Obituary: Ben Rich

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The Independent Online
Ben R. Rich, aeronautical engineer and thermodynamicist: born Manila, Philippines 18 June 1925; vice-president, Skunk Works 1975-90, president, (renamed) Lockheed Advanced Development Company 1990-91; married 1950 Faye Mayer (died 1980; one son, one daughter); married 1982 Hilda Elliot; died Los Angeles 5 January 1995.

In 40 years of aeronautical engineering, Ben Rich worked on 27 different aeroplanes. These ranged from the early Hercules propjet transport still in production today, to the F-117 stealth fighter which demonstrated such ``invisibility'' on enemy radar screens during the 1991 Gulf war that it changed the nature of air combat.

In between were the F-104 twice-the-speed-of-sound fighter, the U-2 that operated spy flights over the Soviet Union for four years until Gary Powers was shot down in 1960, and the SR-71 Blackbird that cruised at three times the speed of sound.

Rich was born in Manila, in the Philippines, of Jewish parents: his father was a British citizen and superintendent of a lumber mill and his mother a French citizen and a linguist. With three elder brothers and a sister, he was raised in Manila. The family moved to Los Angeles a few months before Pearl Harbor.

He received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, a masters degree in the same discipline from the University of California, Los Angeles and graduated from the Harvard advanced management programme in 1968.

Rich spent his working life with Lockheed, at Burbank, California, joining in 1950 fresh from university. In 1954 he became cloistered in Lockheed's secret projects department, Skunk Works, a name based on its position next to a noxious plastics factory and an Al Capp strip cartoon, Skonk Works, which illustrated the production of ``kickapoo joy juice'' with worn shoes and dead skunk. But before being admitted he had to swear to tell no one -``not your wife, your mother, your brother, your girlf riend, your priest or your accountant'' - of the secret, unconventional aircraft being developed there.

Twenty-five years later he took over as head (vice-president) of the Skunk Works. In 1994 after he had retired he wrote: ``It is only now, when the Cold War is history, that many of our accomplishments can finally be revealed and I can stop playing mute,much like the star-crossed rabbi who hit a hole in one on the Sabbath.''

Physically small though a giant in technology, Rich ruled the Skunk Works for 15 years with ebullience, energy and a benignly authoritarian approach. He spent half his time ``complimenting my troops and the other half bawling them out'', a style in starkcontrast to that of Kelly Johnson, the founder of Skunk Works during the Second World War. Kelly, who chose Rich to succeed him, was probably the greater legend of the two. His motto, ``Be quick, be quiet, be on time'', was assiduously followed by Rich but without the need to invoke Kelly's bad temper to ensure his engineers also followed it.

Rich shared his wit, wisdom and wise counsel and was also a marketeer who could sell to the cynical brass in the Pentagon. Knowing that current fighters ``looked as big as Greyhound buses'' on radar, he would astonish generals by rolling small ball bearings across their desks saying: ``Here's the observability of your airplane on radar.'' The air force eagerly signed a contract in November 1977 to begin the stealth fighter, before Rich's strange triangular-shaped demonstrator aircraft had proved that itcould even fly.

Thirteen years later the stunning operations by stealth fighters in the Gulf war were revealed to the world, an achievement which helped bring to him, in 1994, the Pentagon's highest civilian honour, the distinguished service medal.

Alan Brothers