Strange but apparently true: stealth aircraft are so effective at avoiding radar, bats fly into them. I like bats, so I wasn’t thrilled to learn this. The aircraft also deflect sonar, which makes it almost impossible to take a Polaroid picture of one. Those types of cameras use a form of sonar to auto-focus, which surprised me even more than the factoid about bats.
These are among the many fascinating things I learned in Ben Rich’s Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. The Skunk Works was a secret division of Lockheed that designed many innovative craft for the Air Force. Rich led this division following the retirement of founder Clarence “Kelly” Johnson.
Although I don’t have an inherent interest in aircraft, especially military aircraft, this lengthy autobiography held my interest. There is much detail about how such a secret organization operated, as well as some behind-the-scenes info on some historical incidents.
One of those incidents I did not know much about previously concerns Francis Gary Powers, a U2 spy plane pilot whom the Soviets shot down and captured. I feel for this poor guy, who was tormented by the government, the military, the press and the public for not taking his cyanide capsule in lieu of getting captured alive. I can’t begin to imagine what it had to have been like for him.
An interesting tact this book takes which I haven’t seen used before is the introduction of other first-person viewpoints in their own sub-chapters. That is a nice touch, and it gives some perspective beyond what Rich could provide.
There are too many good anecdotes and quotes to do them justice here, but these are some which stuck with me after I finished the book. I should add that, although these are quotes and anecdotes I found interesting, that does not mean I agree with the sentiments.
Things like Johnson arguing the future of aircrafts are going to be missiles, and Rich shutting him down with, “the reason they call them missiles, instead of hittles, is that they miss much more than they hit.” Or a weird bit of pettiness where they take out a telecommunications center in Baghdad to irk CNN reporter Peter Arnett. Then there’s a proposed technique I found pretty offensive, though it apparently was never executed: annoying Saddam by flying planes at Mach 3 over Baghdad at prayer time and deafening worshippers with sonic booms.
So, needless to say, some of the anecdotes fascinated and appalled me at the same time. One innocent passage that made me laugh out loud concerned putting a miniature ocean in Death Valley to test a prototype stealth boat, only to have wild horses and donkeys using it as an oasis. The kicker is Soviet spy satellites specifically flew over this area once a day to gather intel, and they must have wondered “what in hell we were up to out there, stocking a pool near Death Valley for thirsty mules and horses.”
It is strange to learn about covert operations long after they ceased. It left me wondering what the various governments around the world are up to currently but which we won’t know about until we read about them later. Here’s to the writers of the future’s Skunk Works.