That New Black Magic

In the early years of the cold war, enter Kelly Johnson and an clean sheet of paper—long enough to accommodate an 80-foot wingspan.

Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson of Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” facility, chief designer of the U-2. (USAF)
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On Friday, November 26, 1954, Lockheed Aircraft's chief engineer, Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, called Edward Baldwin, Elmer Gath, and three other trusted engineers into his office, which was then at the Burbank Airport, near Los Angeles. Baldwin specialized in structures, Gath in engines. Starting the following Monday morning, Johnson said, they would be working on a project for the Central Intelligence Agency. It was so secret that the next 18 months to two years would have to constitute a blank spot on their resumes. Within eight months, Johnson said, they were going to build the world's first dedicated spyplane.

Even after World War II, the United States had gathered aerial intelligence by stuffing a fighter or bomber full of cameras and assigning it the prefix "R" for "reconnaissance." But in late 1953, the Air Force recognized the need for aircraft designed specifically to perform long-range aerial reconnaissance. The cold war had changed the military situation dramatically. Soviet nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and the economic and military structures that supported them were hidden behind a heavily defended curtain surrounding a landmass that spanned 11 time zones. The United States, fearful of a devastating nuclear surprise attack, was frantic to know what was going on. And the key to peering deep into forbidden territory was as obvious in the early 1950s as it had been in the Civil War, when the Army of the Potomac had launched observation balloons: You had to get up high.

In 1953 Bell and Fairchild had been invited to submit designs for an all-new high flier, while Martin was tasked with modifying the B-57, its version of the English Electric Canberra. All three were burdened with armor, systems, and heavy, high-G-tolerant structure, and Johnson knew that even a big wing could lift an airplane to 70,000 feet only if its weight were radically reduced. As an airplane climbs, its true airspeed increases in a linear manner until engine thrust begins to fall off. But indicated airspeed, which measures the force of the relative wind, diminishes constantly as the density of the air decreases in a long climb. At 70,000 feet, an airplane might be scooting through the air at an actual speed of 500 mph, but the pilot's airspeed indicator may register only about 125 mph--closer to the speed at which sailplanes cruise at lower altitudes. To the wing, it feels as if there's less wind, so it produces less lift and supports less weight.

When Johnson learned that the Air Force was soliciting three other companies for a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, he submitted his own unsolicited entry, the CL-282. "First, we had to study the problem of what was needed," Johnson would recall when I interviewed him almost three decades later. "How far did it have to fly? How high did it have to go to get away from the fighters? How high did it have to go to get around the missiles? And having come up with our guesses in that category, we made a proposal to the Air Force to make this very lightly loaded, high-aspect-ratio vehicle that would fly over 70,000 feet and 3,500 miles."

The CL-282 was basically an F-104 Starfighter with exceptionally long sailplane-style wings. The ratio of the wings' span to the average width of their airfoil--their "aspect ratio"--would be high, which meant they would create very little drag at the wingtips for the amount of lift they produced, thereby ensuring long range and endurance. To minimize weight, the CL-282 had only one engine and flew without armor, pressurization, an ejection seat, or even landing gear. The airplane was so simple in concept that it suggested sublime Oriental understatement. The CL-282's ability to reach high altitude was also its chief means of protection: The best Soviet fighters could reach perhaps 45,000 feet--nearly five miles lower.

Despite the entreaties of a board of scientists and engineers led by Allen F. Donovan of Cornell, the Air Force flatly opposed the CL-282 and sent Johnson a letter rejecting it. "They proved conclusively" that what would become the most successful and longest serving spyplane in history was "impossible" to build, Johnson later said, with a triumphant smirk. Well, not exactly impossible; difficult, maybe. The Air Force strongly favored the Bell X-16, a twin-engine, armored, fully pressurized design, and the stretched-wing RB-57D. But Lockheed found a customer in the CIA and had the U-2 built and flying in time to cause the cancellation of the X-16. The RB-57D, at best an interim aircraft, flew some operational missions but was doomed by fatigue cracks in its wings.

Johnson's CL-282 had gotten a second chance. Under pressure from President Dwight Eisenhower and despite his own misgivings, CIA director Allen Dulles adopted the idea and assigned the project to Richard M. Bissell Jr. An economist from Yale, Bissell readily admitted that he knew nothing about aeronautics, so he turned the design and manufacturing operation completely over to Lockheed and put together a small, tight-knit operation that got things done quickly.

Having conceptualized the essential design, Johnson assigned about 50 engineers at the Lockheed Advanced Development Company, known by then as the Skunk Works, the task of filling in thousands of crucial details. He told Baldwin that he wanted 600 square feet of wing with an aspect ratio of 10 or 10.5 to 1. It wound up being 10.67 to 1. That meant the wing would be at least 10 times longer than its average width. The wingspan, which would come out to 80 feet, was so long that the wingtip ran off Baldwin's drawing board. "Are you sure you want a wing that looks like this?" Baldwin remembers asking Johnson.

"Yeah. That's about right."

"Well, I ran off the end of the board."

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