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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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.

For the U-2, because of the extreme secrecy surrounding it, the Skunk Works expanded to become a production facility as well, and thereafter it sometimes handled the overflow from Lockheed's “white world” projects. Today, it is difficult to tell the extent of Johnson’s participation in Lockheed’s many aircraft. Lists of “his” airplanes often include the Constellation, on which he collaborated with Hall Hibbard, and the YC-130 Hercules, which he did not design and in fact disliked. “After Kelly started the Skunk Works,” says John Benson, “he didn’t do the designs himself, he just had considerable input as to the aircraft’s design features. So he got the credit.”

Johnson’s crown jewel, the Blackbird, was, like any big airplane, a team effort. In his book, Rich describes the frenetic push to come up with the final proposal, and, as if to correct the notion that everything sprang fully formed from Kelly Johnson’s head, he names a dozen engineers and the designs for which they were responsible. Regardless of how much came from others, however, the Blackbird is always said to have been “designed by Kelly Johnson.”

Johnson was married three times. His first wife, Althea Young, was an assistant treasurer in the accounting department at Lockheed—she handed out the paychecks—when he went to work there. They were married in 1937; she died in 1969. The next year, Johnson, by his own account a “worry-wart” who had suffered from ulcers all his life, had part of his stomach removed, leaving angina and heart attacks as his main health problems. In 1971 he married his secretary Maryellen Meade; a diabetic, she died in 1980 after a long illness. Within weeks, Johnson, after consulting Ben Rich about the propriety of doing so, married Maryellen’s friend, Nancy Horrigan.

Johnson had a busy life outside Lockheed. He and Althea built a house in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley, 10 miles west of Lockheed’s facilities. They kept horses, and eventually acquired a working ranch, Star Lane, in the Santa Ynez Valley, north of Santa Barbara. Johnson maintained his own farm machinery in a 4,800-square-foot shop that he had built, and whose huge size and strong construction were a source of pride for him.

Johnson never had children. Ben Rich, however, was something like a son to him. Rich’s son, Michael, remembers Johnson as an amiable friend of the family: “He came with us to Dodger and Little League games. I didn’t have the feeling that I was with a famous person. Later my dad told me: There were not many titans like this.”

By 1972, when Lockheed’s proposal for a lightweight fighter—essentially a rework of the F-104—was rejected in favor of General Dynamics’ F-16, the days were over when Kelly Johnson could pitch a vaguely defined airplane to a general and have a letter of intent handed to him. His powers as a salesman, which had served him so well at the Pentagon and the CIA, were of little use in a world where, as Ben Rich wrote, “ideas were…a one-way street, initiated by Air Force planners with doctorates in flight sciences.”

Johnson retired in 1975, but remained a consultant and personal advisor to Ben Rich for years. He disliked Rich’s first big success, the F-117 stealth fighter, as did most of Kelly’s old guard. Kelly, says Steve Justice, “didn’t like ugly.”

In 1983, “60 Minutes” ran a segment on Johnson. He was 73 then, a grandfatherly figure, his old fierce energy tempered or concealed. He answered Morley Safer’s naïve questions decisively, and volunteered the opinion that the most important airplanes of all were cropdusters—a type he had never designed—because they made it possible to feed the world. Uninformed viewers could not have guessed what a colossus this amiable codger had once been.


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