Kelly Johnson (engineer)

Clarence Leonard "Kelly" Johnson

Clarence Leonard "Kelly" Johnson
Born (1910-02-27)February 27, 1910
Ishpeming, Michigan, U.S.
Died December 21, 1990(1990-12-21) (aged 80)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Education Flint Junior College
University of Michigan

Engineering career

Discipline Aeronautical engineering, systems engineering
Employer(s) Lockheed Martin
Projects P-38 Lightning
Skunk Works
F-104 Starfighter
SR-71 Blackbird
Significant design Lockheed U-2

Clarence Leonard "Kelly" Johnson (February 27, 1910 – December 21, 1990) was an American aeronautical and systems engineer. He is recognized for his contributions to a series of important aircraft designs, most notably the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird. Besides the first production aircraft to exceed Mach 3, he also produced the first fighter capable of Mach 2, the United States' first operational jet fighter, as well as the first U.S. fighter to exceed 400 mph, and many other contributions to a large number of aircraft.[1] As a member and first team leader of the Lockheed Skunk Works, Johnson worked for more than four decades and is said to have been an "organizing genius".[2] He played a leading role in the design of over forty aircraft, including several honored with the prestigious Collier Trophy, acquiring a reputation as one of the most talented and prolific aircraft design engineers in the history of aviation. In 2003, as part of its commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, Aviation Week & Space Technology ranked Johnson 8th on its list of the top 100 "most important, most interesting, and most influential people" in the first century of aerospace.[3] Hall Hibbard, Johnson's Lockheed boss, referring to Johnson's Swedish ancestry once remarked to Ben Rich: "That damned Swede can actually see air."[1][4]

Johnson also helped to design the Lockheed AQM-60 Kingfisher a decade before the famous SR-71. The Kingfisher was a highly successful single engine Mach 4.3 capable Ramjet composed mainly of steel, which was used to test American air defenses against nuclear missiles. The information and experience Johnson gained was later used to produce the A-12 spy plane for the Central Intelligence Agency. Johnson then used the combined knowledge of the Kingfisher and A-12 to produce the SR-71 Blackbird.[5]


Kelly Johnson and Gary Powers in front of a Lockheed U-2IU-2 plane.
Kelly Johnson and Gary Powers in front of a U-2.

Kelly Johnson was born in the remote mining town of Ishpeming, Michigan. His parents were Swedish, from the city of Malmö, county of Scania. Kelly was ashamed of his family's poverty, and vowed to return one day in prominence.[6] Johnson was 13 years old when he won a prize for his first aircraft design. He worked his way through Flint Central High School and graduated in 1928, then went to Flint Junior College, now known as Mott Community College, and finally to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he received a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

While attending grade school in Michigan, he was ridiculed for his name, Clarence. Some boys started calling him "Clara". One morning while waiting in line to get into a classroom, one boy started with the normal routine of calling him "Clara". Johnson tripped him so hard the boy broke a leg. The boys then decided that he was not a "Clara" after all, and started calling him "Kelly". The nickname came from the popular song at the time, "Kelly With the Green Neck Tie". Henceforth he was always known as "Kelly" Johnson.[7]

In 1937, Johnson married Althea Louise Young, who worked in Lockheed's accounting department; she died in December 1969.[8]

In May 1971, he married his secretary Maryellen Elberta Meade of New York; she died after a long illness on October 13, 1980, aged 46.[9]

He married Meade's friend Nancy Powers Horrigan in November 1980.

His autobiography, titled Kelly: More Than My Share of it All, was published in 1985.[10]

Johnson died at the age of 80 at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank after an undisclosed illness that lasted for several years.[11] He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

Lockheed career

Kelly Johnson facing a model of the Lockheed Model 10 Electra, whose design he worked on. A wind tunnel opening is just behind the model.
Kelly Johnson participated in the design of the Lockheed Model 10 Electra, testing a model with a single vertical stabilizer in the wind tunnel of the University of Michigan.

