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Lockheed Martin and USAF Stir the Secret Sauce of Innovation

Early morning, April 18, 1943. A formation of 16 P-38 Lightning aircraft cruises 50 feet above the Solomon Sea en route to a fixed point 400 miles northwest of Guadalcanal. Secrecy and detection avoidance demand complete radio silence and a roundabout route that adds 200 miles to the trip.

Operation Vengeance is underway. Its target: Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Imperial Japanese Combined Fleet.

Lockheed-built P-38s and their crews had a finite window of opportunity to intercept Yamamoto, who was traveling southeast at the end of a 315-mile leg from Rabaul to Bougainville in the South Pacific. Arriving precisely one minute ahead of plan, the four attack group pilots found and shot down Yamamoto’s transport bomber. It was a crucial morale builder as Allied forces continued their long journey toward Japan.

“It happened on the shoulders of giants, the men and women who built the planes and then operated them in the Army Air Corps,” said retired Air Force Gen. Gary North, vice president of customer requirements at Lockheed Martin. “You think about the P-38, the B-24—very successful in both theaters of operation. They helped lead us out of World War II and into the birth of our Air Force.”

Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was an early air power pioneer, part of an American industrial machine that ramped up wartime production on a scale unparalleled before or since. Lockheed’s ascendance as an exemplar of American aerospace ingenuity and, in the wake of its 1995 merger with Martin Marietta, to its position as the world’s preeminent supplier of advanced defense technology, from precision munitions and hypersonic missiles to radar-evading 5th Generation fighter aircraft. 

Lockheed Martin’s collaboration with the Air Force evolved steadily over time as a closely integrated partnership, the result of a culture uniquely constructed to nurture the best innovators and rapidly adapt to changing threats and opportunities.

“You change things because the threat necessitates it, and we saw that in the Reagan years, which was the buildup that made us so successful in Desert Storm and beyond,” North said. “And then we saw an innovation of change in 9/11—these events, these shifting tectonic plates that forced you to be able to adapt at the speed of need.”

Foundational Relationship

Two months after Operation Vengeance, Lockheed experts were called in to the Army Tactical Service Command to help counter the growing threat from German jet fighters. Within a month, Lockheed engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and his team conceived what would become the P-80 Shooting Star, the United States’ first operational jet. Without a contract in hand, Lockheed engineers began work with the goal of delivering their first prototype in 150 days. Johnson’s team did it in just 143.

Steeped in secrecy, the P-80 grew out of Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunk Works® division. Even now, 85 percent of Skunk Works programs remain shrouded in secrecy, but its legacy is long and dazzling, including developments that led to the U-2, SR-71, F-117, F-22, F-35 and so much more.

Cold War Collaboration

Lockheed was on the forefront of a new era in which the U.S. found itself locked in a strategic competition and Cold War with the Soviet Union. Discretion and revolutionary design were essential to gain strategic advantage in the high-stakes competition playing out on the world stage.

“Coming out of World War II, leaders realized that the world was going to change in the strategic domain, particularly with the advent of the atomic age and nuclear weapons,” North said. “This generated some strategic thought.”

It was a natural fit for Lockheed and the Air Force, and they consistently worked together to leapfrog the international competition.

As the Cold War intensified, speed and performance were the focus, and Lockheed broke one barrier after another. Its X-7 ramjet test vehicle, which began development after World War II and continued into the 1950s, set records for air breathing flight, achieving speeds of more than 2,800 mph and reaching 106,000 feet in altitude. After scraping the edge of the atmosphere, Lockheed created its Missiles Division, now known as Lockheed Martin Space.

Lockheed’s three-stage X-17 solid-fuel rocket, developed in the 1950s, could achieve 9,000 mph, providing crucial data for better understanding the rigors of re-entering the atmosphere that helped shape the future of ICBM development.

Throughout the Cold War, the need to understand what adversaries were doing demanded its own technological advancements. Lockheed’s U-2 Dragon Lady flew so high—more than 70,000 feet—that it was believed to be beyond the reach of ground-based interceptors when it was introduced in 1955.

On Oct. 14, 1962, Maj. Richard Heyser completed a photo shoot exposing the establishment of Soviet nuclear missiles in San Cristobal, Cuba. The mission captured 928 photos that led to a showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union that put the two nations on the brink of nuclear war. Two weeks later, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, ending the Cuban missile crisis but proving the enduring value of irrefutable surveillance photography.

In the early 1960s, two schools of design thought emerged for dealing with adversary threats. One was fly fast at low level. That school produced the F-111, a deep strike aircraft that remained in the USAF inventory for three decades, from the Vietnam era to Operation Desert Storm, where it destroyed more targets and logged more missions than any other aircraft in the conflict.

