James talks about Skunkworks in our YOW! presentation, which you can view here on the YOW! site.
Kelly Johnson, the leader of the Skunkworks organisation, had one core principle – everyone needed for the design, build, testing and launch of a plane would be in the team, and in the room. Engineers, pilots, welders, engine-makers, contractors.
This principle was brought to bear on the Allies’ big business problem in 1943 – the Germans had developed a jet fighter, capable of 50% more speed than a British Spitfire and the famed US P51-D. Eschewing the usual ‘big design up front’ period for a new plane, they went to work in a hangar and 143 days later were flying the first US-manufactured jet.
One of the secrets of the speed to market of the design was the way the plane was constructed. The tail piece, which contains the engine, could be folded back in several simple panels to reveal the entire jet unit for servicing or replacement, allowing rapid changeover and trying alternate designs.
At the Smithsonian, they have the problem and the solution arranged side by side in an exhibition honouring the jet engine and the Lockheed Martin’s amazing new approach to product development.