Kelly Johnson to the Rescue

Just give me the specs!
– Clarence "Kelly" Johnson
  1. Chapter 1 Top-Secret Request

    On June 17, 1943, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, Lockheed Corporation’s 33-year-old chief engineer, was at the U.S. Air Corps’ Eglin Field in Florida, observing the performance of the latest version of his P-38 Lightning warplane.

    This was the day Johnson first learned—as Colonel M.S. Roth sidled over to confide in a whisper—that the U.S. military was testing a new jet.

    “You wanted to build a jet for us once,” Roth told Johnson. But Johnson didn’t need any reminders.

    Johnson and Lockheed started developing the P-38—still the nation’s fastest propeller-driven fighter—in 1937. By 1939, with the Brits and the Germans working feverishly on jet turbines, Johnson proposed his own audacious new jet design that he claimed would approach the speed of sound.

    But the Air Corps—more eager for more planes to fly more immediately into battle—turned him down flat. England’s Frank Whittle had since made significant progress on a jet engine, as had Germany’s Ernst Heinkel—while the U.S. military had only timidly, and ineffectually, experimented with its jet, the Bell P-59.

    Now, however, the U.S. Army Air Force had become obsessed with the Messerschmitt Me-262—Germany’s latest, superior jet fighter—whose fearsome capabilities were filling every U.S. military officer with dread.

    Roth reluctantly confessed to Johnson that the performance of its newest Bell jet had remained deeply disappointing, and now he was asking Johnson if he would be willing to try again. The top-secret jet plane Roth wanted Johnson to build would need to fly more than 500 miles per hour to combat the Nazi fighter—more than 100 mph faster than his P-38 Lightning had flown that day.

    “Just give me the specs,” Johnson growled.

  2. Chapter 2 “180 Days!”

    On the flight back to Burbank, California, from Florida, Johnson scribbled nonstop on the backs of envelopes and in the margins of magazines. As soon as he stepped off the plane at Lockheed’s Air Terminal, Johnson bolted up the stairs to Lockheed President Robert Gross’ office, where Gross and Johnson’s boss, Hall Hibbard, were waiting.

    It was a hot day in June, and Johnson was about to be grilled by his Lockheed bosses about his Eglin Field encounter with Roth the day before. Nevertheless, the robust Johnson’s demeanor remained forceful, his expression self-confident, and once inside the inner sanctum, he launched right in.

    “The Army Air Force wants us to submit a proposal for building a plane around a jet engine. I’ve worked out some figures. They want it fast, and I think I can promise 180-day delivery.”

    “180 days!” Gross stammered.

    That schedule seemed nothing more than a fantasy. No company ever had designed and built any prototype anywhere near that time—let alone a prototype for a jet fighter. But this was different. This was a top-secret assignment to develop a critical weapon to beat back the Nazis.

    A brief round of hand-wringing and head-shaking followed. But if either Gross or Hibbard thought of saying “no,” neither said the word aloud—and Johnson went straightaway to a drawing board to resume his calculations.

    Within the week, Johnson had packed up numerous sketches and dozens of pages of detailed specifications and hand-delivered them to commanding officer Gen. Frank Carroll.

    “We’ll give you the contract,” Carroll told Johnson.

    Johnson promised a prototype in 180 days—and the high command was desperate enough to believe him. “You better get moving,” Carrol told Johnson. “This is Day Number One!”

    You better get moving. This is Day Number One!
    – Army Gen. Frank Carroll
  3. Chapter 3 “Tom Swift” and the U-M Wind Tunnel

    Clarence Leonard Johnson was born in Ishpeming, Michigan, in 1910, the seventh of nine children born to Swedish immigrants Christine and Peter Johnson. Young Clarence found school so intriguing that he showed up early every morning just to be the first to get inside.

    It was in school where a bully named Cecil—who made fun of Clarence by calling him Clara—pushed Clarence one too many times. Johnson got in a tumble with Cecil, broke his leg, and told his teacher and the principal that he had done it on purpose. Johnson was rapped hard on the knuckles with a ruler but didn’t cry, which brought him favor with his peers—who thought a more appropriate moniker for such a tough guy would be a good fighting Irish name like “Kelly.”

    The nickname stuck.

    Johnson’s parents instilled a love of learning in their children and encouraged them to read on their own. Kelly went to the library nearly every day. He loved the Tom Swift books: Tom Swift and His Aeroplane, Tom Swift and His Electric Automobile, Tom Swift and His Submarine. It became Kelly’s goal to be just like Tom—a highly skilled designer, pilot, engineer, and adventurer—and at age 12 he decided to be an aircraft designer. “My whole life from that time was aimed at preparing for that goal,” he said.

