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 3 of 6)
Johnson flew back to Burbank to present the project to Lockheed president Robert Gross. The company was working for the war; with three shifts a day, six days a week, it produced 28 airplanes daily. There was no space and there were no people for another project. But Gross, who thought Johnson walked on water, okayed the project and put him in charge of it.
Johnson went around the factory collecting people: “I simply stole them,” he later wrote. He set up a secret shop beside the wind tunnel in a space walled with wood from Hudson engine crates and roofed with a circus tent. Once the facility had been set up, the time remaining for actual design and construction of America’s first jet fighter was 150 days. This was not impossible; North American had designed and built the P-51 Mustang prototype in even less time. Johnson’s team beat the deadline—and the budget—with what would become the P-80 Shooting Star.
That was the beginning of the Lockheed Skunk Works, from which would emerge the F-90, F-94, F-104, and U-2, as well as a number of less-than-secret projects for which, during slack periods, the Skunk Works would produce prototypes. The Skunk Works put Johnson into a unique position among airplane designers. He may not have been more talented or insightful than the great designers at rival companies, but he now deployed his considerable managerial abilities within a secret castle in which his supremacy was unchallenged. His protected position and intimidating personality had the effect of funneling all his subordinates’ talents and achievements through him. Ben Rich, who went to work for Johnson in 1954 and became his protégé and successor, remarked that one thing you had to get used to at the Skunk Works was that all the airplanes were Kelly’s airplanes. The story of the giant brain performing wonders in secret, like the Wizard of Oz, is an irresistible one, and over time Kelly Johnson became as much a myth as a man. “Kelly Johnson was my childhood hero,” says Daniel Raymer, former head of advanced design at Lockheed. “I wanted to be either him or Tom Swift when I grew up.”
By 1958, the Central Intelligence Agency had been flying the U-2 for two years. But the big spyplane was too easily detected by radar, and its only protection against fighters and missiles was the 75,000 feet at which it cruised. A study of factors affecting radar visibility—these were the earliest days of stealth—had concluded that, because a faint, slow-moving blip became brighter with each successive sweep of a rotating antenna, a very fast airplane with low radar reflectivity would leave only a faint trail of widely spaced dots on a radar screen, and so stood a good chance of escaping notice.
The hydrogen-fueled Suntan project having been euthanized, the CIA now requested a conventionally fueled airplane of similar performance: Mach 3-plus cruise for 4,000 miles at extremely high altitude.
Under the internal name Archangel, Lockheed’s ADP division—“Advanced Development Projects” was the official name of the Skunk Works—bounced around a seemingly random series of designs powered by jets, rockets, and ramjets or, in one case, all three. None of them was capable of the required speed, height, and range. Engineers might have dropped the project in frustration, except that at the time the Skunk Works had little else to occupy it.
ADP’s ideas eventually converged, however, on a delta with two big jet engines and an extremely long fuselage with a peculiar cross-section. Both this design and the Convair division of General Dynamics’ Kingfish—a delta with a faceted fuselage ahead of its time—were presented to a CIA/Air Force/Department of Defense panel in August 1959. Both airplanes promised Mach 3.2 cruise at 85,000 feet. Although Convair’s design looked good and the company had the experience of developing the supersonic-cruise B-58 Hustler, the contract went to Lockheed. The reasons for the decision aren’t known, but the overriding one was undoubtedly the confidence of the CIA’s “black operations” honcho, Richard Bissell, in Kelly Johnson, who was then at the zenith of his engineering powers and managerial skill.
The design presented two unprecedented challenges: aerodynamic heating—at the Blackbird’s 2,000-mph cruising speed, the friction of air would soften and crumple an aluminum airframe—and making jet engines run at 80,000 feet, where the atmosphere has only one-sixteenth the density it has at sea level. Most aircraft projects, even pioneering ones, involve known materials and techniques, and make some use of the proven features of their precursors. The Blackbird was without antecedents. It required basic research in the fabrication of a new structural material, titanium; new fuel and lubricants; new fittings, wiring, and insulators; new sealants and fasteners; new nacelle designs and airframe aerodynamics; new ways to defeat radar; and new environmental systems to keep the pilot from roasting in his seat. The Blackbird remains, 50 years later, the highest performing jet airplane ever built: Nothing else has ever equaled its combination of speed, altitude, range, and, incidentally, spectacular good looks.