Lockheed genius Kelly Johnson’s words summed up the philosophy behind several of history’s most innovative airplanes.
Kelly Johnson—his mother named him Clarence, but that wasn’t his fault—owes to one man much of his legendary position as the designer of the fastest, highest-flying, most advanced and most capable airplanes ever built. That one man was a wise, quiet, temperate, hugely talented, MIT-trained Lockheed aeronautical engineer and executive named Hall Hibbard, who served as Kelly’s boss throughout most of his career. (Johnson, aviation’s ultimate company man, never worked for anybody but Lockheed.)
Hibbard sat by quietly while the world ascribed to the inarguably brilliant Johnson a number of designs— the P-38 was one of them, the Electra family of twins and Hudson patrol bomber were others—that in fact owed more to Hibbard’s input and decisions than they did to Kelly’s. But more to the point, when young Clarence Johnson landed an entry-level engineering job at Lockheed in 1933, this beefy Swede, a farmboy straight out of the University of Michigan, told his boss that Hib – bard’s newest design needed work.
Yes, Johnson was well aware that a famed aeronautical engineering professor at Michigan had signed off on the design—it would be called the Lockheed Electra—after testing it in the university’s wind tunnel, but Johnson felt he should have been more demanding. Kelly had analyzed the data.
A lesser man than Hall Hibbard would have told “that damn Swede,” as he later occasionally referred to him, to go find a job with some company that appreciated troublemakers. But Hibbard instead told Johnson that if indeed there were problems, go back to the Michigan wind tunnel and fix them.
There were, and Johnson did. He replaced the original Model 10’s conventional tail with twin vertical fins and rudders. The Electra wasn’t the world’s first twin-tail airplane, but it was one of the earliest to make use of such a configuration not for convenience or simply added rudder area but for the end-plate effect of the fins, which increased the power of the horizontal tail, plus their placement directly in each engine’s propwash to increase rudder effectiveness in engine-out situations.
Hibbard, bless his benevolent soul, sat down late one night and typed Johnson a thank-you letter, and thus was cemented a relationship that would endure for 35 years. It would result in the ascendancy of Kelly Johnson at least in part because Hibbard insulated him from the niceties of corporate communication and the need to deal with nonengineer executives. Johnson had no time for what he called “engineering illiterates,” and Hibbard became the buffer between Kelly and the suits. In later years, it was said that Johnson’s most effective management tool was his terrible temper.
The Electra family, which eventually came to include not only the Electra Junior and Super Electra but also the Hudson, Ventura and Harpoon patrol bombers, made Lock – heed a player. It had been a company noted for nothing more adventuresome than sleek, wooden, radial-engine singles—Vegas and Orions—of use to globetrotters such as the Lindberghs, Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart but not the stuff of commercial success. With the Electras, Hibbard and Johnson gave Lockheed a twin-engine toehold on the high ground occupied by Boeing and Douglas, and the company never looked back.
There were many rungs on Johnson’s initial climb to success in the late 1930s, but one of the most important for Lockheed came in 1938, when he was part of a team trying to create for the British the Super Electra–based patrol bomber that would become the Hud – son, eventually sold by the thousands. The British had major problems with the airplane that Lockheed initially proposed and said it would have to be entirely reconfigured internally. They quietly wondered if Lockheed’s then-28-year-old chief research engineer was up to the job.
Exactly one day after demanding the revision and while preparing to trek to Seattle to see the big boys at Boeing, the British purchasing committee representative was de – toured to Burbank, Calif., where he found a complete wooden mockup of the revised bomb bay area, plus a real Model 12 with two alternative cockpit-and-nose mockups hinged so they could be swung into place on the airplane. He later wrote, “I was entirely convinced that anyone who could produce a mockup in 24 hours would indeed make good all his promises—and this Lockheed most certainly did.”
It’s possible that Kelly Johnson himself pounded nails and sawed plywood for that mockup. He was a hands-on engineer, not a white shirt and tie guy. Johnson grew up with a carpenter/mason father, and while in college labored as a lathworker. Every workday he put up thousands of the rough, splintery strips of wood that formed the foundation for plaster walls and ceilings in the days before drywall.
Later in his career, he got in trouble with the Lockheed machinists union for taking home a prototype part and welding it up himself. Lockheed engineer Alan Brown described him as “totally hands-on with technical people.” And well into his retirement years, Johnson kept a large shop on his Santa Barbara ranch, complete with a three-ton lift so he could maintain heavy equipment.
