Kelly Johnson was a giant in aircraft design. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, we find out how his legend grew.
- By Peter Garrison
- Air & Space magazine, March 2010
(Page 2 of 6)
Johnson’s modifications solved the airplane’s stability problems, and he returned to Burbank a hero. Leaving tool design behind, at 23 he joined the ranks of Lockheed’s five other aeronautical engineers.
Despite his brashness, Johnson had a nerdy side. In his spare time he took classes at the California Institute of Technology, and he amused himself during vacations by solving practice problems in calculus and engineering textbooks. But he was also a flight-test engineer—the person who collects data during test flights—who joked that he needed one good scare a year to keep in touch with what he called “the concern of the pilot”—namely, staying alive.
Loughead Aircraft Manufacturing Company, founded in 1916 and renamed Lockheed 10 years later, had thrived during the 1920s by building fast, powerful airplanes for customers like Charles Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Doolittle, and Wiley Post. Some of Johnson’s time was spent supporting the technical needs of the company’s celebrity clients. One of them was Amelia Earhart; the airplane in which she disappeared was a Model 10 Electra, and she and Johnson experimented with weight and balance, power settings, mixture, and altitudes to get maximum mileage per gallon. Later, when Lockheed developed the Constellation for Howard Hughes’ Transcontinental & Western Air, Johnson would have more contact than he wished with Hughes, whom he detested and, incidentally, considered a dangerous pilot.
In 1937, the Army Air Corps published a specification for a high-altitude interceptor; Lockheed responded with a proposal for what was to become the P-38. Its twin-boom configuration, which is usually credited to Johnson although it could hardly have been adopted without the participation of Hibbard, was unusual but logical. As Johnson later pointed out, the amount of stuff—engine, radiators, landing gear, and turbo-supercharger—that had to go into the engine nacelles made them so long that, given Lockheed’s fondness for twin vertical tails, it made sense to extend them another five feet to carry the empennage. The P-38 Lightning was Johnson’s second big success; eventually, nearly 10,000 of the fighters were built.
Early in 1938, several Lockheed executives traveled to England to pitch a militarized version of the Model 14 Super Electra to the British, who were hastily restocking their armories. The executives took Johnson with them. The British were interested, but they wanted major changes. Working through a 72-hour holiday weekend with almost no sleep, Johnson redesigned the airplane and had weight, performance, and cost estimates ready on Tuesday morning. Though impressed, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Arthur Virnay, privately demanded the personal assurance of Courtlandt Gross, the Lockheed group’s ranking executive, that the analyses of his 28-year-old designer could be relied upon. In those days, personal assurances meant something; days later, the Air Ministry ordered 250 airplanes. At the time it was the largest order ever placed with an American manufacturer. That year, Johnson was named chief research engineer.
Not only a designer and engineer, Johnson was a salesman as well, and an energetic promoter of himself and his ideas. He knew how to dominate meetings, even among military people who were themselves professional dominators. He became well known to the general staff of the U.S. Army Air Corps and Air Forces—the name changed in 1941—securing their confidence as much by his manner as by his achievements.
But he was still merely human. It was not until five years later that the Kelly Johnson of legend, the Superman of aeronautical engineering, came into being.
In 1943, the USAAF was becoming concerned about Germany’s development of jet fighters far superior in performance to anything the Allies had. A timid initial American experiment with jet propulsion, the Bell XP-59, had yielded an uninspiring airplane whose performance was inferior to that of propeller-driven types. Lockheed proposed a jet engine and airframe, and when Johnson promised the commanding officer of Wright Field in Ohio a jet airplane in six months, he had a letter of intent in hand within hours.