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Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed

Ben R. Rich · 23 HN comments
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Amazon Summary
This classic history of America's high-stakes quest to dominate the skies is "a gripping technothriller in which the technology is real" ( New York Times Book Review). From the development of the U-2 to the Stealth fighter, Skunk Works is the true story of America's most secret and successful aerospace operation. As recounted by Ben Rich, the operation's brilliant boss for nearly two decades, the chronicle of Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works is a drama of Cold War confrontations and Gulf War air combat, of extraordinary feats of engineering and human achievement against fantastic odds. Here are up-close portraits of the maverick band of scientists and engineers who made the Skunk Works so renowned. Filled with telling personal anecdotes and high adventure, with narratives from the CIA and from Air Force pilots who flew the many classified, risky missions, this book is a riveting portrait of the most spectacular aviation triumphs of the twentieth century. "Thoroughly engrossing." -- Los Angeles Times Book Review
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Hacker News Stories and Comments

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Jan 13, 2021 · edge17 on NSA UFO Documents Index
I'm just going to plug this book because it's so good and adds a lot more color to these comments -

For context, this book covers history on the development of these UFOs and was written by Ben Rich, who worked at and eventually led the Lockheed division that developed these planes. If nothing else, it's a fascinating account of many historical events from a totally different vantage point.

As much as I appreciate what you're saying, the answer to your question is

> the aircraft architect

because that's the guy who really built it. He could not have done it alone or without the help of everyone you mentioned, but let's not pretend like everyone was equally important here.

As a tangent, this is one of my favorite books detailing the creation of some of Skunkworks' projects, including the SR-71:

> let's not pretend like everyone was equally important here.

Except that's completely wrong. An architect did not build the SR-71. Physical engineering involves a feedback cycle and iterative design refinements, just like software engineering.

I don't think it's common from some architect to just draw a blueprint, hand it off to some people to build it, and that's it, we're done here, my design came to life thanks to my Godly design skills (and the simple work of 40 lowly engineers). The SR-71 is a project that took years and years of work, lots of failed attempts, experiments and lessons learned. There's no way that the majority of the credit for the SR-71 goes to some bossman architect dude who just told people what to do. It was very much teamwork. Everyone, including the test pilots, participated in its design and refinement.

It was definitely team work. But the question comes down to being replaceable - could anyone replace Kelly Johnson and still create the SR-71? I don't know. I'm not even sure Ben Rich would have succeeded. But I'm confident not every single other person mentioned was irreplaceable. In fact I'd venture 99% of those people could be replaced.

Likewise, it takes thousands of engineers to operate Google right now. But do you really think most of those engineers are irreplaceable? Meanwhile good luck finding replacements for Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemewat.

This notion that everybody is equally talented/important is absurd. And the idea that you can always make up for a lack of talent with hard work is pretty obviously debunked if you take even a passing glance at competitive sports.

I'm not saying a single person can do everything without help. I'm saying a single person can have talent that you could never hope to have, no matter how hard you try, and that's just the way it is. And because of that talent, those people are more important when it comes to getting shit done.

It may be the case that 99% of the people some way involved in the completion of the SR-71 were replaceable but that still leaves a significant number of people besides Kelly Johnson.
But on the other hand a superstar can also suck all the air out of the room, such that other potential talented people won't have the opportunities to refine their talents.
Everything is measured by if he can deliver. A superstar with leadership skills is arguably a better superstar.

You can also have asshole superstar who just needs other people for dumb labor. And who can micromanage them to project success.

That is pretty obviously only a local optimum.

I find it bizarre, but if you point to an athlete who is world class, many will acknowledge that yes, that person has unique skills and abilities.

Point to the mind, and suddenly everyone is equal.

> Point to the mind, and suddenly everyone is equal

Not equal. Sufficient.

Athletics are entertainment. Entertainers are usually not fungible. Contrast that with jobs demanding physical work.

Denying that some people are more replaceable than others for a given task done to a certain tolerance is a significant self kneecap. It blinds you to power structures and leverage dynamics. It also makes several simplifying paradigms inaccessible.

> It blinds you to power structures and leverage dynamics. It also makes several simplifying paradigms inaccessible.

Are you able to reference any material which explorer these concepts more in depth? These are incredibly resonating ideas.

Ronald Burt’s Structural Holes [1]. It’s a bit formal for my MBA friends. But gives you a basic model to string intuition on.