    In 1923, when he was 13, his family moved to Flint. After completing high school, he enrolled at Flint Junior College, taking engineering courses for the first time, along with physics, mathematics, and calculus. He also took his first airplane flight—and thought that if he wanted to design planes, he should learn how to fly. But the instructor talked him out of it, saying he’d go further in life by attending a university.

    Johnson enrolled at U-M in 1929. While he appreciated the splendor of its sprawling campus, the source of its “real beauty” for Johnson was its distinguished faculty in aeronautical engineering. His mentors included Felix Pawlowski, who had worked in Russia with Igor Sikorsky on the world’s first four-engine airplane and trained with Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Paris tower. Pawlowski brought U-M its first wind tunnel and the inaugural aeronautical curriculum, and worked with Johnson in class and at the wind tunnel in the East Engineering Building.

    Johnson understood his professors as broad-minded people who took a sincere interest in their students. Edward A. Stalker, head of the aeronautical department, helped Johnson plan his course of study. Soon he selected him as his student assistant, enabling Johnson to quit his lowly job in a fraternity house kitchen and become deeply involved in wind tunnel testing.

    Other professors he admired included O.W. Boston, the Timoshenko brothers, and Walter Lay, an automotive engines expert. This was “heady stuff for the kid from Ishpeming who wanted to be like Tom Swift,” he would later write. “It was an exciting adventure, associating with some of the best minds in every field important to a would-be engineer.”

    Kelly spent most of his time working, studying, and tutoring. There was little time to play. He had one very good friend named Don Palmer and admitted to “lonely times”—trudging across campus after dinner for more wind tunnel work or correcting papers for professors. Though he was a student during Prohibition and “home brew,” which he says others in his boarding house imbibed, Johnson was very much against drink. In his three years on campus, Kelly went on just two dates.

    “I didn’t have time for romance, and I deliberately avoided any entanglement,” he said. “There would be no detours from my goal.”

  4. Chapter 4 Student Skeptic to Lockheed Legend

    Johnson graduated in 1932, not a propitious year for job hunting. Nonetheless, he and his friend Don Palmer borrowed Professor Walter Burke’s Chevrolet to tour aircraft plants out west, looking for work as engineers. In Burbank, they visited Lockheed—already a big name but in the process of reorganization. Chief engineer Richard von Hake advised Johnson to go back to school for a master’s degree and come back the following year, when he might have something for him.

    Johnson did just that, returning to Ann Arbor to major in supercharging of engines and boundary layer control—subjects that would later prove integral to his career. Johnson and Palmer also resumed the side work they had undertaken as undergraduates. With permission from Professor Stalker, they rented the wind tunnel for their own paid projects when it was not otherwise in use.

    Among the airplane models they tested that year was the Electra, a new design from Lockheed. The company had determined its future was not in the single-engine wooden aircraft of the past, but in the more unique all-metal designs with twin engines, with a capacity for more passengers. Based on those tests, Johnson believed the Electra had serious longitudinal stability and directional-control problems—and he said so. But most aircraft of the day experienced similar issues, and both Stalker and a Lockheed representative decided the figures were acceptable.

    The following year, after earning his master’s degree, Johnson was hired at Lockheed. He wasted no time telling his new bosses that he had strongly disagreed with the university’s wind tunnel report. He said their new plane—the one on which they were pinning all future hopes—was unstable.

    Johnson knew this wasn’t the conventional way for a young engineer to begin his employment—that it was presumptuous of him to doubt his professors and other experienced designers. But he also knew he was right.

    His Lockheed superiors suppressed their first thought—to fire him—and instead sent Johnson back to the Michigan wind tunnel with the big Electra model crammed into the back seat of his car to see if he could prove his point. Finally, after 72 tunnel runs, he found the answer, which included an unconventional twin-tail design that would become his signature.

    Johnson was not just vindicated. He returned to Burbank something of a hero—and a full-fledged member of the Lockheed engineering department.

  5. Chapter 5 The Original Skunk Works

    Lockheed chief Robert Gross was skeptical. “It’s your baby,” he told Johnson, who was raring to design and build the jet fighter.

    “I don’t think anything will come of it, but you’ve brought this on yourself,” Gross said. “We’ll give you all the help we can, but you’ve got to rake up your own engineering department and your own production people and figure out where to put this project. Now go set up shop.”

    Lockheed was already building 28 military planes a day. There were no spare engineers and no spare machinery or space. But Gross’ warning sounded like a dream finally realized for Johnson, who had long pestered his bosses for an experimental shop where a small group of talented design engineers, mechanics, and manufacturers could work together without complication or delay.

