The Liberty Gazette
February 26, 2013Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: One foggy Friday evening after landing and offloading my cargo of bank mail and cancelled checks I was sitting in the Piper Lance completing the last of my paperwork, parked facing the final approach for runway 8 at Burbank airport. Out of the murkiness loomed a mass of lights reminiscent of the eerie scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the huge space ship arrives. The mammoth Lockheed C-5A Galaxy arrived at Burbank every third Friday about 11 o’clock p.m. It landed and taxied up the other runway because there was no taxiway big enough to handle the giant airplane, and departed 30 minutes later. All the lights would dim to conceal the covert activity. Whatever it carried was not public knowledge. They had business with the Skunk Works.
When someone says "skunk works" people often think of engineers brainstorming in research and development operations under the cloak of secrecy. Such was the case at Lockheed’s Advanced Development Project which adopted "Skunk Works" as their official alias, a play on Al Capp’s 1940’s comic strip Li’l Abner where the "Skonk Works" was a dilapidated factory in a remote location with its "inside man" producing skunk oil. One day, according to the memoirs of Lockheed employee Ben Rich, an engineer came to work wearing a gas mask as a joke referencing the smell and secrecy surrounding a project there. When fellow engineer, Irving Culvert, carried the gag further by answering the phone with, "Skonk Works, inside man Culvert," project leader and engineering genius Clarence "Kelly" Johnson was not amused. Culvert later said that when Johnson heard about the way he answered the phone, he fired him but that, "it really didn’t matter since he was firing me about twice a day anyways." The name stuck but on request of the comic strip copyright holders Lockheed changed the name to Skunk Works.
This top secret factory at the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank was moved to their Palmdale plant in the 1990’s, but during WWII the airport was covered with netting replicating houses, camouflaging it while they built airplanes for the war, such as the P-38 Lightning, the fast twin boom tailed fighter that was so successful in the Pacific theater. It’s also the origin of the United States’ first operational jet fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star, a project so secret that for flight testing the P-80 was fitted with an artificial propeller so that if anyone saw it they would think it’s just another airplane. By the way, chief test pilot Tony LeVier was flying the P-80 when its jet engine blew up and knocked off the tail. He escaped and later test-flew other aircraft like the F-104 Star Fighter.
That factory birthed some incredible flying machines, engineering marvels, including the infamous SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2 Black Lady spy planes. The SR-71 has been retired but U-2s, the most difficult plane to fly in the Air Force’s arsenal, are still being flown.
On that Friday evening back in 1985 I later learned that C-5A was picking up F-117 Stealth Fighters, transporting them to a Nevada Test Range. Guess I did have a close encounter of some kind.