Slightly more fun, but still based on serious research: The Dictator’s Handbook [2].



Yeah, one of the things that struck me when reading about the development of the SR-71 and F-117[1] was how a lot of what we consider "start-up" culture has already existed in one form or another.


Yeah, there weren't many waterfalls in the skunk works.
There weren't many management layers either.
The good parts of Agile are pretty much taken verbatim from the approach taken by project Mercury in the 60s. The space industry pretty much gave birth to iterative and incremental development
iterative development goes back much further.

The industrial revolution made iterative design possible because it made the time and effort of producing something far cheaper.

This article mentions Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. If you don't know who he is and care to learn more about one of the best engineers that ever lived (SR-71 is his work), check out his book:

His second in command at Lockheed, a man named Ben Rich also wrote a very good book:

> (SR-71 is his work)

One unfortunate trait of the original Lockheed Skunkworks culture was to make Kelly Johnson (brilliant as he was) the only face of the organization. As just one such example, many know of the clever inlet system on the A-12/SR-71, but it, like many things Skunkworks in the pre-Rich era, is incorrectly ascribed to Johnson. The real person who deserves the credit as the chief for that system is David H. Campbell, but how many people know his name?

The form of the T-38 was apparently determined by Lee Begin at Northrop. Who, you ask? Well, good luck finding information about him on the Internet.
If you like the SR-71, and are interested in other Skunk Works projects like the U-2 and F-117, the book Skunk Works is a great read (and also a great audio book).

Also if you're in the DC area, it's really worth going to the National Air & Space Museum, as well as their 'oversize' Udvar Hazy centre. The out of town place is special and hardly gets any tourists, even though they have an SR-71 and the Shuttle, Discovery. Other things include an X-15, the Enola Gay (feels weird if you've visited Hiroshima too), an exhibit on the Keyhole satellite program, a U2 and tons more. I don't think they have an F117, sadly.
I have a copy of "Skunk Works" and it is indeed a great book. Amazon still has it for under $12[1]. And seeing as it's quite popular, most large libraries should have a copy as well.

It's great that you brought up "Sled Driver", I'm actually currently saving up to buy a copy. Brian Shul still has new copies available on his website for $250[2]. I think the copies that go for very high prices on eBay are the first editions or some of the special commemorative versions.

May I ask your opinion on the print quality of "Sled Driver"? I know Shul is a photographer, in addition to being a former SR-71 pilot, so I assume the photographic print quality is quite high. Have your read his companion book "The Untouchables"?



Yeah, I think mine is a first edition - a friend gave it to me about 25+ years ago. It is a treasured book in my house.

The photos in there are nice, but I would say it is on par with most coffee table style books that I've seen. Wonderful photos, but the print quality is about the same as most books of that era. To be honest, I got so caught up in the stories he tells in there that I can't recall a lot about the photography - I will have to revisit it and check it out.

Great that he has started republishing the books again. I remember about 10 years ago when it was out of print, copies were going for about $6000+ on eBay !! o_O I thought I was sitting on a goldmine. :D

I haven't read "The Untouchables", but will put a copy on my wishlist for this year. Can't get enough of books about great planes and great pilots.

Thanks for the response. I didn't realize Sled Driver was first published that long ago. I'm certainly glad he is offering newer editions, even if they are still quite pricey.
A large part of why the original Skunk Works was so successful is because Kelly Johnson, and later Ben Rich, did not care about outward appearances. They had a job and they did it (and they made it profitable). Here's a great book on the subject.

Can you point to any press release that the secret skunk works facility published within a year of a failure? I don't recall any.
They did the closest thing they could - when a project failed, they killed it and refunded money to the government. In the defense industry, this is pretty rare (the F35 project is widely criticized as a failure by almost everybody that's ever used it but it's still going to get hundreds of billions of dollars in future funding). They could have said nothing, pretended everything was fine, and continued to siphon money from their customers but they decided to cut their losses early and maintain their reputation as an organization that gets things done on time and under budget. This got them a lot more contracts moving forward.
Must have reached the nesting limit, can't reply to your other comment.

> They're both moonshot branches of much larger companies

Not at all! Skunk Works started with one single focused mission. To design a jet to compete with the German Messerschmitt! Yes, they did a lot of things differently to clear bureaucracy out of the way and get stuff done. But to call Skunk Works a "Moonshoot" branch is not correct at all. The definition of moonshoot includes not having an expectation of profitability. Lockheed saw a threat, saw a need, and saw huge potential for profits!

