Lord of the Skunk Works

June 1, 2005

Few aeronautical engineers have received the acclaim accorded to Clarence Leonard “Kelly” Johnson, a man many believe to be the finest aircraft designer of the 20th century. Johnson is revered for playing the leading role in more than 40 Lockheed designs, including such epic aircraft as the P-38 Lightning, P-80A Shooting Star, XF-104 Starfighter, U-2 spyplane, and SR-71 Blackbird.

In his 42-year career at Lockheed, Johnson became world famous for finding solutions to seemingly impossible performance demands and for motivating his workforce to achieve what seemed to be unattainable goals. Above all, Kelly Johnson excelled in providing the United States with aeronautical systems that were sometimes decades ahead of adversary aircraft.

Many believe that his most enduring contribution was the creation of a new methodology for aircraft design and manufacture in Lockheed’s world-famous “Skunk Works.” This legendary engineering complex grew from humble beginnings into what may have been the most sophisticated development organization ever.

Johnson radiated energy. His aggressive attitude—it came across whether he was striding around some new aircraft or merely sitting at a table—made the five-foot-11-inch, 200-pound Johnson seem much larger than he actually was. A construction worker in his youth, he was physically powerful, and his strength was matched by a powerful personality. He could be imperious and rude and had a hair-trigger temper.

As a result, Johnson was not universally loved by his co-workers, but he was universally respected. Johnson benefited from Lockheed’s strong leaders at the time. Among them were Hall Hibbard, the enormously talented chief of engineering, and Robert E. Gross, Lockheed’s president and chairman. Hibbard learned how to manage Johnson, serving as an intermediary between him and the gentlemanly Gross, who might easily have been offended by Johnson’s sometimes brusque manner.

Farewell to Clarence

Johnson has been called the “engineer without a peer.” He racked up a long list of honors, including two Collier Trophies and the Medal of Freedom. His origins, however, were humble.

Johnson was born on Feb. 27, 1910, in Ishpeming, a tiny town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The seventh of nine children of Swedish immigrant parents, Clarence inherited his father’s appreciation for good tools and precision craftsmanship.

The nickname “Kelly” stemmed from a fight in grade school. A bully made the mistake of taunting young Clarence, repeatedly calling him “Clara.” One morning, Johnson struck back, and the ensuing tussle left the name-caller with a broken leg. Johnson’s classmates, suddenly seeing him in a new light, thereupon nicknamed him “Kelly,” taken from the title of a popular song. He liked it, and the name stuck.

Johnson led a simple life, working hard at any available job and spending lots of time in the local library, reading the great Tom Swift adventure books of the era. He became fascinated with flight, designing his first aircraft, the “Merlin I Battle Plane,” in 1920. Johnson kept meticulous records throughout his life, and the drawing of the Merlin still exists.

In classic American fashion, he worked his way through school. Enrolling at the University of Michigan, he expanded his working skills by running the school’s wind tunnel. Eventually he was able to do subcontracting work of his own with the wind tunnel facilities. He and a colleague did test work on both the classic Pierce Silver Arrow automobile and a Studebaker racing car.

Johnson often joked that he earned more from his college wind tunnel work than he did during his first 10 years at Lockheed. He claimed that his techniques for use of titanium as a basic structural material derived from the practices he had learned working the wind tunnel at Michigan.

In 1932, in the depth of the Great Depression, Johnson had his first interview, in Burbank, Calif., with the Lockheed Aircraft Corp., which Gross had just re-established. Johnson was told that there were no job openings, but he was invited to try again later. He returned to Michigan and earned a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering.

Hibbard, his future mentor, re-interviewed him in 1933, hiring him as Lockheed’s sixth engineering employee—a tool designer.

Johnson was assigned to do wind tunnel testing on Hibbard’s brand-new design, the all-metal, twin-engine Lockheed Model 10. The new hire didn’t hesitate to criticize his boss’s design, saying Hibbard should replace its single-tail configuration with what would become the Lockheed trademark twin-fin-and-rudder empennage.

Hibbard implemented Johnson’s ideas without resentment.

This was the start of a collaboration that would see Hibbard and Johnson work closely together on several designs, including the Model B-14 Hudson and the XP-38, before Johnson moved up in the Lockheed engineering hierarchy.

Hibbard always kept a hand in engineering, but recognized that he could do more for Lockheed by marshaling and controlling Johnson’s talent than by doing his own original design work.

Hibbard, who might reasonably have been annoyed by Johnson’s increasing hubris, always backed him. When pressed to define Johnson’s finest characteristic, Hibbard cited his great engineering skills but went on to note that Johnson “was intensely patriotic and a magnificent American.”

Chief Engineer

By 1937, Johnson completed a proposal showing how the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra could be converted to a bomber. In 1938, he became Lockheed’s chief of research engineering.

The following year, Lockheed proposed a version of the converted Model 14 airliner to the British Purchasing Commission, which was buying aircraft in anticipation of the coming war.