Despite the RAF Hudson distraction, Johnson had already begun work on what would become the P-38 Lightning, Lockheed’s response to an Army Air Corps request for an interceptor proposal. The speed and altitude parameters the Army demanded made two engines a given, since the only power plant Lockheed had to work with was the 1,000-hp (at the time) Allison V-1710, and the airplane would need a good 2,000 horses.
Johnson and Hibbard brainstormed a variety of imaginative configurations, but the twinboom/nacelle-in-the-middle design had clear advantages— plenty of room in the booms for turbocharger plumbing, lots of space in the nose for guns that didn’t have to fire through props and didn’t need to converge their fire at an arbitrary range, among others. But despite the P-38’s unusual layout, some of its most remarkable features were its Fowler-flapped wing; flush riveting and skin-panel butting; and precise, quick-reacting aluminum-covered control surfaces at a time when those on Spitfires, Corsairs and the like were still skinned with flexible fabric.
Fowler flaps were not a Lockheed invention—Harlan D. Fowler was an independent aerodynamicist who sometimes worked for the Air Corps but developed and patented his wing-area-increasing flaps on his own—but Hibbard and Johnson, with the substantial help of Lockheed engineer Willis Hawkins, were smart enough to be the first to adopt them, on the Model 14 Super Electra. From there, the concept went to the P-38 and ultimately the Constellation, which in fact had scaled-up P-38 wings and flaps.
Flush rivets became a Kelly Johnson trademark, and some still remember his bafflement in 1973, at the Paris Air Show, when he closely examined the ill-fated Soviet Tupolev SST that was to crash days later: It had protruding, round-head rivets everywhere, just like a radial-engine Lockheed Electra.
Johnson also specified tightly butted rather than overlapping skin joints on the Lightning. And because the P-38 airframe’s clad – ding varied in thickness depending on its location, he and Hibbard required that the underlying structure be stepped, in increments of a few thousandths of an inch here and there, so there would be no skinning discontinuities on the outer surface.
The not-unexpected result of the clean and powerful design—Johnson had predicted it in a 1937 engineering report—was that the P-38 was the first U.S. airplane to experience compressibility effects. In a power-on dive, a P-38 could go so fast that supersonic shock waves dancing atop the wings tipped the airplane into an ever-increasing tuck with little possibility of recovery. The initial design, Johnson admitted, “was just too dangerous to fly.”
The solution was dive flaps that deployed quickly from the bottom of the wings—not to slow the airplane but to change the wing’s lift profile (its “center of pressure”) to prevent the downward tuck. The flaps were developed not by Johnson but by a young Lockheed engineer, Ward Beman. (Beman would later be responsible for laying out the Constellation’s characteristic curvaceous fuselage shape.)
One thing the P-38 taught Johnson was that the future lay with jets. Though Allison nearly doubled the horsepower of the Lightning’s engines during the fighter’s lifetime, speed increased by only 17 mph, forever reined in by the big drag brakes called props. “It became obvious that we would have to design better wings and tails,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography, Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, “but that if we wanted higher performance we would have to get rid of the propeller.” This he knew as early as 1940, at a time when much of the earlier Air Corps jet-engine research at Wright Field remained focused on turbines continuing to drive propellers.
The result was one of Johnson’s sweetest and longest-lived designs (particularly in its T-33 trainer guise), the Lockheed P-80/F-80 Shooting Star. It was the Air Force’s first serious high-performance jet and the first airplane on which Johnson was truly the lead designer/engineer. The P-80 also led to the formation of Johnson’s legendary Skunk Works, the secret experimental facility that brought to Lockheed a brand-new way of doing business. Since the XP-80 was top secret—Lockheed had been tasked with developing a better jet than the Messerschmitt Me-262—the project needed its own design-and-build facility.
The 180 days Lockheed was given from goahead to the XP-80’s first flight meant there was no room for business as usual—reports, presentations, meetings, committees, approvals—so Johnson laid out the rules for how the Skunk Works would function, which he called “the 14 Points.” He always summarized them as briefly as possible—“Be quick, be quiet and be on time”—but spelled out in slightly greater detail, they were:
- Kelly Johnson is to have total control of any program.
- The customer, and Lockheed, will be allowed to have small project offices on site.
- The smallest possible number of people will do the design and fabrication.
- Drawings and blueprints will be flexible and changeable.
- Record your work, but there’s no need to report every step.
- Be on top of costs and expenditures— no surprises.
- Take the best bid, not the lowest one.
- Don’t get hung up on passing multiple inspections.
- Lockheed will do the flight testing, not the customer.
- No running changes; spell out the specs and adhere to them.
- Lockheed is to be paid promptly and continually.