First, skunk works never refunded money to the government. There is at least one anecdote that they tried but the government accounting office had no way to receive the money back.

jayjay's initial comment was that the lack of PR was concerning, but then brings up a super secret facility that had no PR whatsoever as a counter example. The comparison just doesn't make sense.

But let's say that your claim is true, that skunk works communicated with their customer on a failed project. That still has no relation to a public announcement about a failed project. This was a self-funded project by Google, they are their own customer. The lack of PR about internal projects says nothing about their internal culture.

I think the comparison between Skunk Works and X is excellent. They're both moonshot branches of much larger companies that are meant to be free from bureaucracy. There won't be a perfect comparison, and obviously there won't be PR announcements for classified projects, but the point remains - focus on substance instead of appearances and you'll be much more successful. There's lots of evidence that Skunk Works had a great culture, but there seems to be little of that for X. In fact, there are numerous reports of people leaving X in the past year.

Agree to disagree, I guess.

I've also reached the nesting limit, so this will be my last comment if only because the conversation is already difficult to follow.

Fair point about the creation of Skunk Works. I guess I was thinking more about the SR-71 and B2 which were wildly ambitious.

I guess history will tell the story of X as it's just too soon to call at this point. I'd love for them to be successful.

It could be the case that not caring about appearances is one of the best ways to optimize for appearance. Somewhat like men who don't care (or do not give the appearance of caring) what women think tend to get more women than men overly concerned with appearance, even though women judge men by appearance (including what non-physical traits they appear to possess).
There's great coverage of all that in:

In particularly, they patched together their prototype in a way which all hackers will appreciate.

Nearly everything you do with computer tech was seeded by government/large corps.

For a military contracting specific account:

It was seeded by wartime/cold war governments and large corps.

But back then government was at least somewhat independent of the large corps.

Today Washington is the wholly-owned political arm of the mil/ind/fin complex.

The tail isn't just wagging the dog, it's controlling it with direct brain implants.

If you don't accept this, please explain how the F35 was allowed to happen.

The scale of wastage and - let's call it what it is - establishment-sanctioned corruption is almost impossible to comprehend.

War profiteering is nothing new. Corrupt generals and politicians are nothing new either.

Shitshows like the F-35 are just another symptom of the poisonous political landscape. These big projects get jobbed out to hit every congressional district to make projects tough to kill. They turn into monsters that aren't managed by anyone.

Jan 18, 2015 · dangoldin on Silicon Valley History
Also not on the list and doesn't take place in SV but I loved it and the culture is very SV like -
But they continued that with e.g. the F-117 stealth fighter(-bomber), after Kelly Johnson was no longer running the show. The story of the prototype's development is stunning, see e.g.

As for the F-35, the TFX like requirements are its biggest problem ( see also The Strategy of Technology if you want the whole picture).

I just read an interesting book about Lockheed's skunkworks program. It covers a bit of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, but mostly the post-Vietnam era.

The world's fastest plane was built before we landed on the moon. We're spoiled in tech by Moore's Law but the difficultly in making advances in commercial and military aviation is disappointing. In the 1970's everyone probably though NY to London in 2 hours was a given by now.

Here's a great book to read about the SR-71.

A seismologist tracked the sonic booms of the new Aurora spy plane at mach 5.2.

A pretty slick hack as I've ever seen.

> In the 1970's everyone probably though NY to London in 2 hours was a given by now.

To be fair, a lot of the "We're too cheap to fly >Mach 1" comes down to the fact that door-to-door travel time doesn't really come down commensurate with the increased costs of faster-than-sound travel.

When the airport is outside town, and you have to arrive 1.5 hours before the flight takes off, taking even a large % of the flight time off doesn't make a significant dent in total travel time.

I'm from melbourne, australia, where its ~15 hours to LAX, or ~24 hrs to LHR. I'll take that large % off flight time please :)
Would you pay 25x an economy ticket for it?
It's probably not quite that bad although, given the plane doesn't exist, we're speaking in hypotheticals anyway. As I recall, the Concorde was something like 30% more than a first class ticket. It's hard to imagine such a thing being built in the foreseeable future unless there are radical breakthroughs that totally change air travel economics.

