Kelly Johnson (1910-1990)

Johnson’s method was to assemble an exceedingly small team of elite engineers in close proximity in an environment where innovation, creativity and productivity could flourish

Issue: 1 / 2018By Joseph Noronha

In June 1943, with World War II in full swing, in Burbank, California, representatives of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) approached Lockheed Aircraft Corporation with an urgent request for a new jet fighter. One month later, Lockheed’s young engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson and his team were ready with their proposed design. However, four months of military-bureaucratic hemming and hawing followed. When the contract finally came, the schedule was tight – 150 days. Lockheed already had its hands full, churning out aircraft by the thousands for the war However, despite the busy schedule, Johnson’s hand-picked team of designers and engineers produced the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the first operational jet fighter of the USAAF, in 143 days.

Kelly Johnson was born in Michigan on February 27, 1910. His first brush with aviation came at age 13, when he won a prize for his aircraft design. That is when he decided he wanted nothing better than to make aircraft. However, when he applied to Lockheed for a job in 1932, it was turned down. He returned a year later armed with a Master’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering and was hired as a tool designer. His first major success came in the late 1930s when he developed the P-38 Lightning which became one of the more significant fighters of World War II. Johnson worked for over four decades in Lockheed’s Skunk Works and played a major part in the design of about 40 famous aircraft, with more than half being of his original designs. Two aircraft bagged the US National Aeronautic Association’s prestigious Collier Trophy.

But the crowning glory of Johnson’s Skunk Works was the SR-71 Blackbird. This long-range, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft built for the USAF was packed with innovations. It was specifically meant to fly so high and so fast that it could not be shot down. One major problem the talented design team had to face was that of aerodynamic heating which would soften and wrinkle an ordinary aluminium airframe. The other challenge was to build a jet engine capable of operating in the rarefied atmosphere at 80,000 feet. The Blackbird was one of the first aircraft to incorporate a low radar cross-section so as to ensure that hostile radars would have little or no time to acquire and track it and to launch a missile against it. Indeed, if a surface-toair missile launch was detected, the pilot had to simply accelerate and outrun the weapon. Although over half a century has passed since the SR-71’s first test flight in December 1964, it still holds the record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft ever.

Lockheed’s Skunk Works came up with some of the most iconic military aircraft of the times including the Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady, an ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft which was the world’s first dedicated spy plane. It was built in eight months and some variants are still in service. Skunk Works began as an informal company, but later became a trademarked designation. It originated due to the stench from a nearby plastic factory that filled the air. Nowadays a ‘skunk works project’ refers to a radical or innovative project secretly researched and developed by a small group of people.

Johnson’s method was to assemble an exceedingly small team of elite engineers in close proximity in an environment where innovation, creativity and productivity could flourish and shroud the project in complete secrecy till the finished product emerged. This was firstly to prevent rivals from getting wind of the project and secondly to preclude customers interfering with the design or attempting to modify it. Benjamin Rich, who succeeded Kelly at Skunk Works, put it thus: “We became the most successful advanced projects company in the world by hiring talented people, paying them well and motivating them into believing that they could produce a Mach-3 airplane like the Blackbird a generation or two ahead of anybody else.”

Kelly Johnson was arguably the most gifted, effective and respected aircraft design engineer in the history of aviation. He loathed committees, bureaucrats and minutely detailed specifications, preferring to give his team a free hand to come up with the best. To this end, he ran Skunk Works by “Kelly’s 14 Rules” one of which was ‘There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.’ His management style was summed up by his motto, “Be quick, be quiet and be on time.” In 1958 he became Vice President of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Programmes. Later, he was offered the position of company President thrice, but he preferred to continue overseeing Skunk Works, where he could do what he loved – organising and extracting the best out of his aircraft design teams. Kelly Johnson died on December 21, 1990, after prolonged illness.