RAF Air Commodore Arthur T. Harris (who was later to head the Bomber Command and become a Marshal of the Royal Air Force) rejected the proposal, taking exception to some details. To Harris’ amazement, Lockheed sent a car for him 24 hours later to bring him back to the facility. Johnson and Hibbard showed him a wooden mock-up of an aircraft tailored specifically to answer all of his objections.

Impressed by this rapid reaction, Harris authorized an initial order of 200 Hudsons. This established Lockheed for the first time as a major military aircraft manufacturer. Eventually the company built almost 3,000 Hudsons, a production run that also spawned a host of naval aircraft.

The contract solidified Lockheed’s financial situation, enabling it to sustain itself as another project evolved: the twin-engine fighter that would gain immortality as the P-38 Lightning. Based on a radical specification created by Lt. Benjamin S. Kelsey at Wright Field, Ohio, Johnson and Hibbard put the P-38 through an assortment of configurations before settling on the twin-engine, twin-boom central gondola layout that was to make the Lightning so distinctive.

The aircraft was radical for the time, with its tricycle landing gear, heavy armament package, turbo-supercharged engines, and counter-rotating propellers. First flown on Jan. 27, 1939, the Lightning starred in the Pacific Theater, where it entered combat in April 1942. It was flown by the two leading American aces of the war, Majs. Richard I. Bong and Thomas B. McGuire Jr.

The Jet Beckons

As work on the Lightning progressed, however, a greater development was unfolding. Johnson became enthralled by the possibility of using the jet engine in combat aircraft. In May 1943, Lockheed was offered the opportunity to build a jet fighter designed around a single de Havilland-Halford H1.B Goblin jet engine. The next month, Lockheed submitted a successful proposal for the Model L-140, subsequently designated the XP-80. The company earned a contract calling for delivery in 150 days.

This urgency played into Johnson’s hands. He had long wanted to establish an experimental group under his direct supervision. Collaborating with a band of more than 120 engineers and workers, operating out of a scrap-wood and canvas temporary building, Johnson delivered the new aircraft ahead of schedule, taking only 143 days. Lockheed, Johnson, and the US Air Force were firmly embarked on a journey into the jet age.

For most of his career, Johnson was not only a great engineer but also a superb salesman, able to anticipate customer needs with uncanny precision. In November 1952, he submitted an unsolicited proposal for an F-104 concept to Air Force Lt. Gen. Donald L. Putt. Such proposals are often quietly ignored, but Putt saw merit in the proposal and knew the value of dealing with Johnson. A general operational requirement was issued, and, despite competition from other firms, Lockheed in 1953 won a contract to produce two prototype XF-104s.

Johnson believed that use of ultrathin straight wings was the optimum technique for supersonic flight, an opinion confirmed by the test results of the otherwise disappointing Douglas X-3 Stiletto research airplane. He designed the XF-104 accordingly, creating a Mach 2 fighter that flew at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet, its thin un-swept wings stretching only seven feet on either side of the cockpit.

First flown in March 1954, the XF-104 found its biggest following in foreign countries. Only 296 were procured for US use, but more than 2,500 were built for customers worldwide. The last model was delivered to Italy in 1980—26 years after the first XF-104 flight. Updated Italian F-104s are just being retired, 51 years after the initial flight.

Besides turning in good service in Vietnam, the F-104 had provided other benefits to the Air Force. The program institutionalized the Skunk Works as a permanent part of Lockheed, and the F-104 became the departure point for Johnson’s next great achievement, the U-2.

In an age of constantly improving satellite reconnaissance systems, it must be remembered that the Soviet Union was once a fortress, almost completely secure from US intelligence-gathering efforts.

Need to Know

After the Soviet Union had demonstrated that it had bombers and missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons against the US homeland, it became absolutely vital to gather intelligence by flying over the Soviet Union on strategic-reconnaissance missions.

Four technologies had matured to make such an airplane possible—the jet engine for high-altitude work, Edwin H. Land’s high-resolution cameras, Hycon’s lenses, and Eastman Kodak’s Mylar-base film.

The Air Force invited three firms to bid to create the spyplane: Bell, Fair­child, and Martin. Bell’s X-16 design won the contest in 1954. And for every other company without Kelly Johnson, that was the end of the story.

Since 1953, Johnson had been working on the Lockheed CL-282 for essentially the same mission. With a fuselage similar to the F-104, he added an extremely long, high-aspect-ratio wing. Construction was lightweight, and the first designs envisaged using a trolley for a takeoff and skids for landing, like the Messerschmitt Me-163 of World War II. The initial structure was too light for pressurization, so the pilot had to rely on a full pressure suit at all times.

In his usual manner, Johnson took his idea to the very top, talking to Joseph V. Charyk, then in charge of CIA research programs, and Trevor Gardner, assistant secretary of the Air Force for research and development.

In a rapid-fire series of meetings, the design of the CL-282 was changed so that it had a moderately pressurized cockpit, an unconventional semibicycle-style landing gear, and a special high-altitude version of the Pratt & Whitney J57 engine. Johnson clinched the deal by promising to deliver the aircraft in just eight months. Further, he offered to build 20 aircraft for just $22 million.