As I said elsewhere on the thread, for most people under most circumstances, the main thing is the overall travel experience rather than the number of hours. I don't find flying business transpacific all that unpleasant--just boring. And the first class setups for some of the Asian etc. carriers who have 3-class configurations look pretty amazing though I've never experienced them first-hand. The technology and capability exists to make long-haul air travel almost arbitrarily comfortable (and connected). It's just a case of how much money a large enough segment of travelers are will to pay.

An international first class ticket is often 15-20x that of an economy ticket. So give your 30%, then 20-25x is spot on.
I think that for any travel there is some critical time when it doesn't matter how long it is as long it is < 24h and more than a long commute. You are wasting a whole day for that leg of the trip anyway no matter if the flight is 4 or 10 hours. So why waste money.
There is a big difference between a 4 and 10 hour flight. For a 4 day weekend, I wouldn't take a 10hr trip but 4 is doable. Of course, I live 20 minutes from an international airport.
It makes some difference but I agree with your basic point. Especially as you have to add 2 hours or so buffer for check-in, security, etc.--especially for an international flight.

And if you're looking for more generalized "reduced pain of travel," the reality is that really comfortable seating arrangements and decent food/drink can be delivered on a sub-sonic widebody for a lot less $$ than it would cost you to travel the route on a hypothetical supersonic passenger jet.

Transpacific is probably where the difference would matter the most, assuming the supersonic jet had that kind of range (which is sort of doubtful). But it's worth noting that, even with today's jets, some really long haul routes that would significantly cut travel time for some don't make economic sense and have been eliminated (e.g. New York-Singapore).

In aviation there is also a law of diminishing returns because there are certain parts of the flight profile that are flown well below maximum speed. Even if you could do Mach 20 at altitude, you're still going to spend about 30-40 minutes between climbout (keep it under 250 below 10k!), descent, pattern entry, and approach.
I thoroughly enjoyed Masters of Doom.

At the time, I recall a number of people who read the book bemoaning 1991 as a bygone era of opportunity, as if all the good ideas and opportunities to invent had been "used up". Interesting how different people take the same text as self-defeating vs inspiring.

Also, on the topic of inspirational books, I always have to mention Skunk Works[0], one of my all-time favorites.


I own a print copy of this book, it's good stuff.

I picked it up soon after reading Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed [1], an incredible book which recounts development of the U2, SR-71 and F-117A.


Skunk Works is a great read. It's enlightening how advanced these guys were in the 60's, I tend to think of the 80s and 90s as being the time when we raced forward technically but it was probably the 60s and 70s were the fastest pace.
Absolutely, I found it incredibly inspirational to read about those guys riding the bleeding edge of technology - inventing and adapting as they went along.

They basically built something from the future.

With a native grasp of aero / astro, can't imagine they had a lot of CAD or simulation horsepower. I have to think its a great story of fundament mastery.
As Ben Rich describes in Skunk Works, the SR-71 was designed using slide rules and drafting instruments and tested in a wind tunnel that could only run at night because of how much energy it used. IIRC it was the early stealth stuff (an SR-71 launched drone and then the F-117) that ushered in the use of computers.
Also amazing, was the materials engineering. SR71 ushered in the use of widespread Titanium in the airframe, which was needed to stand up to the heat (friction) at Mach 3+. Because of the severe heat-cycling, the engineers ultimately figured out an unorthodox solution to manage thermal expansion:

The fuselage panels were manufactured to fit only loosely on the ground. Proper alignment was only achieved when the airframe heated up and expanded several inches. Because of this, and the lack of a fuel sealing system that could handle the thermal expansion of the airframe at extreme temperatures, the aircraft would leak JP-7 jet fuel on the runway. At the beginning of each mission, the aircraft would make a short sprint after takeoff to warm up the airframe, then refuel before heading off to its destination.

There's nothing new in this - it has been done before.

Want to build a Mach3 aircraft in the days when most people thought jets were pretty clever?

Want to do it in <2years using materials that had never been used in a plane before - and do it on budget.

And repeat the success with half a a dozen other projects.

And it's described in a book that everyone in technology (or management) should read

re: the downvote.

This wasn't an attack on space-X it was a celebration of them having continued the tradition of the frankly astonishing work that skunk works started.

ps. it is a very good book

Twas ever thus. Ben Rich was Kelly Johnson's assistant at the original Lockheed Skunkworks (creator of the U2, SR71, etc) - he was regularly approached to leave and create skunkworks for every other aerospace company.