- The customer must trust Lockheed, and Lockheed must trust the customer.
- No outsiders; maintain security.
- Pay workers based on performance, not status.
Johnson’s original Skunk Works building was created in days, its walls made of dozens of empty radial-engine crates, the roof a rented circus tent. Two XP-80 prototypes were built there in total secrecy, a stunning achievement: Imagine today 50-odd highly skilled Experimental Aircraft Association kitplane designers and homebuilders given all the tools and material they needed and told to engineer and create from scratch America’s first all-metal, 600-mph turbojet. Hard to imagine they could, but 65 years ago a very similar group did exactly that.
The second prototype had a back seat—a pit, really, its occupant’s head about level with the cockpit coaming. The first occupant would be Kelly Johnson, for there was nothing he liked more than to go flying, functioning as the flight test engineer. Johnson flew in nearly every Lockheed airplane with which he was involved, from the Electra and the Constellation to the SR-71 Blackbird, and nine times he rode on the first flight. If there wasn’t room, he would ride in the chase plane. Kelly didn’t actually get a pilot’s license until 1962, when he decided he needed an airplane to look for the ideal California ranchland to buy, but with his 2,300 hours logged in some of the most sophisticated planes ever built, it’s hard to imagine that a young flight instructor in a Cessna had much to teach him.
Johnson believed that anybody who de – signed an airplane should fly in it—to “share the concerns of the pilot. I figured I needed to have hell scared out of me once a year in order to keep a proper balance and viewpoint on designing new aircraft.”
One of Johnson’s hell-scaring test flights occurred during development of the Con – stellation airliner, when he had to sit on his hands with Howard Hughes at the controls. Kelly never forgave the wealthiest man in America for allowing people to think Hughes had designed the Constellation or that the P-38 configuration was based on Hughes’ D-2 design. On one such flight, Hughes so enthusiastically stalled a Connie, power on, gear and flaps down, that Lockheed test pilot Milo Burcham was barely able to recover it. Later that day, Hughes was doing touch-and-goes in the same airplane and making such a hash of it that Johnson finally said, “Milo, take this thing home” (Burcham was in the right seat). Hughes was furious at this open criticism of his piloting skills. “I never flew with Hughes again,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography. “It was mutually agreeable.”
Unfortunately, the Constellation, as splendid an airplane as it was, ultimately distracted Lockheed from the dawn of the jet age. John – son thought the immediate future of commercial air travel depended on turboprops, and he did his best by designing a turboprop version of the Connie, the U.S. Navy’s spectacularly fast R7V-2. This led Lockheed to the four-engine Electra. Like a racecar designer asked to build an SUV, Johnson wasn’t really very interested in the Electra. But while Lockheed was developing it, Boeing, Douglas and Convair were working on the 707, DC-8 and 880/990, respectively.
The C-130 Hercules was another project that Johnson disdained. When he saw the initial scale model of the proposed utility transport, Kelly said, “Hibbard, if you send that in, you’ll destroy the Lockheed Company.” In – stead it became one of Lockheed’s most successful designs and remains in production to this day, proving that even Kelly Johnson could be wrong.
The F-104 was far more to his taste. The U.S. had typically built the world’s heaviest, best-equipped, longest-range fighters—airplanes that could serve many masters and missions, that were filled with fancy systems and weapons, and that as a result were increasingly porky and expensive. General Dynamics’ F-111 Aardvark became the ultimate example of this approach, a “fighter” heavier than a B-17.
But in the wake of the Korean War, an unruly “fighter mafia” composed of both combat pilots and savvy armchair theorists agitated in favor of light, maneuverable hot rods rather than overloaded, expensive superplanes that were jacks of all trades but masters of none. Johnson’s contribution was the Starfighter, the F-104.
The mini-winged Douglas X-3 Stiletto, and certainly the Bell X-1 that preceded it, had made it clear that swept wings were desirable but not necessary for supersonic flight, and Johnson made considerable use of Stiletto flight test data freely provided by Douglas, as well as by NASA and the Air Force. Hibbard and Johnson saw that a tiny, super-low-drag, midmounted wing bolted to a huge engine and little else could produce spectacular straight-line speed and climb per – formance. (Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier, when he first saw the F-104, supposedly asked, “Where are the wings?” and the airplane famously became known as “the missile with a man in it.”)
Ultimately, Johnson admitted that pure speed, particularly without maneuverability, wasn’t of much use in a dogfighter. “It is very difficult to see where added speed is worthwhile,” he wrote in 1957. Nor did the shortlegged F-104 fulfill a mission of much use to the USAF, which needed fighters that could fly deep into distant enemy territory and safely back again. But the Starfighter proved perfect for the air forces of such countries as West Germany and the Netherlands, which only needed to travel a few parishes eastward to engage, and it became a substantial export success for Lockheed.
