The Golden Age of Aerospace

Department of Defense/Front view of an SR-71 aircraft

Long before the fall of Berlin at the end of World War II, American military intelligence had begun planning to steal advanced Nazi technology. The German state was renowned for its technological prowess, and its propaganda extolled the country’s development of “wonder weapons” like the V-2 missile and ME-262 jet fighter. The Americans intended to obtain this technology with the goal of developing a military advantage over Japan, which could speed along a victory in the Pacific.

There were two major components to the Americans’ efforts: the Field Information Agency Technical (FIAT), which centered around agents capturing technical data from research sites across Germany, and Operation Overcast, which involved hunting down and capturing the most important members of the Nazi scientific establishment.

Operation Overcast’s targeting was guided by the so-called Osenberg List, a Gestapo document which, on Hitler’s orders, cataloged the most important scientists and engineers to the Nazi war effort. A copy of the document had been insufficiently flushed down a toilet at Bonn University and was captured by Allied intelligence.

A 28-year-old Stanford-educated mechanical engineer, Major Robert Staver, was placed in charge of Special Mission V-2 to capture intelligence about the rocket’s design. When he had been working in London before the assignment, a V-2 missile had nearly killed him when it exploded above the building he worked at. Staver led searches through underground weapons factories built into mountains and interviewed prisoners, including Walther Riedel, the Nazis’ top scientist in its rocket design bureau. Riedel talked to Staver for hours, detailing his obsession with outer space vehicles he dubbed “passenger rockets,” as well as “space mirrors which could be used for good and possibly evil.” Riedel told Staver he could provide the names of at least 40 other scientists who should be brought to America to complete this important work, noting that if the U.S. did not act the Soviets certainly would. 

Staver’s superiors became convinced through both his and others’ works that the true prize for the U.S. wasn’t technical drawings or even intact planes and rockets—it was the people who conceived of them. Operation Overcast became Operation Paperclip, which brought over 1,600 German scientists and engineers to work for the United States.

Among these scientists was the physicist and engineer Wernher von Braun, who was the central figure in the V-2 program. In 1960, von Braun and 120 Germans who came to the U.S. as part of Operation Paperclip were transferred to the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where they would develop the Saturn rockets that brought astronauts to the surface of the moon. Another 86 German researchers and test pilots were placed at an Army Air Force base in Ohio as part of Operation Lusty (i.e., LUftwaffe Secret TechnologY), where they helped the Americans exploit the secrets of German jet technology.

By then, the American company Lockheed had already built and flown a jet fighter plane, but the Germans helped to improve future jet aircraft designs, build supersonic wind tunnels to test experimental planes, and advanced America’s aeronautical engineering research and development by four or more years.

As for FIAT, which stuck to gathering German technical data, the intelligence proved of almost no value and the operation was considered a failure. The contrast between the outcomes of Operations FIAT and Paperclip tells us something about the nature of technical knowledge. There are huge chunks of technical knowledge that cannot be acquired by reading texts. And history has shown that it is only possible to access this knowledge through the humans who possess it.

How to See The Air

The Operation Paperclip emigres were the last of a wave of European technical elites who moved to the U.S., starting with the aerodynamics genius Theodore von Karman in 1929. Best known today for the Karman line, which separates Earth’s atmosphere from outer space, he became the director of the lavishly-funded Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory (GALCIT) at Caltech. There, he oversaw the design of a wind tunnel and recruited an influential group of researchers as faculty, including the physicist credited with building the first liquid-propulsion rocket, Robert Goddard. 

While lacking the technical sophistication of Germany, Los Angeles was an aerospace manufacturing hub with over 20 airframe and aircraft manufacturers in the surrounding area during the 1930s. The sector exploded over the course of the war, employing over two million people in the production of over 300,000 planes. American strategists began wondering what was possible if the country’s manufacturing capabilities were paired with an aerospace R&D function that could match or exceed the Germans.

In 1944, von Karman met with Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force, for a series of talks held mainly during long rides in the general’s staff car at an air base outside of New York City. Arnold told von Karman the outcome of the war had already been decided. It had been won by airpower. 

He was now focused on the future; he asked von Karman to form a SAG, or scientific advisory group, and oversee the production of a series of reports that would look at every element of the future of aerospace. Entitled Toward New Horizons, it included analyses of the technology that would “secure us the conquest of the air over the entire globe.” 

