Interview with Al Romig, Chief Skunk

Skunk Works® Celebrates 70 Years of Innovation


In 1943, the U.S. Army’s Air Tactical Service Command (ATSC) met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express its dire need for a jet fighter to counter a rapidly growing German jet threat. One month later, a young engineer by the name of Clarence "Kelly" L. Johnson and his team delivered the XP-80 jet fighter proposal to the ATSC. Quickly the go-ahead was given for Lockheed to start development on the United States' first jet fighter effort. It was June of 1943 and this project marked the birth of what would become the Skunk Works®.

Seventy years later, we celebrate the innovation that has continued to flourish even as the world around us changes. Chief Skunk, Dr. Alton D. Romig, Jr., PhD, is the vice president and general manager of Advanced Development Programs AKA the Skunk Works® for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. In this interview, he reflects on the rich history of the Skunk Works and discusses the unique culture that will continue its tradition of mission driven innovation and value added solutions for years to come.

Looking back at 70 years of history, what are some of your favorite Skunk Works moments?
In general, I’m most impressed with the speed that the Skunk Works has been able to complete projects and in many cases created aircraft and technology that was considered impossible at the time. The XP-80 Shooting Star program went from hand shake to first flight in 143 days with only 130 people. That’s absolutely remarkable.

I also have a special tie to the F-117. Prior the Skunk Works, I was employed at Sandia.  When I was a young engineer, I was part of the team that added nuclear capability to the F-117. Later on in my career I managed a team who developed the robotics system that recoated the F-117.

One of my favorite stories about the F-117 is how Ben Rich sold that airplane. It’s common to describe an airplane’s radar signature by comparing it to the size of a ball. It could be a ball of aluminum the size of a basketball, baseball, etc. The F-117’s signature was the size of a ball bearing.  When Ben Rich was trying to get funding for the program, he’d walk into the office of people in the Pentagon, tell them about the remarkable signature, and then he’d toss a ball bearing onto their tables. I can relate to that as I have used similar approaches when developing others programs.

Another favorite story of mine speaks to the character and integrity of the Skunk Works and Lockheed Martin. Prior to the SR-71, Kelly Johnson’s team attempted to build a hydrogen-powered airplane known as Suntan. Try as they could, not even Kelly and his team could make it work. When they decided to stop the program, Kelly gave the project money back to the government.

Can you give us a peek inside your secret world for a moment to talk about the work that’s presently being done at the Skunk Works?
For your background, approximately 90 percent of what we do now is classified. I can tell you that it is very exciting to be a trusted partner with our customers.  Let me describe two of the efforts that I can talk about.

In the case of Hybrid Airships, not only are we innovating in a technological sense but I believe we are innovating in our business processes as well. We are currently building a business model to get this technology to market.

The U-2 program is very active and continues to evolve. People think we’re still flying the airplanes from the 1950s when in fact we’ve completely rebuilt the fleet. As a matter of fact, the aircraft flying today were built in the 1980s. Currently we perform program maintenance depot and sustainment work that includes continued upgrades like new sensor payloads. Over the past year we’ve been working on the cockpit altitude reduction effort (CARE), which significantly increases the pressure in the cockpit to make the environment more comfortable for the pilot.

What is the Skunk Works’ secret to remaining a sustained source of innovation?
The real secret to maintaining innovation is simple; it’s the people.  I don’t know if you could create the Skunk Works today because it was a very different time during its inception.  I think the reason it worked for us then was because a national need existed to build a fighter jet very quickly. The imperative of the war combined with the genius of Kelly Johnson and the people gathered around him produced a unique culture.  By allowing that creative culture to perpetuate, the Skunks of today have been indoctrinated by the generations that have preceded them. This created a “secret sauce” that exists in the hearts, minds and souls of the people here, and it really can’t be adequately described.

Another important characteristic of the Skunk Works is a unique management structure that empowers engineers. Even today we make it a point to follow Kelly’s rules for program management. Our workforce has a breadth of experience and system lifecycle engagement. We also have a willingness to take prudent risks.  In a technical sense, our culture encourages doing things that have never been done before.  For example, the SR-71’s predecessor, the A-12, went through 11 iterations before it met the design specs.

What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced while leading the Skunk Works?
Because we are willing to take risks, we’ve created more experimental planes, X planes, than anyone else in the industry. We have a reputation for taking on challenges and pulling off the impossible.

What concerns me is having an adequate workforce pipeline.  There are far fewer students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) than there has been in the past.  Making sure we have talent for the future is by far our biggest challenge.

What advice would you have for students who aspire to become “Skunks” someday?
First off, they need to have a real passion for flying in their hearts.  I can vividly remember experiences that influenced me.  I grew up near a small airport in Pennsylvania. When I was three years old, my father took me to see a B-29.  I remember walking up to the airplane and climbing up the ladder to the cockpit and seeing the radio station ahead of me, off to the left there were two pilot seats, on the lower level stations were the navigator and bombardier, and to the right there was a pressurized tunnel over the bomb bay.  I will never forget that experience.  And when you speak to the engineers here, I guarantee they can all share an event in their lives that inspired their career path. 

Secondly, kids have to do their best to be good students so that they can get into and graduate from a good school. It doesn’t matter what discipline you choose, education is key.

Where do you think aviation will be in the next 70 years and what is the Skunk Works’ role in shaping it?
What really excites me is our work in hypersonics.  We are currently doing work in this field under programs such as the High Speed Strike Weapon and the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2).  Having completed two flights with HTV-2, we now have close to 20 minutes of flying at Mach 20 under our belts. This work is shaping a technology maturation path to build more complex vehicles that could be deployed in 2030 and beyond.

I also think that supersonic commercial flight could be achieved.   Our team has been working ways to mitigate the noise of a sonic boom caused by the high speeds of supersonic flight. 

Autonomy will also play a critical role in the next generation of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).  At this time, there are no autonomous aircraft, only UAVs that are highly automated.  If a UAV was truly autonomous, it would be able to think, make decisions and learn. This capability will be key if we ever want to transport cargo or passengers using unmanned systems.

As I mentioned before, hybrid airships have the potential to be a game changer when it comes to cargo transportation.  They are much cheaper than airplanes and faster than ships.  Imagine shipping fruit and flowers from South America to the U.S.  Now you either pay high fees to fly the product or it must be picked early and stored properly for ship transport.  An airship travels at approximately 100 knots and could also access remote locations.  

We are also working across Lockheed Martin to evolve capabilities to solidify next generation air dominance. As responsible citizens, we are ensuring we get the most out of our current platforms as possible. But you also have to be prepared to stay ahead of any threats.

Any final thoughts?
I am lucky. I think I have the best job in the aerospace industry. If you ever want to be a part of our team, be passionate about planes, be willing to work in a competitive environment and be willing to take risks.