PALMDALE, CALIF: The mountains are dry. The spaces are vast. The population is small. You wouldn’t think it to look around from the center of town, but this place hosts a remarkable array of the world’s smartest people who design and build America’s weapons.
You get a few hints of the history of Palmdale as you drive along Rancho Vista Blvd. from the highway. On your left rises a huge white and blue building, all out of scale. Another five minutes along the same road and a huge white aircraft slowly comes into view. It’s one of the two Boeing 747s built to carry the Space Shuttle. It’s surrounded by advanced fighter aircraft, including a B-2, a B-52, an SR-71 Blackbird, and A-12 and a lot of others.
The aircraft sit at a place popularly known as Blackbird Park, but it is formally known as Joe Davies Heritage Airpark. The name tells you much about Palmdale. It was named after Davies, a former commander of Air Force Plant 42. After retirement Davies served as a member of the Palmdale City Council, and was a commissioner on Palmdale’s Aviation and Aerospace Commission. All the aircraft were “flown, tested, designed, produced or modified” at Plant 42, as the park’s brochure says..
The plant comprises 4,200 acres where Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman boast huge production and research facilities. Northrop As you drive along the road to the air park, the big white and blue building rises up. That is where I spent most of the day — Lockheed Martin’s fabled Skunk Works. It was my first visit to this place on the 60th anniversary of one of the most famous aircraft in the world, the U-2.
As my colleague Steve Trimble at FlightGlobal put it so well on his Facebook page today:
Sixty years ago today Tony LeVier completed ahead of schedule the first official flight of the revolutionary U-2, and then the program manager Kelly Johnson gave the CIA a $2 million refund from his unspent development budget, and then no one ever used ‘ahead of schedule’ and ‘refund’ in relation to a government acquisition program ever again.”
The Skunk Works is famous because it did, for quite a while, build truly remarkable weapons quickly for reasonable cost. Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson basically invented the place and performed the remarkable consistently. Among the remarkable aircraft to come out of the Skunk Works: the XP-80 jet, designed and built in 143 days; the U-2; the SR-71; the F-117; the F-22.
Did I spot any highly advanced and secret weapons today? The huge doors facing the train tracks on the west side of the building facing the railroad tracks were open a bit, and we could see a large white truck. But weapons? Sadly, no. But there will be a few stories in the next few days.