John Clark leads next-gen aviation efforts at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works.
WHEN HE WASN’T PLAYING BASKETBALL OR FOOTBALL AS A KID, John Clark would entertain himself by programming his Commodore 64 computer or pursuing other activities that portended a career in a STEM field. But scarcely could Clark have imagined that he’d someday run one of the most venerated divisions in the aerospace industry: Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works.
Skunk Works — a play on the name of a remote factory in the long-running comic strip Li’l Abner — originated when the U.S. government approached the aviation company with a problem at the height of World War II.
Not one of the Allies’ planes could best Germany’s fleet of fighter jets. Legendary Lockheed engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson assembled a team that worked out of a circus tent in the corner of Lockheed’s Palmdale, California, headquarters. In 143 days, the engineers not only designed but manufactured the P-80 Shooting Star, a straight-winged jet that flew so fast it helped turn the tide of war. Skunk Works was born.
As Clark explains it, Skunk Works, which employs 4,700 people around the country, creates cradle-to-grave programs just as it did with the P-80. Engineers dream up ideas, large and small, that they then build in-house.
In April, Clark, who grew up in Platteville, Colorado, and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder, was named vice president and general manager of Advanced Development Programs, the official name of Skunk Works. At the time, he’d been with Lockheed for 23 years.
Early in his Skunk Works tenure, Clark enrolled in the executive MBA program at the Neeley School of Business, where he learned about management, business strategy and real estate.
As a young professional, Clark became convinced he could make ethernet work inside an airplane. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he said. It was operational within five years, and it continued to improve over time. Some 15 years later, the technology he developed is now standard in most aircraft.
Clark went on to become vice president of unmanned aircraft systems and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance within Skunk Works.
“I’ve been with Skunk Works for 22 years and have known John most of that time,” said Melissa Dalton, director of Skunk Works’ integrated communications. “He’s always been deep in these classified programs and is someone who thinks big.”
Clark continued to rise through the ranks at Skunk Works until a week before the Covid-19 shutdown. In March 2020, he was named vice president of engineering and technology for Lockheed. In this new role, he managed 8,000 people in the aeronautics business area.
“Keeping the whole team motivated and aligned was a big part of what I had to do during the pandemic,” he said. “The tools I’d learned during my MBA classes helped me navigate and adapt at a time when we had one hell of an adaptation thrust upon us.”
In April 2022, Clark was tapped to rejoin Skunk Works, this time as its leader. A dozen program managers working on myriad projects report directly to him.
“He’s reestablishing Skunk Works for the future by looking back to our roots and reinforcing them for a new era of aerospace design and production,” said Eric Schrock, Lockheed’s deputy director of technology development and integration.
As head Skunk, Clark works closely with the U.S. military, principally the Air Force and Navy.
“Rule No. 12 of Kelly Johnson’s 14 rules for Skunk Works is that the customer and contractor have to trust one another, which is not always a typical customer relationship,” Clark said. “One of the prouder things about this organization is that former government people who later come to work for us almost unequivocally talk about our ethics and how we do our work.”
BY LISA MARTIN