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Stealth fighter developer to reveal experiences

Retired aeronautical engineer and public speaker Randy Meathrell said his work dealt with the technical issues of developing an airplane, and worries that sounds dull. On the contrary, working at California's Lockheed Skunk Works developing a prototype for the F-117 stealth bomber that changed U.S. war tactics is anything but dull.

Meathrell will speak about his experiences Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's DLC Auditorium. The American Aviation Historical Society - ERAU-Prescott Chapter sponsors the free event, which is open to the public.

Without revealing all his topics and stories for Tuesday night, Meathrell, who moved to Prescott Valley's Pronghorn Ranch with his wife, Carol, two years ago, related enough of his secret project work to entice laypeople to attend. In other words, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to enjoy his presentation.

Lockheed's Skunk Works set the standard for "quick, quiet, quality" work. "In industry, businesses refer to themselves as a Skunk Works-type of organization when quick, quiet, quality is needed," Meathrell said. "I was happy I was part of it for 29 years. It's a great bunch of people."

People with a sense of humor, too. Irv Culver coined the name. Fumes from a nearby plastics factory continually drifted to Lockheed's Advanced Development Products (ADP) division. One particularly smelly day Culver answered the top secret operation's single telephone, "Skonk Works," a takeoff from the L'il Abner comic strip's Kickapoo Joy Juice still. Lockheed couldn't use the copyrighted "skonk," but the mascot and emblem for ADP became and remains a skunk.

The Skunk Works' specialty is "secret stuff," Meathrell said, and from there came the fastest airplane to fly, the first operational jet and many groundbreaking products the U.S. Air Force seeks.

He said Lockheed won a competition with Northrop, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas to build two prototypes using experimental stealth technology (XST), code name HAVE BLUE.

"The planes were unstable. Both crashed, one man was almost killed," Meathrell said. "Off the shelf (OTS) equipment was unacceptable, we had to modify the airplane, using bits and pieces from other airplanes. We took nose gear from one, landing gear from another and an ejection seat from another. It's the way Skunk Works does things."

The Air Force supplied six engines so Skunk Works built two planes with a spare engine for each.

"HAVE BLUE was a 'proof of concept' project, built at 70 percent scale size with no bomb bays. They were supposed to fly only for a short time, but the Air Force was intrigued, so they kept flying," Meathrell said. "It was a very dangerous undertaking for test pilots."

HAVE BLUE was the father of the first operational stealth fighter, the F-117.

Meathrell's work encompassed several aspects of the stealth project. He invented the mission planning system used today, or "how to get around the 'bad guys,'" he said. Originally, he worked in operations analysis, studying how the product will be used, and helping to sell it to the Air Force. To keep the project on schedule when machinists went out on strike, the former Vietnam aircraft mechanic even "bucked rivets." He also became a flight force engineer, sitting in the cockpit every day. He was responsible for testing the infrared system that helps pilots see at night, as well as the system that guides bombs to their targets.

"In Desert Storm, every time a plane put a bomb down an air conditioning duct, in large part that was my responsibility," Meathrell said.

He described the F-117 as the "most accurate weapon delivery system in the world, because it can fly over straight and level, and doesn't have to dodge. The Iraqis call it 'shaba,' which means ghost."

His opinion is the introduction of the stealth bomber helped drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy; the communist nation couldn't afford to completely revamp its defensive capabilities.

Meathrell said he was fortunate to get in the back seat of Air Force jets and fly alongside the F-117 when they were running tests.

"During proficiency training for pilots, I got to go along. I have been upside down at 50 feet at 450 miles per hour - and loved it," Meathrell said. "I'm an airplane nut."

Meathrell has been flying radio-controlled model aircraft for 30 years, and is an active member of Chino Valley Model Aviators, Inc., one of three model clubs to which he belongs.

For more information on AAHS, call ERAU-Prescott Chapter president Nick Manderfield at 928-777-6985 or email mandern@erau.edu.

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