The other design path was to fly high and go fast. Lockheed’s single-seat A-12 very high altitude reconnaissance aircraft reached Mach 3 in 1962, paving the way for the two-seat SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet, which had the advantage of extreme speed that the U-2 lacked. 

The Blackbird exemplified the speed of the times, exceeding 2,000 mph. And it could sustain flight well above 80,000 feet. If detected, it could outrun any aircraft or missile that tried to catch it. After logging 53,490 hours—11,675 of those more than Mach 3—the SR-71 retired in 1998, concluding its 30-plus-year history with speed and altitude records that remain unchallenged to this day.

In 1990, an SR-71 left Los Angeles headed for retirement at Washington, D.C.’s Air and Space Museum. Along the way, the aircraft set four speed records, including making the transnational flight of 2,299 miles in just 64 minutes, 20 seconds—an average of 2,144.8 mph.

But again the threat advanced and something completely different was required. “Most people don’t know this, but the SR-71 was generally recognized as the first marginally stealth airplane, because some parts of the platform had nascent technology and coatings on it,” North said.

The next phase of stealth had little similarity to the long, sleek, and powerful SR-71’s iconic design. Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk was a Skunk Works special, drawing from numerous other aircraft and featuring a stunningly unique design with angled facets and an otherworldly look.

Science magazines hinted at stealth, but little was known about the aircraft. The Nighthawk’s combat debut came in Operation Just Cause over Panama in 1989, with a curtain call in which it provided the opening fireworks for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Lockheed Martin took stealth to a new level with the development of the F-22 Raptor air dominance fighter and, later, the multi-role, multi-national F-35 Lightning II.

Timeless Innovation

Lockheed wasn’t all about speed and stealth, however. Its C-130 Hercules remains a workhorse of the fleet nearly 70 years after its original introduction. The aircraft has been reinvented multiple times over the decades, and its timely utility makes it the longest produced military aircraft in history, flown by air forces around the world. Its variations range from special operations AC-130s to cargo aircraft and specialized versions fitted for various intelligence and electronic warfare applications.

Its massive sibling, Lockheed’s C-5 Galaxy, remains the largest airlifter in the Air Force inventory 52 years after its introduction. Its payload capacity is twice that of any other USAF cargo aircraft.

During Operation Allied Force over Serbia in 1999, Air Force aircrews flying Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters helped recover pilots down behind enemy lines. Many more were recovered during Operations Enduring Freedom in 2001 and Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Peacetime utilization of the HH-60s was also high. After Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, more than 20 Pave Hawk crews flew in and around New Orleans to save more than 4,300 Americans.

Following the Pave Hawk is today’s HH-60W Jolly Green Giant II Combat Rescue Helicopter. With greater range, integrated avionics and enhanced digital connectivity, these helicopters provide Air Force rescue crews with new tools for their noble mission—That Others May Live.

These successes and many more are part of a larger evolving process—scaling innovative solutions through the development of critical, breakthrough technologies that ensure those who serve get in front of emerging threats and disasters.

21st Century Security Solutions

The dynamic threat landscape is driving innovation in stealth, information sharing, command and control, and hypersonic missile technology. Accelerating the integration of digital technology and delivery of advanced capabilities brings faster decision-making to the defense arena. Ensuring networked security is vital.

Hypersonics, first pioneered with the X-7 and X-17, are seen as the future of warfare. In March 2022, Lockheed Martin, in partnership with The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Air Force Research Lab and Aerojet Rocketdyne, successfully demonstrated its Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). This historic flight reached speeds in excess of Mach 5—3,800 mph, altitudes greater than 65,000 feet and helped further understanding of operations in the high-speed flight regime. Just two months later, Lockheed Martin tested the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), and in July a second ARRW demonstration achieved speeds greater than Mach 5.

Lockheed Martin engineers demonstrated their multi-domain prowess in July 2022, employing the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 Lightning II as an aerial sensor to help a Lockheed Martin MIM-104 PATRIOT Advanced Capability missile intercept a cruise missile in a successful test at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

The F-35’s versatility as a flying sensor and communications suite is unparalleled the world over. Combining radar-evading stealth with the most advanced integrated avionics suite, it is the centerpiece of the U.S. Air Force’s fighter modernization strategy and the choice of U.S. allies on four continents. The Air Force is building out F-35 capacity and capability, bringing up operational squadrons in the continental United States, Alaska, and the U.K., and operating seamlessly with allies.

The Lightning II built on Lockheed Martin’s record of innovation, including the earlier 5th Generation experience with the F-22 Raptor and on the demonstrated success of the ubiquitous F-16 Fighting Falcon.

First flown in 1976 and operational with the USAF since 1978—and the first of more than 25 Allied countries shortly after— the F-16 remains a marvel of innovation, North said. Having flown more than 3,700 hours in the airplane, he said he never doubted its remarkable design and production quality. “Every upgrade added to its capability, a demonstration of the teamwork between the military and Lockheed Martin in continually improving on a superior airplane.”

