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 4 of 6)
Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works was a revolt against the formalities of conventional industry. It was a throwback to a time when airplanes were created by small teams who all broke for lunch together. Johnson crammed a small number of capable people into close proximity, so that “engineering shall always be within a stone’s throw of the airplane.” He believed in the freewheeling inventive genius of individuals—particularly himself; he resented the intrusions of committees of government bureaucrats with their meddlesome meetings, and rebelled against their minutely detailed specifications.
He pared away procedural dross: Whatever used up time without advancing the project was banned—even visits from the customer. Finished drawings were not required; shop men were encouraged to work from sketches and when possible to develop parts directly on the airplane. Decisions, once made, would not be second-guessed; good enough was good enough. Meetings were limited to two or three essential participants. Initial flight tests would be conducted by the builders—not, as was usual at the time, by the customer’s pilots.
To the extent that an organization could, the experimental shop would behave like a single person. Its soul was Johnson, pushing, demanding, worrying, inventing. “Kelly’s ghostly voice nagged at me during the fifteen years I occupied his big corner office,” wrote Ben Rich in his memoir Skunk Works. “I always thought of the place as his, because his personality and character were branded on everything we did.”
While the Skunk Works is usually viewed as a unique creation of Kelly Johnson’s, it was so only in the context of a bloated American aerospace industry. France’s Marcel Dassault used small, elite staffs in the same way that Johnson did, developing the Mirage IV supersonic bomber with a design team of fewer than 100. The revolutionary vertical-takeoff Hawker P.1127, which became the Harrier, emerged from a similar-size team of designers. Compared with the British or French, American firms typically employed two or three times as many people on a project.
The omniscient Johnson understood each man’s job. He once scribbled in a project log, after visiting his engineers to determine what problems they were having, “Most engineers considered they didn’t have any, but after I suggested four or five each, they agreed.” Some found him inspiring to work for; some found him tyrannical. Ray Goudey, a test pilot who also often flew Johnson in the company’s jet, remembers him as “fun to be with.” John Benson, who was head of propulsion at Lockheed during the Johnson era, recalls that the great man could make his staff uneasy: “I was in his office more than I wanted to be. He was a demanding person. I knew Ben [Rich] from way back and saw him as a friend, but not Kelly.”
Given to displays of temper, Johnson used firing as a rhetorical device; one engineer claimed to have been fired several times in one day. Yet Johnson was tolerant of errors; what mattered was not that you had made a mistake, but what you did about it. His people were the best, and most were fiercely loyal to him. “I’m not sure how he picked his team members,” says Steve Justice, who maintains Lockheed’s archive of Kelly Johnson papers. “But he batted about .950. Without Kelly they didn’t exist—and without them, he didn’t.”
Ben Rich described Johnson’s ability to predict a temperature, weight, or pressure instantly and accurately, unlike others, who could only arrive at the numbers by long calculations. Johnson kept a bunch of quarters on his desk—they stood in for the proverbial chip on his shoulder—to pay off on a standing bet that if any of his engineers disagreed with him, Johnson would be right. Few quarters left his desk.
Johnson was not always right, but it did not always pay to prove him wrong. On the maiden flight of the U-2, Johnson instructed pilot Tony LeVier to land the tandem-wheel airplane on its front gear. LeVier tried several times, and each time the airplane bounced and started to porpoise. Finally, when the light was failing and rain was moving in, he did it the way many pilots familiar with tailwheel airplanes would: He landed nose-high, the tailwheel touching first. It worked. At the first-flight celebration that evening, Johnson, who was a big man and strong, challenged LeVier to arm wrestle. Johnson won easily, then banged LeVier’s hand against the table so hard that the pilot showed up for work the next day with his hand bandaged. A tipsy accident, perhaps, or perhaps just Kelly Johnson being sure he had the last word.