‘We already have the means to travel among the stars, but these technologies are locked up in black projects and it would take an act of God to ever get them out to benefit humanity… anything you can imagine we already know how to do.’
–Famous aerospace author and photographer, Jim Goodall, a curator of Seattle Museum of Flight, citing Lockheed Skunk Works chief Ben Rich
Benjamin R. (Ben) Rich graduated from Berkley with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1949 at the age of 25. Rich originally wanted to become a doctor. In 1949 Rich decided to get a master’s degree from UCLA specializing in both “aeronautical engineering and dateing soriety girls.” Rich came to Lockheed in 1950 after recieveing a degree aeronautical engineering. In December 1954 he was summoned to the Skunk Works by Kelly Johnson as a 29 year old thermodynamisist earning $87 dollars a week. Kelly had requested to borrow from the main plant “a thermodynamicist, preferably a smart one” to solve an unspecified problem. Ben Rich’s first assignment with the Skunk Works was the intake on the XF-104 Starfighter. Rich would soon work on the U-2, the A-12, YF-12, Sr-71, and D-21 programs. He joined the SR-71 program in it’s inital stages in 1958, and as a thermodynamicist, personally suggested that the Blackbird family of aircraft be painted black to reduce surface temperatures.
In 1975 Rich succeeded Johnson as the head of Skunk Works and as a Lockheed vice president in 1977. Rich during this period focused the Skunk Works on the creating the F-117A. In 1977 when the XST made it’s first flight, retired Kelly Johnson slapped Rich on the back and yelled “Well, Ben, you got your first airplane.” In 1984-86 he served as interm president of Lockheed’s Advanced Aeronautical Company, after which he promptly returned to head up Skunk Works once again. In May 1990 when the Skunk Works became a independent company, Ben Rich was named the company’s first president and “Chief Skunk.” In December 1990 while the first deployment of F-117A’s were heading to Saudi Arabia for DESERT SHEILD, Rich retired from Skunk Works.
Ben Rich (and the entire F-117A team) won the 1989 Collier Trophy, was a fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), recieved the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) national aircraft design award in 1972, was selected the 1988 Wright Brothers annual lecturer by both the AIAA and the British Royal Aeronautical Society, and in 1991 was elected an honorary fellow of the AIAA. In 1994, Ben Rich published his memoirs “Skunk Works.”
On January 5, 1995 Ben Rich died from cancer at age 69. At his request, his ashes were scattered from an airplane near his beachfront house on the California coast in Oxnard. At the moment his ashes were released, a lone F-117A appeared out of the clouds and dipped its wings in a final salute to its creator.
Jim Goodall of classified programs at Groom Lake