Today, Lockheed Martin is still at it, leveraging the “secret sauce” of its Skunk Works division, North said. “The secret is the incredible relationship between the government, the program managers and the labs that we work with, and our ability to recruit, retain and develop talent,” he said.

The mutually supporting partnership between Lockheed Martin engineers and Air Force engineers and Airmen fuels a continuous striving for the next evolution of aviation technology. This partnership is rooted in a deep understanding and a shared commitment to the mission ahead, and the desire to stay “ahead of ready” in the needs of the warfighters.

“The thing that really drives the relationship is a desire to always match to the needs of the mission,” North said. “Lockheed Martin does that better than any other company in the world.”         

Lockheed & USAF: A Long-Term Partnership

Lockheed Martin’s history with the Air Force dates back long before USAF was an independent military branch. Here are just a few highlights from the past 75 years.

September 18, 1947: As Stuart Symington is sworn in as the first Secretary of the Air Force, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, a year before being redesignated F-80, is America’s first jet-powered operational aircraft. Sikorsky’s H-5 Hoverfly is USAF’s rescue helicopter and six Lockheed aircraft types are in development or test and numerous WWII aircraft remain in the inventory, including Lockheed C-69 Constellation transports and approximately 200 P-38J/L Lightning fighters.
April 12, 1953: After Air Force ace Capt. Joseph McConnell claims his eighth MiG kill over Korea, his F-86 Sabre suffers mechanical difficulties and ejects over the Yellow Sea. Two Sikorsky H-19s from the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron  recover him minutes after he hits the water.
July 23, 1953: Martin chief test pilot O.E. “Pat” Tibbs makes the first flight of the first Martin-built B-57A Canberra medium bomber. When B-57 production ended in 1959, USAF had acquired a total of 403 Canberras.
March 4, 1954: The Lockheed XF-104, supersonic superiority fighter makes its first flight. On May 18, 1958, an F-104A sets a world speed record of 1,404.19 mph, and on December 14, 1959, an F104C sets a world altitude record of 103,395 feet. The Starfighter was the first aircraft to hold simultaneous official world records for speed, altitude, and time-to-climb.
August 23, 1954:  Lockheed’s YC-130 Hercules tactical transport prototype flies from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, Calif., to nearby Edwards AFB, setting the stage for the ubiquitous aircraft. Today, there are more than 2,600 C-130 variants in the skies, including five major production models, and more than 70 variants—the longest, continuous, active military aircraft production line in history.
August 1, 1955: Article 341, prototype for Lockheed’s U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft makes an inadvertent first flight during a high-speed taxi test at Groom Lake, Nevada. The Dragon Lady still flies today. 
June 11, 1957: The first test launch of the Lockheed Martin legacy company Convair B-65 Atlas (later redesignated SM-65; later still, designated HGM-16) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is carried out from Cape Canaveral AFB, Fla. The Atlas, America’s first ICBM was declared operational and served for six years.
February 6, 1959: The first test launch of the Martin SM-68 (later HGM-25) Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from Cape Canaveral AFS, Florida. Entering operational service in 1962, Titan I was the United States’ first multistage ICBM, providing an additional nuclear deterrent to complement the U.S. Air Force’s Atlas missile.
July 20, 1960: The last of about 100 flights by a Lockheed X-7 ramjet test vehicle is completed. Lockheed built The 26 X-7s and set multiple speed and altitude records for air breathing vehicles, topping out at Mach 4.31 and, on a different flight, an altitude of 106,000 feet.
June 17, 1963: The first Sikorsky S-61 prototype flies. A variant of the Navy SH-3 Sea King antisubmarine warfare helicopter, it will evolve into the CH-3C utility, and HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, the workhorse rescue helicopter of the Vietnam era.
August 19, 1960: The reentry vehicle containing film images, captured by a classified Lockheed Missile and Space Company KH-1 reconnaissance satellite, is recovered in mid-air over the Pacific by a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar—the first usable intelligence images from the Corona satellite family.
April 26, 1962: Company test pilot Lou Schalk makes the first true flight of the Lockheed A-12 high altitude, high speed reconnaissance aircraft at Groom Lake, Nev. Developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works—the A-12 is the forerunner to the YF-12 interceptor and SR-71 Blackbird.
December 21, 1964: Company test pilots Dick Johnson and Val Prahl make the first flight of the variable geometry, or swing-wing, F-111 deep strike aircraft from Carswell AFB, Texas, next to the company’s plant in Fort Worth. A total of 562 F-111s were built.
August 28, 1967: Company test pilot Bill Park makes the first flight of the Lockheed U-2R Dragon Lady high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Although similar in appearance to the early model U-2s, the U-2R is about one-third larger and powered by a much more powerful J57 engine. About 50 U-2Rs were built, later upgraded with an F118 turbofan engine and other improvements and redesignated U-2S.
