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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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.

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.


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