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Mons Simplicitatis


The Skunk Works – Lockheed’s codename for their secretive advanced development group – is cool, cooler than you or me. Well, it’s definitely cooler than me. It’s probably cooler than you. I mean no insult by this, I’m just saying it’s an odds thing. Super cool things were and are being designed and built at the Skunk Works, things that go stealthily and very fast, and this just needs to be recognized, immortalized on the Web ether.

“Back up that statement about coolness with some proof, C-Dawgg, because I’m pretty fuckin cool,” you are no doubt hissing at your screen, spittle flecking the Plexi (maybe tinted kinda orange from the Cheetos).

Very well then.

Ben Rich’s book, Skunk Works (1996), is filled with proof, and it’s a must-read for aficionados of engineering, the aerospace industry, the Cold War, military aircraft, or reality in general.

It’s one of the all-time best books I’ve ever read. It works on so many levels, good writing, fascinating subject, learning the process for how the government did big black projects back in those Cold War decades, plus just learning how minds like Rich and first director Kelly Johnson work. Rich comes across as such a good guy, like how he backs Francis Gary Powers’ decision not to use the suicide needle in his kit when he got shot down. (I can’t stand the type of guy who armchair quarterbacks split-second judgment calls like that, particularly of that magnitude.) If you ever get your hands on a copy, pay attention to Johnson’s 14 operating rules. Common sense yet ingenious stuff, like the engineering equivalent of Rogers’ Rangers rules, but that’s a post for another day.

Back to the point, proving coolness: Rich and co-author Leo Janos casually talk around one particular act of cleverness so profound that it has to rank up there with one of the top moments of inspiration in human history. I seriously feel honored to be the guy presenting this story to you if you haven’t heard it before. You kinda have to read between the lines to catch it, but it’s that good.

After Powers was shot down in the U-2 in 1960, staid gentlemen with lots of medals and deep pockets wanted a faster reconnaissance aircraft for spying on those pesky, nuclear Soviets. An aircraft that could outrun a surface-to-air-missile would be preferable; oh say, something that could fly at over 2,000 MPH. So Lockheed made a proposal and got the contract and Kelly Johnson assigned Ben Rich to be the project manager for the propulsion system. Check out Skunk Works for the full story, which is epic from start to finish, but the gist is for the A-12 (which became the SR-71 Blackbird) they had to redesign everything for the temperatures involved at supersonic flight, down to the “…wires, plugs, and transducers”. At those speeds the temperatures of the aircraft’s leading edges were anticipated to exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

And just to put this in perspective, 2,000 MPH is far faster than a .30-06 round. It’s a little less than three times the speed of sound. One of the guest authors in Skunk Works, a Blackbird pilot, discusses what it looks like to fly faster than the rotation of the Earth.

The story we’re particularly interested in here regards the fact that they couldn’t get the fuel tanks to be watertight, due, if I recall correctly, to the titanium fabrication limitations of the day.

So my mental image is a bunch of the country’s brightest aviation engineering nerds sitting around a table in a windowless meeting room. The conversation has fallen silent. What to do? If the A-12’s fuel tanks leak, what good is it? You’re not going to get very far on those planned surveillance flights across Commieland if you’re leaking fuel across the stratosphere.

Everybody’s looking kinda despondent, because the fuel and propulsion systems are the most crucial parts of the aircraft, second only to, well, the wings which sustain flight, right? It’s beyond being a $96-million dollar Cessna. It’s a point of pride. And nobody has any clue what to do. Reengineer the titanium forming process? They already had to design new tools and cutting fluid to work the stuff. Develop some kind of sealant which is inevitably going to be weaker than the metal itself? (That’s the account in a different book, actually, but the underlying, primary solution described below is far more interesting.)

Finally (again, my mental image, I’m inferring) let’s say Rich lifts his head off his arms crossed on the table and says, casually, “Why don’t we just design it for its supersonic state and run the fucker up to mach three? We'll let the friction and expansion seal that shit. We can refuel in flight when we need to.”*

So everybody just pauses for a shocked, silent moment, pupils flicking back and forth at each other. The solution couldn’t be that simple, that elegant, could it? Let a fast plane fly fast and the problem will sort itself out?

But that’s what they did, leaking jet fuel across the runway at Groom Lake at the first official flight in April 1962. And it worked.

(*“Ben Rich would have used words like aerodynamic heating and X and Y, C-Dawgg, and fuck you for saying I eat Cheetos.” My bad. I am but a humble scribbler.)
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