June 30, 1968: The Lockheed C-5A Galaxy, then the world’s largest aircraft is flown for the first time Five years later, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, battle tanks flown directly to Tel Aviv on the C-5s were on the front lines within 90 minutes. Two recently completed upgrade programs will keep what’s now designated the C-5M Super Galaxy flying until at least the 2040s.
January 20, 1974: Company test pilot Phil Oestricher takes the General Dynamics YF-16 prototype out on a high-speed taxi test at Edwards AFB, Calif., but the aircraft makes an unplanned and unofficial first flight. Today, about 3,000 of 4,588 F-16s produce are in service today in 25 countries.
June 18, 1981: Company test pilot Hal Farley makes the first flight of the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, the world’s first production stealth aircraft. First used during capture of the Panamanian strong man Manuel Noriega in 1989, F-117 pilots would carry out the first strikes against Baghdad on the opening night of operation Desert Storm in 1991. 
September 30, 1983: Officials at the Air Force’s Rome Air Development Center at Rome, New York approve the AN/FPS-117 built by legacy Lockheed Martin GE Aerospace. Developed under a program called Seek Igloo, this low power, long-range, phased array, 3D air search radar that operates in the D-Band modernized the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line series of radar stations across the Arctic, from Alaska through Canada over Greenland to Iceland. The FPS-117 reached full operational capability later in 1983.
June 17, 1983: Air Force Systems Command Ballistic Missile Office, the 6595th Missile Test Group, and a contractor launch team carry out the first test launch of the Martin Marietta (a legacy Lockheed Martin company) LGM-118 Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. The missile travels 4,800 miles to strike successfully in the Kwajalein Test Range in the Pacific.
1985: Launched in the heat of Santa Barbara California’s “Infrared Valley,” Lockheed Martin Missile and Fire Control’s Santa Barbara Focalplane facility is established.
September 29, 1990: Lockheed test pilot Dave Ferguson makes the first flight of the Lockheed-Boeing-General Dynamics YF-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) prototype . It is the forebear of the F-22 Raptor. 
April 5, 1996: The new Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules transport takes its first flight. Now with more than 500 aircraft built, the C-130J  (as of 2022) is today flown by 26 operators worldwide, including the Active-duty U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command.
September 7, 1997: The first flight of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor air dominance fighter is made, six years after Lockheed won the competition in 1991. On May 12, 2005, the first combat-capable Raptor was delivered to the Air Force at Langley AFB, Va.
1997-2009: Twenty GPS IIR and GPS IIR-M satellites built by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. Air Force are launched, adding new capabilities, signals, and anti-jamming to the GPS constellation. 
December 15, 2006: The first flight of the first F-35 Lightning II multivariant, multirole, multinational fighter includes a military power takeoff and a series of maneuvers to demonstrate the handling qualities of the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant.
May 7, 2011: The first Lockheed Martin-built Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) geosynchronous Earth orbit satellite for the U.S. Air Force is launched from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla. Follow-on space vehicles will form an orbiting Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) missile warning constellation equipped with powerful scanning and staring surveillance sensors.
June 26, 2014: The Air Force awards Sikorsky the contract for the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH), the follow on aircraft to the HH-60G Pave Hawk. The HH-60W takes its first flight five years later, on May 17, 2019, and is dubbed the Jolly Green Giant II.
June 24, 2016: The fifth of five Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) secure, narrow band communications satellites is launched from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla. Originally built for the U.S. Navy, MUOS was transferred to the U.S. Space Force in 2022. 
April 14, 2018: Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) are used in combat for the first time. The U.S. Air Force deployed B-1 bombers and launched 19 JASSM missiles at the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons production facility. 
September 26, 2019: The U.S. Air Force declares Initial Operational Acceptance for the ground control system of the Lockheed Martin Space-developed Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS).
March 28, 2020: The newly created United States Space Force (USSF) declares operational acceptance and initial operational capability of the Space Fence S-band radar on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Space Fence, now the world’s most advanced radar, provides uncued detection, tracking, and accurate measurement of space objects, including satellites and orbital debris, primarily in low-earth orbit (LEO).
September 21, 2021: The first demonstration of air-launched palletized munitions from a mobility aircraft (a Lockheed Martin C-130) is carried out. 
May 14, 2022: U.S. Air Force Armament Directorate and Lockheed Martin conduct the first successful hypersonic-boosted flight test of the AGM-183 AGM-Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). Launched from a B-52H Stratofortress based at Edwards AFB, Calif., the test demonstrates the system’s ability to attain hypersonic speed—in excess of Mach 5. ARRW is the first air-launched hypersonic weapon for the Air Force.