The term “Skunk Works” is synonymous with the research and development department of the Lockheed Martin Co.
But where did the term come from? And what does a non-flying woodland creature have to do with aviation?
There have been many stories over the years about the name’s origin: It evolved from a comic strip or the color of a tent it was housed in or because what was inside that tent smelled so bad.
“The comic derivation is true,” said Dianne Knippel, director of communications for Lockheed Martin Co. She directed us to LockheedMartin.com, where we learned that the name came about during World War II when engineer Kelly Johnson brought together a select team to develop new aircraft. The staff was cautioned that they had to operate in strict secrecy. The secret facility was housed in a large tent at what is now Burbank Airport. In the same neighborhood was a plastic factory that produced a terrible odor that permeated the tent.
A team engineer named Irv Culver was a fan of Al Capp’s comic strip, “Li’l Abner,” in which there was a running joke about a mysterious place deep in the forest called the “Skonk Works.” There, a strong beverage was brewed from skunks, old shoes and other strange ingredients. The odor put out by Skonk Works was so hideous people avoided the area and the people who worked there.
One day, Culver’s phone rang and he answered it by saying “Skonk Works, inside man Culver speaking.” The joke was not lost on his coworkers and soon the employees adopted the name for their mysterious part of Lockheed.
“Skonk Works” evolved into “Skunk Works” and is now a registered trademark of the company: Skunk Works®.
The logo, which features a skunk standing on its hind feet with its front legs folded on his chest and smiling confidently, has generated some confusion for generations born well after “Lil’Abner” was pulled from the comic pages. During AirVenture 2003, for example, a 4-year-old girl took one look at a picture of an artist’s drawing of the Lockheed Martin Space plane with the distinctive skunk on the tail and asked if it was a ride at Disneyland because the mascot was obviously Flower from the movie “Bambi.”
This was followed by a heated conversation among the adults who advised her that Flower was too bashful to go into space, and it couldn’t be Pepe Le Pew, another famous cartoon skunk, because he wasn’t serious enough to be in the space program.