“He’s the fastest man alive,”
This line is uttered in Top Gun Maverick when Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell achieves Mach 10 in the Darkstar—a reusable hypersonic, piloted aircraft that is ostensibly a creation of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works—note the Lockheed Martin logo of the Skunk on the tail of the aircraft in the movie.
I felt a surge of pride when I saw the familiar logo—my father worked at Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Projects—known as Skunk Works—for more than 30 years. Dad never told us what he did. I couldn’t. He would go on work trips to “someplace in the desert.” Us kids were taught to say, “Daddy builds rockets,” when someone asked what our father did for work.
Skunk Works Goes Hollywood
Skunk Works—which got its name because the plant produced a strong unpleasant odor, especially on warm days—by definition is a place of secrecy.
The skunk is the mascot of “Skunk Works,” a term for Lockheed Martin Advanced Development that goes back to 1943, when engineer Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson led a team in Southern California tasked with designing a jet for the military. Because manufacturing space was impossible to find because of the war, the team worked out of a rented circus tent set up next to a plastics manufacturing plant.
According to a spokesperson from Lockheed Martin, Paramount Pictures approached the aerospace company in 2017 with a request for technical expertise in the production of Top Gun: Maverick.
“Lockheed Martin Skunk Works designed and produced a conceptual reusable, piloted hypersonic aircraft, referred to as Darkstar in the film.” she said.
The fictional Darkstar’s lines evoke two other Lockheed Martin aircraft: the SR-71 black bird—SR stands for Strategic Reconnaissance—the now retired, super fast design; and the Lockheed Martin F-35, also known as “the world’s most advanced fighter jet.”
FLYING was told not to confuse Darkstar with the SR-72, a concept referred to as the “Son of Blackbird,” which is a construct ostensibly suggested by the media in 2013, but never confirmed as a concept by Skunk Works.
Darkstar is movie fiction, the spokesperson explained, saying, “Darkstar is a hyper-realistic aircraft concept designed specifically for Top Gun: Maverick. Hypersonic technology is progressing and the work being done across Lockheed Martin today is laying the foundation for a Reusable Hypersonic Vehicle, such as Darkstar, to one day be possible.”
The fictional aircraft was five years in the making. The development team took it seriously, keeping in mind “the shaping, materials, and components that must withstand heat and environmental stressors caused by high-speed flight.”
In addition, Lockheed Martin “helped design realistic flight gear, shared artifacts for the set, and arranged site tours and demonstrations to support the effort. The team provided insights to drive realism into the storyline, serving as consultants throughout filming,” the company’s spokesperson said.
Proud of Their Part in the Movie
Lockheed Martin has a webpage dedicated to information about Top Gun Maverick. There you will find more information about the project and a few of the Lockheed Martin designers who worked on it, identified only by their first names: Jim, Jason, Lucio, and Becky.
Jim is credited with the conceptual design. Jason and Lucio handled the task of turning the conceptual designs into a realistic aircraft model with a working cockpit. Becky, a mechanical engineer, worked with the movie team to build the Darkstar vehicle, including the functional cockpit. Throughout the filming process, her job was to keep the model structurally sound.
Jeremy Hindle, the movie’s production designer from Paramount, described Darkstar’s design as “angry, mean, and insanely fast.”
In the movie, the Darkstar mission is never openly discussed. However, we are told that the government wants to pull the funding on the project because it hasn’t yet reached Mach 10. It is intimated that the test flight protocols—which set specific targets to reach and to go no farther than Mach 10— are short of Mach 9.
Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell bends the rules a bit to get “one last test flight.” Test flights involve a protocol where a target is set and achieved, but do not involve pushing the envelope. Maverick is cautioned not to make the flight—Mach 9 is 6,905.42 mph.
The closest to piloted aircraft has come to that speed in reality is the SR-71 black birdwhich reached Mach 3.3 or 2,193 mph.
There is a dramatic sequence as Maverick dons his high-altitude flight suit and helmet as he prepares for the before-sunrise launch. The tension mounts as the aircraft climbs into the dawn sky, and the cockpit’s Mach number readout heads toward the targeted value.
Is it possible to fly an aircraft as fast as Mach 9?
“Operating in the hypersonic flight realm is difficult,” the Lockheed Martin spokesperson said. “The film depicts both a notional aircraft and a notional flight test scenario. The pathfinding work being done today is vitally important. The notional scenario in the film does not represent today’s work.”
This wasn’t the first time Locheed Martin created a Darkstar. In the 1990s Lockheed Martin created the RQ-3 Darkstar, a high altitude, unmanned aerial vehicle designed for endurance, not for speed. The UAV did its first flight in March 1996. The project was terminated in 1999 because the aircraft did not meet expectations.
Three remaining Darkstar UAVs are in museums—one is at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, one is at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and the third is at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.
Perhaps…someday. Just as the flying scenes in the original top gun inspired generations to become military aviators, this movie will also inspire future generations of engineers.