Today, an early jet teaches us a lesson in
simplicity. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
We found out about German
combat jets in the middle of WW-II. That struck a
bolt of fear in our hearts, make no mistake. We
were lucky that the threat wasn't unleashed until
the very last days of the war. The few
Messerschmitt jets Germany managed to finish
marched through our bomber formations like Sherman
on his way to the sea. If they'd turned up earlier,
they might've changed the outcome of the war.
The German jets had been on the drawing boards
since the late 1930s. We didn't start building our
own jets until 1943. On May 17th of that year, a
Lockheed engineer named Kelly Johnson showed a jet
design to the Air Force. By 2:00 that afternoon he
was on the way back to California with a contract
in his pocket.
The project succeeded for odd reasons. Lockheed was
already building every airplane humanly possible.
They had no extra means to put into Johnson's
project. But poverty of means gave him a wealth of
freedom and opportunity. He set up a circus tent.
He stole engineers from other units. The operation
took its name -- the Skunk Works -- from Li'l
Only 128 people worked in the original Skunk Works,
and only 23 of them were engineers. Johnson was an
impossible boss -- so impossible that no one took
his impossibility seriously. "He used to fire me
twice a day," said a lead engineer. The work was so
secret that janitors weren't let in the tent. Trash
piled up, and the work went on in cockamamie
independence for 143 days. They named the new plane
Lulu-Belle, and the Skunk Works took it from
preliminary drawings to a finished airplane in less
than five months. Today, it takes more like 8 years
to do that.
Lulu-Belle was the experimental version of the F-80
Shooting Star -- our first jet fighter. Lulu-Belle
flew 500 miles an hour in her test flight. Later
she did over 600 miles an hour with a beefed-up
engine. This engineering tour de force came too
late in the war to see combat. But in Korea, the
F-80 jet that followed her became the first jet to
win a dog fight with another jet.
The Skunk Works stayed intact at Lockheed after the
war. It gave us our high-altitude spy plane, the
U-2. A Skunk Works engineer made a telling
observation about its successes. The trick, he
said, is to design a plane as quickly as possible
and then cover your mistakes. The more time you
spend getting a thing right the first time, the
more chance people have to complicate it - the
harder it is to fix anything.
In the end, the Skunk Works made it plain that
nothing serves us so well -- and nothing is as easy
for us to lose sight of -- as simplicity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The source for this is a photocopy of an article that
was sent to me. I do not have a complete citation. A
partial citation is:
Tierney, J., [title unknown] ??
Science, 85, September, 1985 ?, pp.
As a footnote to this story, the last product of
the Skunk Works was the high-altitude spy plane,
the Blackbird. It was recently retired from
service. One of the few surviving Blackbirds was
flown from San Diego to Washington, D.C. for its
retirement in the Smithsonian Institution. It made
its last flight in just over an hour and set a new
transcontinental speed record in doing so.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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