Why America’s first fighter jet was built in a circus tent

2 min readDec 11, 2017


Picture the scene.

It’s 1943 and tensions are high as the terror of WW2 shows little sign of ending.

On both sides, the greatest minds are employed in coming up with new weapons in an attempt to get an edge on the enemy.

One area of significant progress was occurring in aircraft design, specifically engine design.

Propeller engines were reaching the limits of their performance envelope.

They were no longer cutting the mustard so-to-speak.

A more powerful and reliable form of propulsion was urgently called for.

Soon, wildly optimistic specifications for a new type of ‘jet’ engine were circulating in the aircraft engineering departments of Messerschmitt in Germany and Lockheed in the US.

These seemingly impossible briefs called for a new approach to working.

They required smaller, more dynamic teams left unencumbered by company rules and regulation.

The birth of Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’

Lockheed’s chief engineer at the time, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, knew this instinctively and this sparked what is, arguably, one of the earliest and most well known cases of intrapreneurship.

Amazingly, this top secret government contract was agreed on with little more than a handshake and Johnson used a fraction of the usual number of engineers for the project.

They even worked out of a rented circus tent as there was no other space available in the main factory.

But in the end, Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’ group allowed America to build its first fighter jet from scratch in just 143 days.

The rise of the intrapreneur

From the famous Bell Labs, to Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’, Google’s X division and Apple’s Advanced Technology Group employees with an entrepreneurial skillset have been at work driving innovation within large organisations.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s however that the word ‘intrapreneur’ was first coined in a research paper entitled ‘Intra-corporate Entrepreneurship’.

As large organisations face the challenges of ‘disruption’ by smaller start ups the need for these type of employees is perhaps greater than ever before.

To find out more about intrapreneurship and ways in which you can be more entrepreneurial within your organisation sign up on the website for our upcoming masterclass.




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