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Spooky Skunk Works Airplane Bio for Jim Goodall
How did a kid who grew up in the middle of a former apricot orchard that is now called Silicon Valley end up as one of the worlds’ leading experts on the Lockheed Skunk Works, Area 51 and things that go “bump” in the night? It started with a handful of random events.
My very first exposure, and ultimately my love for all things Skunk Works and airplanes in general, began with a brief encounter that cemented my fascination and love for airplanes.
The time was 1950/51. We lived in a duplex not far from what was the small San Jose Municipal Airport. I was about 5 years old and had gone to bed just before sunset. I was getting settled in when my Dad came into my room and said… “There’s something coming, and I think you should see it.” We went outside looking toward the Coast Mountains. Low over the peaks came not one, not two, but twenty-four Convair B-36 Peacemaker heavy bombers on the way to Travis AFB. I was hooked.
Move forward a few years and our family now calls Los Altos, CA home, In 1954 my best friends’ dad was commander of Moffett Field Naval Air Station; at that time one massive base with over 400 aircraft assigned there. The Marines, who guarded the base, always referred to Danny and myself as … “Captain Smith’s son and that friend of his!” We had the run of the place.
On this particular day, Danny said he had something to show me. We headed over to the Big Hangar 1 and went to the far end nearest to the Bay. There was an area that was roped off with curtains shielding something very special behind the veil of secrecy. There were no guards, just a sign that read… “Off Limits.” Too tempting for a couple of seven-year old.
Behind the curtain was the still secret Lockheed XF-104 Starfighter. We walked around in awe, as this was right out of science fiction. Danny then through down the gauntlet; “Get in the cockpit!”, so I did. Danny closed the canopy and the latch malfunctioned. I was stuck!
We both tried to open it for a few minutes when I began to panic. The only way out was to call the Marines and the Shore Patrol; boy, were they pissed or what! Nearly 70 years later, my butt still hurts.
Fast forward to March 1964. I’m an 18-year-old Airman Second Class (name of the rank was changed for PC reasons) in the Air Force and was sent TDY (Temporary Duty) to Edwards AFB to install and maintain their ground base telemetry system for three Category One testing programs. The first two were public knowledge; the YC-141 Lockheed Starlifter and the North American XB-70 Valkyrie, plus a classified program. That program was Kelly Johnson’s ultimate interceptor, the Mach 3+ YF-12A.
On March 10, 1964, at approximately 1515 hours (3:15 PM), I saw what was to change my life forever. On the XB-70 test pad was what I first thought was the North American X-15 rocket plane, but the people were way too small. Much to my amazement, I had my first glimpse of Kelly’s incredible Mach 3+ Blackbird in full afterburners, the YF-12A. I’ve never been the same!
In the spring of 1968, via the US Postal Service, I formally asked Lockheed, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency for unclassified photos the of the SR-71 on the ground or in the air. I was willing to pay the published rate for color 8x10s. I was turned down and never received any of the photos I had requested.
The year 1975 was a watershed year; my dear friend, John Andrews, introduced me to an aviation character named John Lear, the son of the “Father of the Lear Jet,” William Lear. It was through Lear that we discovered a path to the top of White Sides Mountain, 2,000 feet above our camp site location. On top of the mountain was an unobstructed panoramic view of the once very secret, Area 51.
November 1988: After seeing and photographing the Lockheed Skunk Works F-117 for the first time along the fence line at Tonopah Test Range (TTR), John Lear and I headed back to Las Vegas. We arrived at John’s home about 9:15 PM, and ten minutes later a young man showed up. I had print film that needed to be processed and all of the FotoMats (way before digital photography) were closed. I wouldn’t know if any of my images were any good until well into the next day. John’s friend told me he had a Kodak C-41 film processor at his home. That friend was a guy named Bob Lazar.
We needed to head back to John’s friend’s home to process some film. There in living color was the very first non-DoD, or Lockheed photo, of the first operational stealth fighter, the F-117A Senior Trend.
Had the Air Force, Lockheed, DoD and the CIA honored my photo requests in 1968, I would have been happy to just move along. But, as with all things government, their unofficial “official” policy was to not cooperate; so, I started digging, the more I dug, the more I found out and the deeper I dug.
I would not be where I am today, in the field of spooky programs, if our government had given me what I wanted in 1968. I would have remained happy and my name would never have been associated with Area 51, the Blackbirds, the F-117 or the Skunk Works. And, Ben R. Rich and I would never have been friends.
That’s how a young kid from Los Altos ended up 60+ years later being an expert on much of what has come out of the brilliant minds of the men and women at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.