To Bell’s dismay, the X-16 program was killed. Skunk Works began work on an aircraft that was estimated to have a four-year service life, given the rate of Soviet missile improvements.

The fragile U-2 made its official first flight on Aug. 1, 1955. After extensive testing, preliminary reconnaissance flights were flown over Eastern Europe. The first operational mission over the Soviet Union was flown by Hervey Stockman on July 4, 1956. Taking off from Wiesbaden, Germany, Stockman overflew Minsk and Leningrad before returning to Wiesbaden. In the process, the U-2 gathered a huge amount of information about the USSR—more than the US had ever been able to get by any other means.

The Soviet Union hotly—but discreetly—protested repeated U-2 incursions into its airspace. The Kremlin was unwilling to embarrass itself by admitting that the U-2 could overcome Soviet air defenses at will and with impunity.

The U-2 missions revealed that while the Soviet ICBM threat was real, the much feared “missile gap” did not exist. The Soviet bomber capability was also found to be less extensive than had been feared. U-2 flights over the Soviet Union continued until May 1, 1960, when Soviet SA-2 missiles near Sverdlovsk shot down the U-2 carrying Francis Gary Powers.

The U-2 made headlines again during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of being retired after just a few years, modified versions were built through the 1980s, continue to serve, and will do so for the foreseeable future.

The Skunk Works

Kelly Johnson was always fanatical about security. While Lockheed was working on the XP-80 project, access to, and even knowledge of, the design facility was rigidly controlled. Barred from identifying the facility officially, insiders referred to the workplace as the “Skonk Works”—after the fabled Kickapoo Joy Juice factory in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip.

Objections from Capp’s lawyers required the facility to be renamed “Skunk Works.” That name was subsequently trademarked by Lockheed.

The XP-80, predecessor to the P-80, America’s first operational jet fighter, made its first flight on Jan. 8, 1944.

P-80 production was turned over to the mainstream Lockheed organization, and some 1,742 Shooting Stars were built. The airplane did excellent work in the Korean War. Its design also led directly to the T-33 and T2V-1 trainers and the F-94 all-weather fighter series, each of which became a bread-and-butter product for Lockheed.

The transition of the P-80 from secret experiment to mass-produced aircraft resulted in fewer demands on the Skunk Works. Yet the concept of a secret, compartmentalized design studio persisted.

Johnson later reintroduced the Skunk Works concept for a new jet fighter program that ultimately became the XF-104 and the F-104 Starfighter.

Kelly’s Masterpiece

The U-2 had scarcely begun to fly before Johnson was contemplating its successor, an aircraft that would remedy the U-2’s vulnerabilities—low speed and large radar signature. A long series of design evolutions led to the Lockheed A-12. This single-seat, high-altitude Mach 3.2 reconnaissance airplane was designed for the CIA and evolved into the legendary SR-71 Blackbird.

Both the A-12 and the two-seat SR-71 were phenomenally advanced aircraft. Sustained high speeds generated searing skin-surface temperatures of up to 1,300 degrees. This obviously affected the selection of the structural materials, hydraulic fluids, lubricants, electronic gear, wiring—practically everything.

Johnson worked hand in hand with Ben Rich, an equally volatile but more happy-go-lucky type who eventually succeeded Johnson as head of the Skunk Works. Johnson, Rich, and their team overcame the design difficulties to create an aircraft whose performance has never been exceeded. Further, they endowed the SR-71 with a sculptural beauty that has fostered an almost cultlike following.

The first official flight of the A-12 took place April 30, 1962. The Air Force required an aircraft with greater range, a larger payload, and room for a reconnaissance systems officer. This led in time to the SR-71, which first flew in late 1964. By December 1967, 31 of the Blackbirds had been delivered to the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, Calif.

The A-12 served the CIA for 30 flights, including missions over North Vietnam and North Korea, where it was used in the aftermath of the seizure of USS Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968. Domestic political considerations led to the A-12’s premature retirement and replacement by the Air Force’s SR-71.

The Blackbird served around the world, setting many speed and altitude records in the process. Unfortunately, SR-71s were expensive to operate. With satellite and enemy missile technology advancing, the fleet was finally retired in January 1990. The last operating model was flown to a National Air and Space Museum hangar at Dulles Arpt., Va., in 1990, setting a transcontinental speed record en route.

The Blackbird was undoubtedly Johnson’s masterpiece, and though his genius as an engineer never faded, his success as a salesman did. Johnson’s heavy-handed dealings with procurement officials began to negatively affect Lockheed’s sales to the Air Force. Johnson retired from Lockheed in 1975, but stayed on as a consultant for many years. He left the Lockheed board in 1980, and in June 1983, the Lockheed Rye Canyon Research Facility was renamed the Kelly Johnson Research and Development Center.

Johnson died on Dec. 21, 1990, after a long illness. In his absence, the Skunk Works inevitably took on a different character, but Johnson’s spirit lives on in his inspirational designs and the records they still hold.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 400 articles about aviation topics and 29 books, the most recent of which is Today’s Best Military Writing: The Finest Articles on the Past, Present, and Future of the US Military. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Creech,” appeared in the March issue.