The F-104 also became the distant progenitor of one of Kelly Johnson’s most remarkable designs, the U-2. The concept of a reconnaissance jet with a high-aspect-ratio wing able to fly above interception altitude wasn’t John – son’s idea but that of a USAF major, John Seaberg. His proposal quickly gained traction in the Pentagon, and the Air Force assigned the competition to come up with such an airplane to the Bell, Fairchild and Martin companies, feeling that they would be more likely to give it their undivided attention than would a major supplier such as Lockheed or North American.
But the best the small companies ultimately came up with was an extended-wing version of the elderly English Electric Canberra, the Martin RB-57. Bell’s X-16, which looked a bit like a moderately swept-wing U-2, never went beyond the mockup stage. Johnson, who had many friends in the Pentagon, had already caught wind of the secret project. In December 1953 he started design work on what was basically a sailplane-wing, lightweight F-104; stressed to routinely bellyland, it didn’t even have landing gear. He went to the Air Force with the concept three months later but was told to go back to the drawing board, although the Air Force as a result closed the Bell X-16 project—a big blow to the dying Buffalo company, which was depending heavily on the program.
Johnson soon realized that “the only equipment we might retain from the F-104 was the rudder pedals,” and proceeded to design from the ground up what became the U-2. Kelly’s once-temporary Skunk Works had become a permanent installation, formally called Advanced Development Projects, in order to undertake the F-104 program, and the U-2 turned the Skunk Works from a design-and-prototype shop into a manufacturing facility, since the project was so secret that the initial production U-2s had to be built there, behind closed doors.
For secrecy to be maintained, the U-2 certainly couldn’t be flown from Burbank, so Johnson and his team found a disused Air Force weapons test range at Groom Lake, Nev., and Johnson himself, using a hand compass, laid out the runway to be built. Groom Lake became the infamous Area 51 beloved of UFO conspiracy theorists. John – son would have been horrified to know that today anyone with a laptop can call up satellite imagery crisp enough to show…well, not license plates, but certainly cars parked outside the former Lockheed hangars.
Johnson was a better engineer than he was a pilot, it seemed. U-2 test pilot Tony LeVier had talked to Air Force B-47 drivers accustomed to landing with the kind of “bicycle gear” that the U-2 had—a single main gear leg forward of the CG and another aft, both on the airplane’s centerline, balanced by small outrigger gear near the wingtips. They advised him to flare and stall the airplane onto the runway, rear wheel first. Nonsense, said Johnson: The U-2’s wing was nothing like a B-47’s, and after considerable argument he demanded that on the U-2’s first flight, from Edwards Air Force Base, LeVier land level.
Sure enough, the U-2 bongo’ed back into the air and refused to stop flying, since even idle thrust was enough to keep the super-light ship airborne. LeVier tried five times and had to go around after each inevitable bounce. The sixth time, with darkness and a rainsquall approaching, he landed tail wheel first just as the wings paid off, and the U-2 quit flying. It was the last time Johnson tried to give Tony LeVier flight instruction.
Kelly Johnson’s inarguable masterwork was the A-12/SR-71 Black – bird family of super-planes, which will almost certainly remain the fastest (2,193 mph) and highest-flying (85,069 feet) winged, airbreathing, manned machines ever built.
The story of the Blackbirds has been told many times, but it’s sometimes forgotten that the CIA ordered them, not the Air Force. In fact the Air Force wasn’t all that happy about the spooks having their own air wing. The Blackbirds were to replace the U-2 as spy planes, but then the CIA decided the risk of hostile fire over the Soviet Union and China was too great; no airplane can fly high or fast enough to evade every surface-to-air missile, and even if it can today, it won’t tomorrow, as Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 proved in May 1960.
The Blackbirds, however, were not only high and fast but were also the first operational aircraft to have a low-observable radar cross section—stealth. Not because of the later shape-shifting technology that produced the Lockheed F-117, but thanks to radar-absorbing materials and coatings that made an SR-71 about a hundredth as detectable by radar as a far smaller F-14 Tomcat. It was hoped that the combination of speed, stealth and altitude would protect the big, snake-headed spy planes. And indeed it did, when the Air Force then decided it would use the Blackbirds over North Vietnam to spot SAM sites during the Vietnam War.