As soon as he talked to them they enthused about the Skunkworks setup and how their version would be better since it would be in the main plant, with it's own set of VPs to supervise it and be properly intergrated into the main business etc.

ps. Read his biography if you think any of this Silicon Valley stuff is new

The Blackbird is full of amazing stories. Skunkworks - Ben Rich's memoirs [1] is full of ridiculous stories, both of making the SR-71 as well as stories from pilots (as well as a lot of other projects).

Not every thing in there can be taken at face value (his rant against the paint locker on the Sea Shadow for example... it's really the 'toxic solvents and chemicals locker'), but still full of gold.

For example, they had into all sorts of problems wielding titanium for the first time. Chlorine would wreck all sorts of havoc on the plates they used, which they discovered when someone drew on a plate with a ball-point pen. And then they completely ripped their hair out when the municipality increased the chlorination in the water they were using to clean the plates.


my favorite sr71 anecdote is how it leaks fuel when on the runway because all the joints were all designed to fit loosely until it reached pressure at altitude.
ah the skunkworks
The funny thing is, interesting as some of their projects may be, these days they still have the same mundane shit to complain about as everyone else (IT changed the security policy on my desktop so now I can't run MATLAB, etc).

I do get the impression Skunkworks is not what it once was.

I second the recommendation for Ben Rich's book. It's a great history lesson and explanations behind the thinking of some of the greatest aerospace hackers & out-of-box thinkers.

I thought the passage about "600 mph birds" was particularly humorous because that was the first thing my young hacker mind thought of during a training section on the radar cross-section of the aircraft I was working on. It went something like this:

Instructor: "So the radar cross section is reduced considerably to approximately the size of a small bird"

Me: "So why don't they just look for a small bird going 600 mph?"

Instructor: "..."

Some years after, an F-117 was shot down during the Kosovo War, reportedly using this method (I had nothing to do with it :). I think this was probably a big learning lesson in regard to stealth technology.

And no disrespect to my instructor, he was a professional and a god of his domain.

>Some years after, an F-117 was shot down during the Kosovo War, reportedly using this method (I had nothing to do with it :). I think this was probably a big learning lesson in regard to stealth technology.

It was a bit more complicated than that ;-)

The full account how they managed to shot down a "stealth" F-117A with some modifications to cold war era Russian missiles, microwave ovens as radar decoys and in-promptu installed landlines can be read here:

From that article:

>The spies and observers enabled Zoltan to keep his radars on for a minimal amount of time.

Reminds me of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

Of course it was a bit more complicated than that, that's why I recommend the book :)

I can believe the rabbit story in that link. ECM radiation is nasty.

I highly recommend Ben Rich's autobiography to anyone interested in the engineering and business practices behind Skunk Works:

Second that, one of my favorites. The guys who built the SR71 were the ultimate hackers.
I'll third that, its downright inspirational.
For those that don't know about it, this book on skunk works is a wonderful read:

That book is by Johnson's protege and successor, this one is by Kelly himself:

Both are amazing stories.

I've been reading "Skunk Works" (, which talks about the development of the SR-71 and other planes (such as the U-2 and the stealth bomber) at Lockheed's Skunk Works facility. It's a good read. I think it may have been suggested by another HNer.
I read this a few years ago. Quite a few years ago, come to think of it. It makes you wistful for those time when such a small group of skilled engineers came together to make incredible, physical things.

What we all do with code doesn't even come close.

It really puts things into perspective. We get excited when we come up with a different way to display a form and these guys were building planes that traveled at Mach 3 at 80,000 feet nearly 50 years ago. The amount of technical problems you have to solve to get such a plane into the air is simply staggering. Unbelievable.
If anyone is interested in a bit more of the history behind the aircraft (also the U-2 and the F-117), do check out Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir... by Ben Rich

It's a great read!

Seconded, it's a fascinating book, both as a memoir of how to do fantastically ambitious engineering, and also how to manage a remarkable group of engineers. The analogue for the web would be something like reading an account of Google written by Page or Brin.
Also take a look at "Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed" by Ben Rich (manager at Lockheed after Kelly Johnson). Despite the title, he also talks extensively about the U2 and SR-71 projects - Amazing pieces of engineering all.

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