This future would require leveraging the knowledge gained from the Germans, but at first the American military wasn’t sure what to do with von Braun and his crew. They spent their first five years in the U.S. at remote Army outposts in the deserts of West Texas and New Mexico. The Army code name for their work, which involved building and firing V-2 rockets, was Project Fireball. But absent a major new project to advance rocketry, the Germans took to calling their time Project Icebox. The Americans were keeping the Germans on ice until they could figure out their rocket ambitions.

While rocket research was stalling, jet aircraft research and development was of paramount importance to a newly independent U.S. Air Force. One organization stands out as the best of the companies who specialized in this work: Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects group, better known by its nickname—Skunk Works. 

The history of Skunk Works can be traced back to 1943, when German fighter jets first appeared in the skies over Europe. A 33-year-old American engineer, Kelly Johnson, was tasked with building a jet fighter prototype in 180 days to match the new German fighter planes. He selected around 50 design engineers and shop mechanics and rented out a circus tent because space was limited at the Lockheed factory. The tent was set up next to a smelly plastics factory—hence the Skunk Works nickname. 

Johnson’s team delivered the plane, the P-80 Shooting Star, 37 days ahead of schedule. Lockheed would go on to manufacture nearly 9,000 of them after the war. The plane would prove itself in the Korean War during dogfights over “MiG Alley” in the skies above North Korea; the first all-jet dogfight in history ended with a U.S. pilot flying a P-80 downing a Soviet-made MiG-15.

The capabilities of Skunk Works were eye-opening to its government clients and the CIA in particular. The agency had an interest in aerial reconnaissance capabilities that would enable it to peer deep into the Soviet Union. The circumstances created the conditions for an entirely new type of organization designed by and for engineers with one abiding passion: building the fastest and highest-flying military aircraft ever built. 

Skunk Works developed a track record of delivering planes that were far ahead of their time on incredibly short deadlines. Its projects were frequently initiated at the presidential level and involved building planes for top-secret missions at the height of the Cold War. They were known as the “CIA’s unofficial toy-makers” as they built the experimental Air Force fighter planes that tipped the technological balance of power in favor of the United States. Some of Skunk Works’s most famous planes included the F-104 Starfighter, the first supersonic attack jet; the SR-71 Blackbird, which could fly more than three times the speed of sound; the U-2 Spy plane; and the F-117 Nighthawk, the first plane able to operate with stealth technology. 

The atmosphere at the Skunk Works facility was both intense and informal, with the men clustered together in a big barn-like room. Many had been working with machines their whole life. Ben Rich, who succeeded Johnson as head of Skunk Works, recounted that he built his first airplane, a Piper Cub, in his backyard when he was only 14 years old. 

It was an unusually tolerant workplace when it came to homemade projectiles. One engineer converted a piece of a jet’s tailpipe into a fourteen-inch blowgun and would occasionally fire clay pellets at the necks of others when they got on his nerves. Another engineer built a square cannon in his spare time to prove the concept could work, then accidentally launched the square shells he built for it through a neighbor’s house.

Those that remained at Skunk Works were a self-selecting group; you had to love the job because of what it demanded from you. Meeting a deadline for a project could mean working 14-hour days for seven days a week for months on end. And because many of these projects were classified, your work couldn’t be discussed at home.

There was no doubting who was in charge. Johnson was described as the “the toughest boss west of the Mississippi.” But even more remarkable to the engineers who reported to him was his uncanny engineering intuition. According to Ben Rich:

Nothing got by the boss. Nothing. And that was my sharpest impression of him, one that never changed over the years: I had never met anyone so expert at every aspect of airplane design and building. He was a great structures man, a great designer, a great aerodynamicist, a great weights man. He was so sharp and instinctive he took my breath away. I’d say to him, “Kelly, the shock wave coming off this spike will hit the tail.” He would nod. “Yeah, the temperature there will be six hundred degrees. I’d go back to my desk and spend two hours with a calculator and come up with a figure of 614 degrees. Truly amazing.

Johnson lived for designing airplanes, turning down the presidency of Lockheed on three occasions because it would mean giving up his duties at Skunk Works. And it was his singular attention to the craft of airplane design that enabled him to develop his preternatural intuition for decades. 

Just as important as Johnson’s ability to see the whole plane in his mind’s eye was his systematic approach to managing projects. As much as it was an R&D organization, Skunk Works was a system for building planes. Johnson drilled down the essence of this system to 14 rules

One of his strongest beliefs was that engineers should be located as close as possible to where their planes were being built. Engineers were expected to live their designs, spending up to a third of their time on the shop floor to see how their ideas were being translated into actual parts. Over time, many of these engineers would work on 20 or more plane designs, which would require them to solve virtually every problem in their sub-discipline and, in the words of Rich, become “walking aviation encyclopedias and living parts catalogs.”