    The Army promised its full cooperation. Six days after Johnson had returned to Burbank, all the equipment it was obligated to provide arrived at Lockheed’s plant. Guns, radios, tires, wheels, air-speed indicators, and other instruments were ready to be installed as the design and construction schedule rolled out.

    Johnson’s willful personality and reputation played no small part in the wide berth he was granted by the Lockheed and Air Corps brass. With so much at stake, they needed responsibility and authority concentrated in just one man—and only one man was qualified. As much a salesman as a designer and engineer, Johnson was an energetic promoter who knew how to dominate meetings, even among military personnel accustomed to having their way.

    To fully exploit his autonomy, Johnson set up far away from the office, in an open area adjacent to the plant’s wind tunnel, offering three distinct advantages. It was at the extreme end of the complex, where few others operated. Its proximity to the wind tunnel would prove helpful and convenient for testing. And on the far side of this remote area sat a noxious plastics factory, whose stench would keep the curious at bay.

    Johnson had plant engineering clear the space beside the wind tunnel, and within 10 days they had slapped together a drafty and unheated temporary structure covering 11,000 square feet. Ordinary construction materials were scarce in wartime, so the crew cobbled its walls with huge Wright engine crates left over from deliveries for the Hudson bomber, assorted scrap lumber, and canvas. And for the roof, Johnson rented a giant circus tent.

    Now Johnson put on his overalls and brazenly walked around the factory, “stealing”—as he put it—the company’s top people. He wanted people willing to work under the motto embossed on his notebook covers: “Dammit… Do It.”

    Johnson could be an impossible boss, often getting so angry that he’d just fire someone—though most knew he usually didn’t mean it. One longtime employee called him “W.C. Fields without the humor,” with a “chili pepper temperament” that was “poison to any bureaucrat, [and] a disaster to ass-coverers, excuse makers and fault-finders.”

    Just as Johnson set up his secret shop, Al Capp introduced the “L’il Abner” comic strip, which featured a malodorous moonshine still called the “Skonk Works.” The cartoon’s connection to the nearby plastic factory’s odor was so obvious that an engineer wore a gas mask to work as a gag, and a designer answered the phone, “Skonk Works!”

    Johnson didn’t like the name, but soon it was changed to Skunk Works—and it stuck.

    Johnson’s willful personality and reputation played no small part in the wide berth he was granted by the Lockheed and Air Corps brass.
  6. Chapter 6 “Our Days Are Numbered!”

    Johnson knew a formal contract between the parties would not be forthcoming for months—but the signed letter of intent dated June 22, 1943, required delivery of the prototype airframe before Christmas.

    The design of the prototype—officially the XP-80 but affectionately called the Lulu Belle (and later the Shooting Star)—was straightforward enough, theoretically, to construct within this sped-up timeframe. But to keep every man firmly focused on the unrelenting passage of days, Johnson installed a big scoreboard countdown calendar—a large red sign attached to the back wall entitled, “Our Days Are Numbered.”

    Every morning, someone would pull off the preceding day—and the new day recognized. Work seemed to have just begun, but there it was: “This is Day No. 14: 166 to go.”

    The clock was ticking. Time pressures were intense—and Johnson wanted his men to know it.

    On Day No. 19, the crew finalized a wooden mock-up of the airplane—the project’s first substantial completion milestone—right on schedule. Johnson made the mock-up unusually detailed to discourage changes, and when Air Force personnel arrived from Washington for the inspection, they made no changes.

    As the mission neared its halfway mark, the men struggled to develop an optimally aerodynamic fuselage that would also readily accommodate engine and armament installation and repair. Finally, they devised a workable wing section redesign, and the moment draftsmen finalized updated blueprints, mechanics were building the sections. The redesigned wings were completed—and ready for mating to the fuselage—on Day No. 83.

    Which, according to Johnson’s master schedule, was right on time.

  7. Chapter 7 Hurry Up and Wait

    Lockheed’s contract with the Army called both a prototype aircraft and a new Lockheed-designed jet engine. The Army then shifted gears and told Johnson his new fighter would need to use a British-designed de Havilland engine – one that was so top secret Kelly and his men could not see it.

    Johnson and Lockheed had no choice but to accept those terms, but the most challenging aspect of the mission had always been working without an engine. The engineers only knew they were building an urgent prototype, and only five knew it was for a jet plane. The Air Corps gave Johnson some drawings and specifications, but most knew absolutely nothing about the engine.

    The Army had promised to fly the engine from London to Burbank, but there was no sign of it.