At the University of Michigan, Johnson conducted wind tunnel tests of Lockheed's proposed twin-engined Lockheed Model 10 Electra airliner. He found that the aircraft did not have adequate directional stability, but his professor felt it did and reported so to Lockheed. Upon completing his master's degree in 1933, Johnson joined the Lockheed Company as a tool designer on a salary of $83 a month. Shortly after starting at Lockheed, Johnson convinced Hall Hibbard, the chief engineer, that the Lockheed Model 10 Electra was unstable. Hibbard sent Johnson back to Michigan to conduct more tests. Johnson eventually made multiple changes to the wind tunnel model, including adding an "H" tail, to address the problem. Lockheed accepted Johnson's suggestions and the Model 10 went on to be a success. This brought Johnson to the attention of Lockheed management, and he was promoted to aeronautical engineer.[12]

After assignments as flight test engineer, stress analyst, aerodynamicist, and weight engineer, he became chief research engineer in 1938. In 1952, he was appointed chief engineer of Lockheed's Burbank, California plant, which later became the Lockheed-California Company. In 1956 he became Vice President of Research and Development there.

Design of Lockheed A-3 (Mach 3 Ramjet), sketch from Johnson's notebook

Johnson became Vice President of Advanced Development Projects (ADP) in 1958. The first ADP offices were nearly uninhabitable; the stench from a nearby plastic factory was so vile that Irv Culver, one of the engineers, began answering the intra-Lockheed "house" phone "Skonk Works!"[13] In Al Capp's comic strip Li'l Abner, Big Barnsmell's Skonk Works — spelled with an "o" — was where Kickapoo Joy Juice was brewed. When the name "leaked" out, Lockheed ordered it changed to "Skunk Works" to avoid potential legal trouble over use of a copyrighted term. The term rapidly circulated throughout the aerospace community, and became a common nickname for research and development offices; however, reference to "The Skunk Works" means the Lockheed ADP department. Here, the F-104 Starfighter and the secret reconnaissance planes U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird were developed.

Johnson led or contributed to the development of a number of aircraft. A few examples illustrate the influence of his work. In the late 1930s, Johnson helped lead the team that developed the P-38 Lightning.[14] Eventually, almost 10,000 of these fighters were built.[15][16] They played a significant role in World War II. In 1943, responding to United States Army Air Forces' concerns about Nazi Germany's development of high performance jet fighters, Johnson proposed to develop a jet airplane in six months. The result, the P-80 Shooting Star, was completed on time and became America's first operational jet fighter. The need to find space to develop the P-80 also led to the creation of the facility that would later be called the Skunk Works.[17] Johnson also led the development of the SR-71 Blackbird family of aircraft. Through a number of significant innovations, Johnson's team was able to create an aircraft that flew so high and fast that it could neither be intercepted nor shot down. No other jet airplane has matched the Blackbird's performance.[18]

In 1955, at the request of the Central Intelligence Agency, Johnson initiated construction of the airbase at Groom Lake, Nevada, later known as Area 51. This project provided a secret location for flight testing the Lockheed U-2.[19]

He served on Lockheed's board of directors from 1964 to 1980, becoming a senior vice president in 1969. He officially retired from Lockheed in 1975 and was succeeded by Ben Rich, but continued as a consultant at the Skunk Works. In June 1983, the Lockheed Rye Canyon Research and Development Center in Santa Clarita was renamed Kelly Johnson Research and Development Center, Lockheed-California Company, in honor of Johnson's 50 years of service to the company.

A number of factors contributed to Johnson's extraordinary career. He was a very talented designer and engineer. For instance, he could quickly and accurately estimate design characteristics such as mass, characteristics that usually were determined through long calculations.[20] He was also ambitious and an excellent salesman, aggressively promoting ideas while also earning others' trust.[21] In addition, he created teams and a work environment where creativity and productivity could flourish.[22]

Aircraft contributions

Kelly Johnson with an early variant of the U-2.

While at Lockheed, Johnson designed the P-38 Lightning fighter, made Fowler flaps work on the Model 14 Super Electra, and played a major role in converting the type into the Royal Air Force's Lockheed Hudson on short notice in 1938. He worked on the development of the Constellation for Howard Hughes' TWA airline.

