Rich, Benjamin Robert
EngineerEnshrined 2005 1925-1995
Ben Rich was handpicked by Kelly Johnson to be his replacement for Lockheed’s Advanced Development Project, better known as Skunk Works, in 1975. Only six months into his tenure, Ben was approached with an idea to make a stealthy airplane. The diamond-shaped plane had many nicknames: the hopeless diamond, Rich’s folly, a flying engagement ring. Kelly Johnson was livid and didn’t think Rich’s first project as Skunk Works leader would work. So on September 14, 1975 Ben Rich showed Kelly Johnson the successful electromagnetic chamber results of the F-117 wooden model, Kelly flipped him a quarter and said, “don’t spend it until you see the damned thing fly.”
- Rich joined Lockheed in 1950 working on aerodynamics, thermodynamic, propulsion and preliminary design of the F-104, U-2, YF-12 and SR-71 and numerous other technically innovative projects of Skunk Works.
- Named senior engineer for advanced programs at Lockheed in 1963.
- Spearheaded the development of the stealth technology with the F-117.
- February 1990 Rich and the entire Lockheed. Air Force team won the 1989 Collier Trophy for the production and deployment of the F-117A Stealth Fighter.
On a moonless winter night in January 1991, Operation Desert Storm began over Baghdad with a fearsome new American aircraft that Iraqi radar couldn’t see. Members of the 37th Fighter Wing piloted this plane, the Lockeed F-117 Stealth bomber. During that same time and half a world away in Los Angeles, the man known as the “father of the Stealth fighter,” Ben Rich, was being honored at his retirement from Lockeed.
He was born in 1925 of British subjects in the Phillipine islands. He traveled extensively with his family until the attack on Pearl Harbor took them to California.
Ben built his first airplane – a Piper Cub – at age 14.
At first, he considered a medical career, but then decided on civil engineering. Ben received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his master’s degree in the same subject from UCLA.
In 1950, Ben joined Lockheed’s engineering staff. Post-war was a busy time in aviation. Ben participated in aerodynamic, thermodynamic, propulsion and preliminary design aspects of the F-104, YF12, SR-71, and numerous other sophisticated programs.
Lockheed was also involved in commercial aviation. Ben worked on two prototypes of the Constellation, or “Connie,” as she was called.
In 1954, Ben’s career took an exciting and challenging turn. The legendary Kelly Johnson selected Ben to work for six weeks in the highly secretive world of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works.” The team was developing high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, that later would be known as the “U-2”, used during the cold war to gather intelligence over the Soviet Union and eastern bloc nations.
What was supposed to be a temporary assignment at Skunk Works became Ben’s 36 year career, except for a few assignments outside the secret organization.
During the early 1960s, the Skunk Works team was developing the successor to the U-2. Ben worked on the propulsion. Ben was having a heat problem with the new Mach 3 plane and suggested to Kelly that they paint the airplane black to eliminate some of the heat. Kelly at first thought Ben was crazy and told him that he, Kelly, was trying to reduce the plane’s weight, not add to it. After Kelly did his own research, he gave Ben the quarter they’d bet and admitted he was wrong. The new aircraft became known as the “Blackbird family” of reconnaissance planes, at that time, the fastest and highest flying jets in the world.
Kelly Johnson retired in 1975 and selected Ben Rich to be the new “Chief Skunk.” Ben was in his element heading the organization. As head of Skunk Works, Ben was also it’s chief sales person, so he spent a lot of time in Washington, D. C. In 40 years at Lockheed, Ben worked on more than two-dozen aircraft programs, including some that didn’t make it and on others that would become famous.
In the late 70s, a highly classified program was brewing inside Skunk Works. Ben put together a team that flew two prototypes known by the code name “Have Blue.” This evolved into the world’s first operational Stealth aircraft, the F-117 A. When the U.S. Air Force ordered the Stealth fighter into production in the 1980s, Lockheed built a fleet of the aircraft that would be the crown jewel of Ben’s career.
It was 1988 before the Air Force acknowledged that the F-117 existed. Two years later, the National Aeronautic Association awarded the Collier Trophy to Ben and the Lockheed and Air Force teams that had developed the Stealth.
In Operation Desert Storm, the F-117’s flew more than 1,270 combat sorties, logged over 6,900 combat hours and dropped more than 2,000 tons of ordinance with pinpoint accuracy. All F-117’s and crew members returned safely. Ben’s other honors include being selected as the “San Fernando Valley Engineer of the Year” in 1981. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1989 and was named UCLA’s Alumnus Engineer of the Year in 1982.
In 1988, Ben was selected as the Wright Brothers Lecturer for both the AIAA and Royal Aeronautical Society. Ben Rich died in 1995. His career spanned 40 years as an engineer and executive who became an international representative and innovator in aviation.
For these achievements, Ben Rich has earned his enshrinement in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.