signed off on the transfer of space technology to the Chinese—and who used the line-item veto to thwart Congress’ legislation to save the Blackbird. While recently viewing a documentary video highlighting a tour of a formerly active U.S. ICBM missile silo, I happened to spot the name “Loral” stamped on a control panel containing a array of switches that would presumably have been used to activate the weapon it once contained. Small world. Loral later paid a restitution for its irreversible deed–“a gift that keeps on giving,” I suppose. In defense of his undeniable actions, Bill Clinton stated, “I believe it was in the national interest and I can assure you it was handled in the routine course of business.” I suppose a double thanks is in order. (RIP, Ken Starr)

    Even the Supreme Court was unable to save the great bird. “The issue was so contentious that when Congress reauthorized funding, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and ruled that President Bill Clinton’s attempted line-item veto to cancel the funding was unconstitutional.”https://www.19fortyfive.com/2021/11/sr-71-blackbird-the-story-of-why-the-fastest-plane-ever-is-retired/

    [PLEASE NOTE: The above article offers no explanation as to why the Supreme Court’s decision was ineffective in saving the program, nor why no consequences for not following that body’s finding were forthcoming. Some things never seem to change. This should make for some interesting research, assuming facts pertaining to the matter remain accessible. Also, I seem to recall information in the book stating that in addition to ordering its grounding that one or more politicians and/or entities from the Pentagon ordered all tools, dies, castings, prints and plans—everything critical pertaining to the SR-71—be destroyed. They would no doubt bring up national security as a reason for such an order, but it seems that opposite arguments for preserving the ability to recreate the SR-71 program if and when needed may be valid. (They brought back the Python and the Hi-Power…)

    The words the late Senator John Glenn–Democrat from Ohio–perhaps best sum up the significance of the SR-71, along with the decision to eliminate it: “The termination of the SR-71 was a grave mistake and could place our nation at a serious disadvantage in the event of a future crisis. Yesterday’s historic transcontinental flight was a sad memorial to our short-sighted policy in strategic aerial reconnaissance.”–https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/rip-sr-71-blackbird-why-air-force-did-away-fastest-plane-ever-69676

    • I have always had two questions about the development of the P-38 Lightning. One is why the engines were originally set up to revolve the propellers in the same direction, resulting in inverted crashes on takeoff, with dead pilots. Secondly, were the propellers finally revolved inward toward each other, or outward, and what differences in results obtained if both solutions were tried. “Skunkworks” and “Sled Driver” are now on my reading list.

      • Steve, the counter-rotating propellers and handed engines were meant to cancel out each other’s torque and improve maneuverability. IIRC the plan was handed all along but they needed to get the plane up before the first “backward” engines were ready.

      • Yes, Diamondback. Wikipedia says that originally the counter-rotating propellers were rotated inward. Outward-rotation was adopted in order to obtain a more stable weapons platform. That could certainly have to do with the particular distribution of torque of the propellers cooperating with specific frame properties regarding vibration. Interesting that the early intuition of the engineers seems to agree with my own error in guessing that inward rotation might be the greater asset. The old totality of circumstances rules again! Thank you for your motivating insights, and your service.

    • You’ll love this one. I’ve always wanted to see a copy of the book “Sled Driver” (Link below) and managed to borrow a copy from the Ohio library system several years ago. The book showed up at my local library from Ohio State’s library, and it was a copy personally autographed by Brian Shul as a gift to Sen. Glenn.

      It literally took every ounce of integrity I had to return that book to the library LOLOLOL – since then, that particualar copy is no longer in the lending library as I tried to borrow it again.

      Someday I’ll get a copy of the book…someday.

      https://www.amazon.com/Sled-Driver-Flying-Worlds-Fastest/dp/0929823087

    • Oh, do not wind me up about that walking insult to my dear departed grandfather’s USAF uniform that is Larry Welch, smelly yellow liquid be eternally upon him and all who support him… freakin’ TAChole Pointynose Mafia.

      Where’s Curtis LeMay when you need him?

      • Esteemed Diamondback, is that the same Larry Welch at 88 who guides the Defense Science Board? What is your best diplomatic take on that? I hope that the right people are keeping a focused eye on maintenance of peaceful but effective military security.

  9. I grew up in a home with Dad who was deeply involved in the Aerospace Industry, far more on the “space” and of things than the “aero” end. Since he grew up on a rural farm during the Great Depression, he had an uncanny sense of how things worked, or wouldn’t. He knew of the risks and had written up change orders to “fix” precisely the failure that almost cost the Apollo 13 crew their lives. He was home with the launch and mission on the telly, and the instant he heard “Houston, we have a Problem” he knew exactly what had happened, and how to fix it to get those guys back down. The Gummit had not wanted to delay the programme to effect the changes, so blew it off. I went to the movie house to see the film Apollo 13 with him. He was shocked to see things he could not talk to us when we were kids, still at home.. and there they were right up there on the screen.

    He also knew about the failure path for the seal rings on the rocket engines on the Saturn Booster that was used to launch the Apollo series of space missions. Wrote up that change order, too, Again, we don’t want the delay. He was watching that launch when it blew up, and he knew instantly what had happened. No need for him to wait two years to “learn” what had happened.

    He knew many of the guys who worked on projects like the U2, SR 71, the “legends of their time” in air flight. While he always cherished those friendships, and greatly respected those men, to him it was no different than his days driving the wagon and team on the haywagon during haying. (he was too skinny to buck hay, so they had him drive the wagon). One did what needed doing without complaining, and the best he could, then moved on to the next thing needing doing.

    It was that mindset took the lines on paper and made them into the amazing machines we had. I’ve seen that stuff at the Boeing Museum of Flight at Payne Field south of Seattle. Seeing, up close and personal, those astounding machines on display was quite the experience. The men who shaped that industry were amazing people. Far too few of that ilk are with us these days.

  10. My late father did occasional work for the DOD for decades and I got to hear some stories long after the fact. One was a hush-hush need for a support device to hold a ballistic missile in a launch tube that the missile would be transported and launched from.

    So there’s some information that obviously needs to be provided: dimensions, weight, etc. The answer to all the questions was: “You don’t need to know that.” So, dad returned from the undisclosed location and did nothing. After several months, he got contacted and asked about progress on the project. He said he hadn’t done a thing. Why? His answer was a parable: “Say you need tires for your car, so you go the the tire shop and tell them you need tires. But, you won’t tell the shop the size of the tires/wheels or the brand, model and year of the vehicle. How is the tire shop supposed to get you the right tires?”

    There was silence, followed by “We’ll get back to you.” Some unknown time later, he got summoned to the previous undisclosed location and given the necessary specs for what became known as the Polaris ICBM.

    • Esteemed W R Moore, your anecdote about the Polaris ICBM issue reminds me about the time in the USAF that I unwittingly asked an anonymous caller, who turned out to be a multi-star general, and who had just asked me a question over the phone, if he had a “need to know” the answer. I shortly got a big rocket myself from my first sergeant. I was very lucky not to get sent to Thule for the duration after that one. I always felt that I had been shorted some in training regarding my area of authority, which was obviously about zero. A case where being “better safe than sorry” made ME sorry. At least no ships got sunk, though.

      • You did the right thing. Like when my Dad called the Security Police to have a three-star general removed from the flight line because he didn’t have the required pass to be there. That was a SAC base in the 1960s.

        It all worked out eventually, but there was a time there when he wondered if he was going to wind up in the stockage.

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