    To make matters worse, the sickness rate among the men was climbing, from a 25 to 30 percent absentee rate to nearly 50 percent or more. From Day No. 1, Johnson had based his production schedule on a 10-hour day/six-day week, with work on Sunday strictly forbidden. Now, as the days on the scoreboard dwindled, Johnson was doubling down on his insistence that men obey the Sunday rule. “You don’t get enough rest, and you get sick. The next man I catch in here on Sunday goes back to the B-17s.”

    The crew ran and re-ran safety tests, anticipating the engine’s arrival. The days passed, and the mornings and evenings grew chill. More anxious than ever to test the plane’s engine before its crucial aerial debut, Johnson and his top aides were starting to fret.

    On November 3, 1943—Day No. 132—the British engine finally arrived. Immediately, workers suspended the plane by bellybands for flutter and vibration tests. Fuel was pumped in and out, and brakes were tested. The test for releasing the cockpit canopy shook the makeshift tent so forcefully that those present thought the entire structure would collapse. When the crew prepared to pull out the Lulu Belle for her maiden voyage, they discovered the hastily constructed tent now had to be completely torn down for the plane to exit.

    One week later—on Day No. 139—the Lulu Belle was secretly trucked out in the dead of night to the California Muroc Restricted Air Base (now Edwards Air Force Base) to run the engine. With the starter button pressed, the British-designed de Havilland engine roared spectacularly to life.

    Johnson now felt more confident than ever that his Skunk Works crew would deliver on time. And just four days later, on November 15, 1943—Day No.143—the Army Air Force officially approved and accepted delivery of the promised jet fighter prototype.

    Johnson was 37 days ahead of the Army’s schedule. He was especially gratified because his private schedule had always been 150 days. But now the Lulu Belle needed to become the Shooting Star—a pilot-safe, fully operational jet fighter.

    Later that evening—during the plane’s final tune-up, with the powerful engine howling at full power—a tremendous bang rang out. Johnson was standing between the two engine ducts to watch the operation closely and almost lost his pants down the intake. Both ducts had collapsed, and before the engine shut down, chunks of flying metal were vanishing into the engine’s angry maw.

    Jet engines aren’t designed to digest metal. Johnson and several others tore into the machine, hoping the damage wasn’t too severe. By dawn, they had the engine completely disassembled and turned to their British expert for an assessment.

    “This crack in the compressor housing—you’d better ask for another engine,” he frowned. “I’m frightfully sorry, but you won’t be able to fly this one.”

    This information—and the crew’s disappointment—sunk in all at once. The intake ducts would have to be redesigned and newly fabricated. And Skunk Works could only wait until another English engine arrived.

  8. Chapter 8 “Lady or Witch?”

    Nearly two months have elapsed, and now the Shooting Star is aboard an Army truck trailer, surrounded by heavy guard.

     Just after dawn on Saturday, January 8, 1944, the plane reaches the Army’s experimental field in the Mojave Desert as a raw wind sweeps across the cold, damp morning. The shivering Skunk Works engineers—bussed to the desert for the test flight—are warming themselves with sagebrush bonfires along the airfield’s north end.

    Mechanics engage in last-minute checks while Johnson exhorts his ace test pilot, Milo Burcham, who also flew the P-38 Lightning, among other Johnson designs.

    “Just fly her, Milo,” Johnson says. “Find out if she’s a lady or a witch. And if you have any trouble at all, bring her back. She’s all yours from here. Treat her nice.”

    Burcham climbs in, fastens on a brightly colored football helmet, snaps down the bubble canopy, and starts the engine. A roar booms across the desert. On a knoll above the airfield, the crew straightens to alert. Burcham waves to them and starts to taxi. With the engine whining at full scream, the jet takes off. The Shooting Star is airborne.

    The pilot circles the field, slowly at first, but as the plane gains altitude, it wobbles—and Burcham quickly noses the plane down and turns it around to land. The engineers stand silently as Johnson and others rush to the plane.

    “Over-cautious, maybe,” Burcham admits to Johnson. “She felt funny on the ailerons. Pretty touchy.”

    “You’ve got 15 to 1 boost and a hot ship that’s naturally sensitive,” Johnson reminds Burcham. “Maybe you were over-controlling?”

    “Could be,” Burcham agrees.

    While the two talk it over, spectators dig their hands into their pockets and kick at rain puddles.

    Now Burcham restarts the engine, and the plane takes off again, buzzing low across the field and roaring out of sight. He’s flying so fast, and from such a great altitude as it dives toward the area, that no one even knows he’s returned until the plane has passed overhead and the crowd hears its roar.

    “A blast of sound that surrounded us without seeming to originate anywhere,” Johnson recalled. “A totally new sensation.”