Knowledge flowed up and down the design and production chain with everyone working within a few feet of one another. It was through this unique structure that Skunk Works developed the process knowledge that enabled it to rapidly make hundreds of iterative improvements to its plane designs.

Over the course of his career, Johnson would design over 40 planes, but his crowning achievement is the Blackbird, which was produced in only 20 months. It was unlike any plane that had ever been built before, because according to Johnson, “Everything had to be invented. Everything.” 

This invention was made necessary by the plane’s design requirements. The Blackbird had to fly up to 85,000 feet in the air at speeds in excess of 2,000 miles per hour for hours at a time, and it had to be nearly invisible to Soviet radar systems. These requirements presented some unique challenges, like the fact that it would have to maintain a speed that other planes of the era could only theoretically reach for a brief amount of time using after-burners. At this velocity, the temperature on the plane’s leading edges would exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, melting any conventional airframe.

The story of how the SR-71 was designed and built was classified, but in 1982 Popular Mechanics interviewed Johnson for an article about the plane’s development. The article portrays an organization going to extreme lengths to systematically solve a series of hard engineering challenges in short succession.

One of the hardest design problems involved the engine air inlet; it required using three shock waves to reduce Mach 3 air to subsonic levels before it entered the jet’s engines. To keep the shock wave where the engineers wanted required the inlet cone to move almost three feet and a computer-controlled hydraulic actuator that could withstand forces up to 31,000 pounds of pressure, among other challenges. With computer simulations unavailable, the Skunk Works team ran more than 250,000 pressure readings on a quarter-scale model of the plane to perfect this one design element.

To resolve the problem of high temperatures outside the plane, the Skunk Works team settled on using titanium and other exotic alloys. This required an exhaustive research program into the best methods for drilling and machining these alloys. The initial batches of titanium parts were extremely brittle, which resulted in Skunk Works instituting a complex quality control process that entailed tracing 10 million parts back to their first mill pour.

The Blackbird, then called the A-12, first flew over Area 51 in Nevada in 1962, and it remains the world’s fastest and highest-flying production aircraft. Flying the plane was an overwhelming experience for its pilots, unlike anything they had encountered before. One former Blackbird pilot, Air Force Colonel Jim Wadkins, later recalled that “At 85,000 feet and Mach 3, it was a religious experience. Nothing had me prepared to fly that fast…My God, even now, I get goose bumps remembering.” 

When thinking about achievements like the Blackbird there is a tendency to fixate on geniuses like Johnson, a man whose engineering intuition was so great he could “see the air,” in the words of his former boss. But it was the organization Johnson built, not one man, who made the Blackbird possible. Johnson built the perfect machine in Skunk Works to build the planes he loved. 

New Horizons, New Roadblocks

Johnson retired from Lockheed in 1975, a few years after Wernher von Braun retired from NASA. It was the end of an era. At the same time Skunk Works was producing planes that were one to two generations ahead of their time, the Air Force had built the first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in less than four years, and NASA’s Apollo Program had put men on the moon in less than a decade’s time. The future projected in Toward New Horizons seemed to be accelerating.

The short timelines of the projects obscured the fact that they were part of much longer research efforts. A direct line can be drawn from von Braun’s Aggregat series rocket development, which started in 1933, and the Minuteman ICBM and Saturn rockets built in the 1960s.. The Blackbird was based on an earlier prototype called the A-12 because it was the 12th plane designed as part of Skunk Work’s “Archangel” program. All these projects were the result of iterative design improvements and were made possible by the compounding knowledge of a relatively small group of men who worked together for decades.

But even if aerospace progress didn’t stop when this generation retired, it certainly seemed to slow. Projects have become more expensive, bureaucratic overhead has increased, and industrial capabilities have eroded since then. The cost of developing a fighter plane increased by a factor of 100 from the 1950s to the 1980s, which resulted in fewer new planes being built. In the 1950s, the American aerospace industry developed 49 planes; in the 1980s, that number had dropped to seven. Instead of working on 20 or more plane designs over the course of a career, an engineer who started his career in the post-Cold War era could be expected to work on one.

A few years after the Cold War was over, there would be only five “prime” aerospace and defense contractors left, and wide swathes of aerospace industry employees left the field completely. Instead of building multiple new planes, the Pentagon tried to save money by building one 5th generation fighter plane that could do it all. This plane became Lockheed Martin’s F-35, which began development in 1995. Nearly three decades later, it is still suffering from a long list of production issues. As of publication, the number of “open deficiency reports” on the fighter plane sits at over 800. 

