Top Gun: Maverick has been in theatres for a week now, and if you haven’t been able to get your hands on a ticket, fortunately, this post will not include any spoilers. So continue reading to learn more about the individuals behind the experimental hypersonic plane Darkstar.
Lockheed Martin, whose F-35C Joint Strike Fighter is featured in the movie, has a unique branch called Skunk Works tasked with creating the next-to-impossible fighter jet.
According to Lockheed Martin’s website, the Top Gun: Maverick crew contacted the Skunk Works when they needed a powerful flying machine, and the Skunk Works assembled a small team to bring Darkstar to life.
While Lockheed Martin’s CEO, James Taiclet, had already revealed the company’s famed Skunk Works division’s involvement, the company has now dedicated a webpage to Top Gun and the mysterious Darkstar.
Brief interviews with some of Darkstar’s designers can be found on the website. In addition, Lockheed Martin provided a behind-the-scenes video with more views of the mockup, which you can watch below:
“Lockheed Martin Skunk Works thrives on tackling seemingly impossible work, developing technologies for tomorrow’s challenges before the need is even identified,” the website says.
“When the Top Gun: Maverick team was looking to push the envelope and stand true to Maverick’s Need for Speed, Skunk Works was their first call. With Skunk Works’ expertise in developing the fastest known aircraft combined with a passion and energy for defining the future of aerospace, Darkstar’s capabilities could be more than mere fiction. They could be reality…”
That last sentence is intriguing, implying that the design is not entirely fictitious. Many people have already recognised a resemblance between the Darkstar and the concept images of the SR-72 hypersonic reconnaissance aircraft released by Lockheed Martin in 2013, even though the latter was unmanned.
The Skunk Works team conceptualised the aircraft before building a realistic replica with a working cockpit and ensuring structural performance during filming.
As is often the case, the job is easier said than done, and the team went through several design changes before the rest of the world saw Darkstar on their screens.
“We based the design on the fastest aircraft, the SR-71 [Blackbird], which Lockheed built in the 1960s. However, the team wanted to go beyond that.” Top Gun: Maverick’s director Joseph Kosinski says in the video. “We integrated their Skunk Works designers with our designers on the film side.”
“There’s no way we could have done Darkstar the way we did without their help,” Kosinski explains.
“Through their design team, we learned how to make the plane look angry, mean, insanely fast,” Jeremy Hindle, the film’s Production Designer, adds. “We lowered it a little bit. It also made it look a little sleeker and faster.”
“The cockpit was mindblowing. …you really wanted to believe that it was real,” Hindle continues.
The Darkstar in the film has sleek aerodynamic designs, with short wings and canted vertical twin tails. The plane is powered by a turbine-based mixed cycle propulsion system that includes two turbojet/low-bypass turbofan afterburning engines and two scramjets. There’s also a fantastic feature derived from a real aircraft built by Skunk Works, the X-59 QueSST. In fact, the cockpit has no forward visibility; therefore, Maverick relies on a synthetic vision system to see what’s ahead of the aircraft.
According to LM’s website, all of the work on Darkstar was done in secrecy, with the Skunk Works working with the Top Gun: Maverick production team to understand their demands and then secretly working on the design and build until the concept was exposed in the film.
The concept was so wonderfully executed that China mistook the model for a real experimental aircraft. They even reoriented a spy satellite to photograph it.