    After an hour of aerial gymnastics, Burcham heads back for a landing—and he’s coming in hot. The pilot tears back the bubble canopy almost before he finishes taxiing, jumps to the ground, and throws down his helmet.

    “Jee-sus Chee-rist,” he shouts, “what a plane!”

    • Test pilot Milo Burcham (l) and Kelly Johnson after Burcham's first flight of the XP-80.
      Test pilot Milo Burcham (l) and Kelly Johnson after Burcham's first flight of the XP-80.
  9. Chapter 9 Ironies and Aftermath

    Air Force officers had delighted in Burcham’s spirited show—and the Shooting Star’s record-breaking 500 mph-plus speed. They wanted more jets, and quickly. But delivery would not come immediately, nor without cost.

    “Shooting Star” was a misnomer. Lockheed boasted that its plane, unlike its nemesis Nazi jet fighters, left no telltale comet-like exhaust trail by day or night. However, the Army had wanted proof. In late 1944, Lockheed pilot Ernie Claypool flew into a darkened sky one night and never returned. His jet, flying clean and devoid of a trailing path, was hit head-on by an unsuspecting Army bomber, killing everyone aboard both planes. The point was tragically made.

    Meanwhile, the German Me-262s continued to fly and proved difficult to counter-attack. But the Nazis were also experiencing technical and production difficulties. Allies were effectively attacking German aircraft while still in their hangars or taking off and landing. They were beginning, finally, to win the ground war.

    The Skunk Works XP-80 prototype proved an overwhelming success, but numerous tests and modifications were still needed before it became a fully operational fighter. As the first few Shooting Stars finally arrived in Europe in early 1945, Army Air Force brass was not inclined to send them immediately into battle, at least not until their numbers increased. Still, their mere presence was said to have bolstered the morale of the Air Force’s heavy bomber crews constantly confronting German jets. It also was unclear how long the Allies’ conflict with the Third Reich would last—and indeed, Germany’s surrender would come just a few months later.

    World War II ended before the new U.S. jet fighter—America’s first—could prove itself in battle. But production continued at a reduced rate, and the U.S. would manufacture P-80 and its numerous variants for another 15 years. A later version won the world’s first all-jet dogfight during the Korean War when it shot down a Soviet MiG-15 in the skies above North Korea.

    The Nazi menace, coupled with Johnson’s peculiar characteristics—what Lockheed’s Al Romig later called “an existential threat and a magical man”—was perhaps the only circumstance extraordinary enough to will this singular Skunk Works operation into existence. Lockheed allowed Johnson to keep his relatively tiny operation as long as he ran it on a shoestring and it didn’t distract from his principal duties. Overhead was kept low, and financial risks to the company stayed small—which was fortunate since the first two projects following the Shooting Star were failures.

    But Skunk Works—and Johnson—more than survived. Johnson would organize his operational directives into “The 14 Practices and Rules.” And skunk works-style tactics have since become the standard by which small, unconventional autonomous groups are still considered, in some quarters, to be the optimal way to achieve rapid, innovative, and extraordinary results on advanced or secret projects.

    When the U-M Board of Regents awarded Johnson an honorary degree in 1964, he shared the Michigan Stadium stage with President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was working, in secret, on yet another new design, one that would become the SR-71 Blackbird.

    “Over forty years ago,” regents said, “the boy Clarence Johnson designed his first airplane, a visionary craft he conceived as attaining three hundred miles per hour. He has lately designed a craft which possibly approaches ten times that speed, a more exact figure being known, at these ceremonies, only to Mr. Johnson and to another distinguished guest of that name.”

    By the time Johnson retired in 1975, he was an aerospace legend known as the preeminent aerodynamicist of his time. Johnson was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965 and enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1974. He was responsible for designing more than 40 wartime and Cold War-era aircraft, including the path-breaking F-104 Starfighter, U-2 Reconnaissance, SR-71 Blackbird, and F-117 Stealth Fighter. Johnson held every aircraft design award in the industry, some two or three times, including the National Medal of Science, the National Security Medal, and the Medal of Freedom.

    Watch: Engineering Faster Planes in WWII: Kelly Johnson, the P-38 and the P-80


    This article is an expanded version of the writer’s earlier story published by the U-M College of Engineering. Sources include: Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson and Maggie Smith, Kelly: More than My Share of it All; Ben Rich and Leo Janus, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed; Dennis R. Jenkins, Lockheed Secret Projects: Inside the Skunk Works; and National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs: Volume 67. Special thanks to Lockheed Martin for making available materials never before released to the public; to the Huntington Library, which holds many of Kelly Johnson’s personal papers; and to Johnson’s stepson, John Horrigan, for his availability and assistance.