Johnson contributed to the design of the following Lockheed aircraft:

Kelly Johnson's 14 Rules of Management

Johnson is sometimes cited as the originator of the KISS principle,[23] and his famed "down-to-brass-tacks" management style was summed up by his motto, "Be quick, be quiet, and be on time." He ran Skunk Works by "Kelly's 14 Rules":[24]

  1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.
  2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.
  3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).
  4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.
  5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
  6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program. Don't have the books 90 days late, and don't surprise the customer with sudden overruns.
  7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.
  8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don't duplicate so much inspection.
  9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn't, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.
  10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended.
  11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn't have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.
  12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor with very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.
  13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.
  14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.

Kelly had a 15th rule that he passed on by word of mouth. According to the book "Skunk Works" the 15th rule is: "Starve before doing business with the damned Navy. They don't know what the hell they want and will drive you up a wall before they break either your heart or a more exposed part of your anatomy."[25]

Honors and awards



  1. 1 2 Parker, Dana T. (2013). Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II. Cypress, CA. p. 59.
  2. Bennis, Warren & Biederman, Patricia Ward (1997). Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Perseus Books.
  3. 1 2 "All-Time Top 100 Stars of Aerospace and Aviation Announced". Your Space Reference. June 18, 2003. Retrieved April 30, 2015.
  4. Wilson, Jim (September 1999). "Skunk Works Magic". Popular Mechanics. 176 (9): 60. ISSN 0032-4558. Archived from the original on March 8, 2010.
  5. "National Aviation Hall of Fame". National Aviation Hall of Fame. Retrieved April 30, 2015.
  6. Garrison, Peter (March 2010). "Head Skunk". Air & Space. 24 (7): 33–34.
  7. Partly supported by "Clarence 'Kelly' Johnson: Architect of the Air". Lockheed Martin. Retrieved April 26, 2015. The young engineer’s name was Clarence Johnson, but ever since he’d trounced a local bully in grade school, he went by the more defiant nickname: 'Kelly,' which suited his fierce and pugnacious personality.
  8. Johnson, Clarence L. 'Kelly' & Smith, Maggie (1985). Kelly: More Than My Share of It All. Foreword by Leo P. Geary. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. p. 159. ISBN 0874745640.
  9. Johnson, Clarence L. 'Kelly' & Smith, Maggie (1985). "Kelly: More Than My Share of It All". Foreword by Leo P. Geary. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 173–176. ISBN 0874745640.
  10. Johnson, Clarence L. 'Kelly' & Smith, Maggie (1985). Kelly: More Than My Share of It All. Foreword by Leo P. Geary. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0874745640.
  11. "Kelly Johnson, Design Pioneer of Lockheed Aircraft, Dies". Los Angeles Times. December 22, 1990. Retrieved April 30, 2015.
  12. Garrison, Peter (March 2010). "Head Skunk". Air & Space. 24 (7): 34.
  13. "Skunk Works Origin Story". Lockheed Martin. Retrieved February 24, 2014.
  14. "P-38 Lightning". Lockheed Martin. Archived from the original on October 19, 2007. Retrieved February 24, 2014.
  15. Parker, Dana T. (2013). Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II. Cypress, CA. pp. 59–76.
  16. Garrison, Peter (March 2010). "Head Skunk". Air & Space. 24 (7): 34–35.
  17. Garrison, Peter (March 2010). "Head Skunk". Air & Space. 24 (7): 35–36.
  18. Garrison, Peter (March 2010). "Head Skunk". Air & Space. 24 (7): 36–37.
  19. Rich, Ben & Janos, Leo (1996). Skunk Works. Little, Brown & Company. ISBN 0-316-74300-3.
  20. Garrison, Peter (March 2010). "Head Skunk". Air & Space. 24 (7): 38.
  21. Garrison, Peter (March 2010). "Head Skunk". Air & Space. 24 (7): 35.
  22. Garrison, Peter (March 2010). "Head Skunk". Air & Space. 24 (7): 37–38.
  23. Clarence Leonard (Kelly) Johnson 1910—1990: A Biographical Memoir (PDF), by Ben R. Rich, 1995, National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p. 13.
  24. "Kelly's 14 Rules & Practices". Lockheed Martin. Retrieved February 24, 2014.
  25. Rich, Ben R.; Janos, Leo. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed. Retrieved August 16, 2013 via Google Books.
  26. "51 Heroes of Aviation".

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