Johnson had designed many aircraft that used new technology, but the Blackbirds were all new technology—the structure, skinning, materials, systems, fluids, environmental challenges, fasteners, tools, procedures, etc. “Everything about the airplane had to be invented,” Kelly later wrote. “Everything.” The A-12/SR-71 was a project that required not only invention but intuition and innovation. Intuition? When engineer Ben Rich and his team showed Johnson the proposed shape of the airplane—a sharp-chinned fuselage like a cobra’s hood, two midwing engines each bigger around than the fuselage, conically cambered outboard wings—Kelly immediately said, “That’s it. You’ve got it.” Innovation? Johnson knew that when atmospheric friction heated the Blackbird’s skin at triple-supersonic speeds, it would expand, creating unpredictable ripples and billows along the wings. So he put small chordwise corrugations in the wing skins, and when they got hot, the corrugations merely accordioned and deepened without changing the aerodynamics of the wing. “I was accused of making a Mach 3 Ford Trimotor,” Kelly wrote, “but it was a very effective solution to a really difficult problem.”
In the years leading up to his mandatory retirement in 1975 at age 65, Kelly began to himself buy into the “Johnson Legend.” Not surprisingly, he occasionally became argumentative and high-handed, both with his Lockheed associates and the company’s customers. In his superb book Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story, Walter Boyne claimed that in his later years Johnson “sometimes alienated potential customers by telling them what he knew they needed instead of providing them with what they wanted….He was not always polite in dealing with his customers.” Said Johnson’s successor Ben Rich in his book Skunk Works, “Until they ran afoul of our leader, not too many two- or three-star generals had been told to their faces that they didn’t know shit from Shinola.” The Air Force became so offended by John – son that it froze Lockheed out of the fighter business. The F-104 would be the company’s last fighter until today’s controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (The stealth Nighthawk, despite its F-117 designation, is a ground-attack aircraft. And the Lockheed Martin F-16 was originally developed by General Dynamics; Lockheed bought the design in order to get back into the fighter business.)
After his retirement, Johnson became a two-days-a-week consultant at the Skunk Works—two days that his successor, Ben Rich, didn’t look forward to. Rich’s first major project, the F-117, became known inside the Skunk Works as “the Hopeless Diamond,” thanks to its slabby, multifaceted shape. Johnson insisted that it was too big and advanced a project for Rich to tackle at the time, and he was free with his opinion that “so ugly an aircraft would never fly,” Boyne wrote. Rich put it more directly in Skunk Works: “‘Ben Rich, you dumb shit,’ [Johnson] stormed, ‘Have you lost your goddamn mind? This crap will never get off the ground.’”
Kelly Johnson was an intuitive engineer. “That damn Swede can see air,” Hall Hibbard used to say of him. (Which, not surprisingly, is a half-in-jest claim also frequently made of the late aerodynamicist Richard Whitcomb, inventor of the area rule, winglets and the supercritical airfoil.) The F-117 was one of the first airplanes designed by computers, devices with which Johnson had little experience; he continued to use the same slide rule he’d used in college, which he called “my Michigan computer.” But “Johnson’s intuition had failed him at the edge of the Computer Age,” Boyne said.
Johnson was no Luddite, though. His 1960s and ’70s designs de – pended not simply on airframes and engines but on a variety of increasingly sophisticated systems that became integral parts of the airplanes—weapons-control radar, navigation systems of un – dreamed-of complexity, space-capable pressurization and environmental systems, supersonic combustion and ramjets, exotic photo optics, electronic intelligence-gathering and the like—and Kelly thoroughly understood them all.
Life didn’t treat Kelly kindly as he aged. He’d long had stress-related duodenal ulcers, and in 1970 had a large portion of his stomach removed. “It was a good weight-reduction program, too,” he wrote, “costing about $500 a pound, approximately what it cost on the [Lockheed] C-5.” He also had triple-bypass open-heart surgery and lost two wives—one to cancer, the second to diabetes and consequent kidney failure—though ever the optimist, he married a third time a month after his second wife’s death.
Johnson died 10 years later, in December 1990, leaving behind a legacy of some 16 major Lockheed aircraft types with which he was heavily involved. With a few unfortunate exceptions—the XFV-1 tailsitter, the tough but overweight XF-90 Shooting Star follow-on, the four-engine JetStar business jet—any one of them would have been enough to have placed a lesser designer in the pantheon of great aeronautical engineers. Kelly Johnson, however, stands alone.
Frequent contributor Stephan Wilkinson suggests for further reading: Kelly: More Than My Share of It All, by Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with Maggie Smith; Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story, by Walter J. Boyne; Skunk Works, by Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos; and Lockheed’s Skunk Works: The Official History, by Jay Miller.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.