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Kelly Johnson was in his 20s when he challenged the early design of Lockheed’s Electra (Lockheed Martin)

Head Skunk

Kelly Johnson was a giant in aircraft design. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, we find out how his legend grew.

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.

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.”

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