The issues with the F-35’s production are well-known, but what is less recognized is that it is the most capable multi-role fighter plane ever built. The F-35 is more like a flying supercomputer than a traditional fighter and its ability to process sensor data and relay targeting information to other planes, combined with its stealth technology, enable it to function as a kind of invisible “quarterback” for an American air attack. The F-35 is not primarily designed for dogfighting, but in the Air Force’s annual Red Flag competition its pilots have had a 20 to 1 kill ratio.

The problem with the F-35 is the problem with the current American aerospace industry writ large. It has retained its research and development expertise while sacrificing its manufacturing excellence in a multi-decade deindustrialization process. The plane’s complex supply chain includes 1,800 companies stretched across 48 states and Puerto Rico. The spread-out structure of the supply chain, a stark contrast from Johnson’s philosophy of putting the engineering team in the same physical room as the production line, ensures political support for the F-35 program but exacerbates a series of supply chain and production issues. Due to these issues, Lockheed Martin delivered fewer than 50 percent of the planes it targeted to deliver in 2022.

The erosion of the U.S.’s aerospace manufacturing base that began in the 1990s is only set to worsen. The small manufacturers spread across the country that make up the supply chain of companies like SpaceX and Lockheed Martin are staffed by machinists who are near retirement age. This geographic dispersion causes major problems in the design phase of aerospace projects because the lead time to receive products is so lengthy that it makes it difficult to iterate designs. Instead, engineers have to take even more time to double-check and carefully simulate their designs before committing to the long wait for prototypes. The tight connection between engineering design and manufacturing seen at Skunk Works during the Blackbird era is gone. 

Aerospace is one of the deepest branches of humanity’s technological tree. It is a telling fact that more countries have produced a nuclear bomb than have mass-produced a jet engine. Recent history illustrates how hard it is to build these capabilities. China has provided an estimated $71 billion dollars in funding to the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China to develop a competitor to Boeing and Airbus, and 15 years later it has barely begun to produce its first operational commercial airline even while its engines, avionics, and other core systems are imported. In Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries spent 15 years and nearly $8 billion attempting to build Japan’s first passenger jet before killing the project in 2023, stating “We didn’t have engineers with such know-how, and it was rather [hard to find] any in Japan.”

The challenge lies in the fact that the process knowledge and specialized expertise of the companies within the aerospace supply chain are nearly impossible to organically replicate. The danger for the U.S. is what happens if this knowledge continues to be lost.

Startups are emerging that are focused on this problem. They use automation and new technology like metal 3D printing to speed up the design iteration and production process. For example, Hadrian is building highly-automated precision component factories and Relativity Space’s rockets are almost entirely 3D printed. These physical technologies are being combined with software that enables the rapid design and experimentation of new aircraft, even virtually “flight testing” the planes and modeling the assembly line used to build them.

It was digital capabilities such as this that enabled the Air Force to design, build, and fly a prototype of a 6th generation fighter plane in only one year, with the plane breaking performance records. It is widely believed that the group behind the plane’s design is Skunk Works, but as in the days of Kelly Johnson its work is shrouded in mystery. It remains to be seen whether these digital methods are a potential new peak of excellence in aerospace or a high-tech bandaid over the loss of hands-on capability.

Lockheed Martin occasionally provides hints of trailblazing projects. One tweet featured an image of the SR-71 Blackbird, noting it is “still the fastest acknowledged crewed air-breathing jet aircraft.” The word “acknowledged” was interpreted by many as confirmation of the existence of the long-rumored “Son of Blackbird,” which is reportedly designed to fly at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5.

The idea of a hypersonic plane dates back to Walter Dornberger and Krafft Ehricke, two German scientists who came to the U.S. as part of Operation Paperclip and proposed a plane concept called Silver Fish. Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works team later worked on a hypersonic plane program called L-301 before it was canceled in 1977. If Skunk Works has succeeded in building a prototype of the SR-72, it has done so supported by decades of research and development that can be traced back to a decision to bring 1,600 Germans to work in the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II. It was the genius of these men that kicked off the golden age of aerospace, and it is the preservation of their tradition that has kept America at the forefront of air power. But like any tradition of excellence, if it is not maintained then its accomplishments will begin to seem like the stuff of legends—and nothing more.

Brian Balkus is a market intelligence principal at an energy infrastructure firm based in Orange County, California. He can be found on Twitter @bbalkus.