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No. 391:

Today, an early jet teaches us a lesson in simplicity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We found out about German combat jets in the middle of WW-II. That struck a bolt of fear in our hearts, make no mistake. We were lucky that the threat wasn't unleashed until the very last days of the war. The few Messerschmitt jets Germany managed to finish marched through our bomber formations like Sherman on his way to the sea. If they'd turned up earlier, they might've changed the outcome of the war.

The German jets had been on the drawing boards since the late 1930s. We didn't start building our own jets until 1943. On May 17th of that year, a Lockheed engineer named Kelly Johnson showed a jet design to the Air Force. By 2:00 that afternoon he was on the way back to California with a contract in his pocket.

The project succeeded for odd reasons. Lockheed was already building every airplane humanly possible. They had no extra means to put into Johnson's project. But poverty of means gave him a wealth of freedom and opportunity. He set up a circus tent. He stole engineers from other units. The operation took its name -- the Skunk Works -- from Li'l Abner.

Only 128 people worked in the original Skunk Works, and only 23 of them were engineers. Johnson was an impossible boss -- so impossible that no one took his impossibility seriously. "He used to fire me twice a day," said a lead engineer. The work was so secret that janitors weren't let in the tent. Trash piled up, and the work went on in cockamamie independence for 143 days. They named the new plane Lulu-Belle, and the Skunk Works took it from preliminary drawings to a finished airplane in less than five months. Today, it takes more like 8 years to do that.

Lulu-Belle was the experimental version of the F-80 Shooting Star -- our first jet fighter. Lulu-Belle flew 500 miles an hour in her test flight. Later she did over 600 miles an hour with a beefed-up engine. This engineering tour de force came too late in the war to see combat. But in Korea, the F-80 jet that followed her became the first jet to win a dog fight with another jet.

The Skunk Works stayed intact at Lockheed after the war. It gave us our high-altitude spy plane, the U-2. A Skunk Works engineer made a telling observation about its successes. The trick, he said, is to design a plane as quickly as possible and then cover your mistakes. The more time you spend getting a thing right the first time, the more chance people have to complicate it - the harder it is to fix anything.

In the end, the Skunk Works made it plain that nothing serves us so well -- and nothing is as easy for us to lose sight of -- as simplicity.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The source for this is a photocopy of an article that was sent to me. I do not have a complete citation. A partial citation is:

Tierney, J., [title unknown] ?? Science, 85, September, 1985 ?, pp. 24-35.

As a footnote to this story, the last product of the Skunk Works was the high-altitude spy plane, the Blackbird. It was recently retired from service. One of the few surviving Blackbirds was flown from San Diego to Washington, D.C. for its retirement in the Smithsonian Institution. It made its last flight in just over an hour and set a new transcontinental speed record in doing so.