Head Skunk

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

Kelly Johnson was in his 20s when he challenged the early design of Lockheed’s Electra (Lockheed Martin)
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The name of the super-secret project was Suntan. It was to be the ultimate reconnaissance airplane, flying so high and so fast—it was to cruise above 100,000 feet at Mach 2—that detection would be unlikely and interception impossible. But it also would have been a giant winged thermos bottle, with a fuel tank full of liquid hydrogen at –400 degrees Fahrenheit and its outer skin baking at 350 degrees or more. A proposed hydrogen liquefaction plant dedicated to producing fuel for several of the airplanes would have sucked up 10 percent of the natural gas supply of Los Angeles in two years. Flying the highly unstable and explosive liquid to the airplanes’ bases would have required a fleet of heavy transports. An accident with one of the transports would have made the Hindenburg disaster look like a campfire.

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It was too much, even for the formidable head of Lockheed’s Hogwarts-like Skunk Works. Kelly Johnson had accepted the U.S. Air Force challenge in 1956 with his customary take-no-prisoners determination; now, two years later, he had changed his mind, and he told the Air Force that he thought the program ought to be scrapped.

And so it was. If Kelly Johnson couldn’t do it, the Pentagon reasoned, it couldn’t be done.

Clarence Leonard Johnson was born in 1910, the seventh of nine children, in Ishpeming, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His family, Swedish immigrants, was poor; their lives were only a step or two above those of frontiersmen. His mother took in laundry and the young Clarence sometimes delivered the wash on his wagon or sled. Ashamed of his family’s poverty, he kept to the back alleys on days when the streets were crowded. “I vowed that one day I’d return to Ishpeming not on the back streets but the best streets,” he wrote in his 1985 autobiography, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All.

Johnson was an American stereotype: the poor but hard-working lad who makes his way to the top. Smart, talented, and intensely ambitious, he possessed the fleet-footed self-confidence of gifted youth. To be a character in a movie, he lacked only good looks; later in life he would be described as resembling W.C. Fields but without the sense of humor—not entirely fair, since he did have, though he seldom employed it, a dry and somewhat sarcastic wit.

Attending the University of Michigan on scholarship, Kelly Johnson—he had acquired the nickname in grammar school—studied aeronautical engineering and made spending money by developing streamlined bodies for various clients, including Studebaker, in the university’s wind tunnel. In 1933, during his final postgraduate year, he and his professor, Edward Stalker, evaluated a model sent from the small California firm of Lockheed. Stalker judged the stability of the twin-engine, 10-seat airliner acceptable; Johnson disagreed. But the standards of the era were lax, and a university wind tunnel was perhaps loath to issue verdicts that would alienate clients.

After getting his master’s degree, Johnson went to work at Lockheed as a tool designer. Ignoring elementary principles of office politics, he immediately informed the chief engineer, Hall Hibbard, that his Model 10 Electra was dangerously unstable. Johnson must have reeled off enough coefficients, and shown a strong enough grasp of practical aerodynamics, to make Hibbard suppress any impulse to fire the upstart on the spot. Instead, Hibbard sent the young apprentice back to the Michigan wind tunnel with the big Electra model crammed into the back seat of his car.

In a series of wind tunnel tests, Johnson removed the model’s large wing-root fairings and replaced its central vertical fin with smaller ovals set at the tips of the horizontal stabilizer. A natural arrangement for a twin-engine airplane, the design had been used before; it ensured that if one engine failed, the slipstream of the other would be blowing over one rudder, helping to keep the airplane flying straight.

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.


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