Long ago in a world dominated by the Cold War and nuclear weapons, I was a junior engineer at the Lockheed Skunkworks in Burbank. (There’s a shopping center and parking for Burbank Airport at the location today. It was a BIG place.) When that closed I went up to work at Plant 42 in Palmdale. I held a rare non-degreed engineering position. How I got there was probably one of the few times I actually networked successfully.

Skunkworks logo

It was 1985. My landlady was a software engineer at the Skunkworks. She wanted to make sure I continued to be able to pay rent. She spoke to a senior engineer, who I think had a soft spot for her somewhere. (Not romantic.) Probably his head. An adjacent department had an opening for a junior engineer. He talked to the manager and I got an interview. The guy who interviewed me happened to be an ex-Titan missile crew chief.

It just happened that I’d had a lifelong fascination with military rocketry. I could give you the specs on every missile the US had ever deployed. I’d also graduated from Air Force electronics school as a Wide Band Radio Relay Specialist, so I could talk the electronics talk to a limited degree.

smTemplin Castaic 16
A real skunk

Back in those days, the US Government would smile benevolently upon military contractors who hired National Guard members. It helped that I was a technical guy

They keep changing the squadron mission and the patch along with it.

from the Air Guard, not a grunt in the Army. I’d started out as a radio tech and ended up the squadron Electronic Warfare instructor and one of the 5 members of the disaster preparedness team. I’d got a secret clearance as well as what they called a crypto clearance (for access to codes and ciphers) which I never used.

I also managed to shoot expert in the Guard but higher-ups decided we couldn’t get any ribbons because our firing range wasn’t officially recognized.

This meant when Lockheed submitted me to get a security clearance, all the DIA (Defense Industrial Agency) folks had to do was look up my DoD clearance and then follow up on that. Much quicker, easier, and cheaper than investigating from scratch. Getting cleared was very expensive. It also helped that my TI (Training Instructor, aka drill sergeant. Name was Sgt Hurt. Really.) in basic was also an ex-Titan missile crew chief and he’d told us all his “war stories.”

I was hired. (I don’t think Lockheed publicly announced a job opening until they were pretty sure who they wanted.) I had to wait in the “cooler” with several other new hires, a place where you did little or nothing until the DOD clearance came through. Then off to work.

U-2/TR-1 Dragon Lady

Mostly what I did was assembly and wiring for prototype “black boxes” for creating and uploading flight plans to U-2/TR-1 spyplanes – still in use today after 45 years. There was other stuff, support for the few remaining SR-71s (finally retired in 1998) and antenna work for the F-117A (retired in 2008 but still kept fightworthy today).  A bit of work in a huge indoor radar range we had for very small scale mockups.

SR-71 Blackbird

After 6 years my enlistment with the Guard was up and I left. In my last year, I got the Outstanding NCO Award for my management of the EW program. They wanted me to re-up my enlistment. I probably would have except I had a little girl growing up at home and I really resented time away from her. Plus I never really felt like I belonged, like I was dancing around the edge of a clique I couldn’t quite join. A bunch of alpha males and I just didn’t fit in.

OTOH if I had stayed I’d finally be able to go overseas on training deployments. We only had the budget to send a few people at a time and it always went by rank. I was E-6 when I left (staff sergeant) and I’d have been E-7 ( technical sergeant) if I’d stayed. That’s when you started getting the “privileges” that rank hath. Deployments to Korea, Japan, and Germany (Operation Reforger) would have been interesting.

I left the guard in April of 1990. A couple months later, Iraq started a pissing match with us over Kuwait and we all know what happened next. I thought about re-enlisting but now I had two children I didn’t want to leave.

I eventually did get a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, evenings and weekends thru a special program. I don’t know if it ever did me any good but it was all I could find. At the time, a science or engineering degree was not an option. I was told very clearly by a couple local universities that they had “nothing to offer the working adult” and while Lockheed would pay for my education they would not give me any time to pursue it.

F-117A Nighthawk

The things we talked about on the job were at a much higher level than what I actually got to do. Like heading out to Area 51 to participate in testing of the F-117 and other black-world aircraft. Some of my coworkers managed it. I wasn’t high enough on the food chain. (Kind of like not having enough rank in the Guard to deploy overseas.) I did help to salvage a roll of film from an SR-71 that had landed in the water, shy of its runway in the pacific and I got to work on the black box (actually orange) to recover data. (Rather, I told coworkers how to save the film and they took the credit.)

I stayed at the Slunkworks for 9 years until the Cold War was over. My share of the “peace dividend” was a layoff notice and six months of unemployment followed by years of under and intermittent employment.  I wasn’t the only one. Aerospace lost about 100K jobs in SoCal over a couple years and electrical engineers were a dime a dozen. F-22 production was still slow and it was mostly going to Georgia. It took LA decades to recover and it took me just as long. My Aspergers got worse, I became severely depressed, and job hunting has never been something I was proficient at.

Rob Shenk from Great Falls, VA, USAF-22 Raptor

It was mostly a good time but I never got a promotion. Asperger’s, lack of education and a curious inability to master higher math or computer programming did me in. I made a friend (Another non-degreed engineer. We had several.) but we drifted apart when he left to form his own company just prior to the big layoffs. I got to crawl through the guts of a black world aircraft that didn’t exist and I even couldn’t tell my wife about until 1988 when it went white. I had the chance to stand on a runway where a Blackbird was taking off at full throttle. It was the most “impactful” experience of my life, even more powerful than having an F-18 fly overhead at treetop level in full afterburner.

Any other organization but the Skunkworks and I’d never have got in. Probably would never be hired today. Completely unpredictable, just the right place at the right time and all kinds of random things fell into place. I’ve never had that kind of luck since. That landlady is also my wife’s cousin and how I met her. I owe a lot to that woman.

Those were the days! I wish I could have stayed there. If you want to talk stealth or hypersonic design Lockheed is the place to go. It still makes the most advanced aircraft in the world.

F-35A Lightning II project was started after I left Lockheed.