Kelly Johnson: Life of an Iconic Aeronautical Engineer

Kelly Johnson designed and built some of the most important aircrafts ever made.
Christopher McFadden

Clarence Leonard Johnson aka Kelly Johnson was a highly influential and innovative American aeronautical engineer and designer who helped create some of the world's most iconic aircraft of all time. Johnson was born on the 27th of February 1910 in Ishpeming, Michigan, and died on the 21st December 1990.

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a Bachelors's and Master's Degree, in 1933 he joined the Lockheed Corporation. One of his most notable achievements was heading the famous, yet secretive, Skunk Works at Lockheed while helping in the designing of more than 40 aircraft. 

He was also responsible for breakthrough successes at Lockheed which included:  first production aircraft to exceed 400 mph (P-38 Lighting), the first fighter to exceed Mach 2 (F-104 Starfighter), and the first production aircraft to exceed Mach 3 (Blackbird family). Kelly also contributed to the design of the longest continuously produced military aircraft in history – the Hercules C-130.

Kelly Johnson: Life of an Iconic Aeronautical Engineer
Hercules C-130, Source: Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons

Johnson was a High Achiever

He headed Lockheed's Skunk Works for more than 40 years and is said to have been an "organized genius". His time with Lockheed saw him recognized as one of the world's most talented and prolific aircraft design engineers in history. In 2003, he was even ranked 8th in a list of the top 100 "most important, most interesting and most influential people" in the first century of aerospace engineering by Aviation Week and Space Technology

Amongst the 40 planes that he helped design, a lot of them have become some of the most iconic and best-loved aircraft of all time. His portfolio of planes include: the stunning P-38 Lightning, The P-80 (the first American jet fighter to go into production), the unique U-2,  and of course, the SR-71 Blackbird.

He was the recipient of many awards and honors during his career including the Medal of Freedom in 1964. Johnson served as Senior Vice President of Lockheed until he retired in 1975. After retirement, he continued serving as a Company Director until 1980; and then as a Senior Advisor until his death in 1990.

"I knew I wanted to design airplanes since I was twelve years old” - Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson: Life of an Iconic Aeronautical Engineer
Kelly Johnson testing an early design for the Lockheed Model 10 "Electra". This became the aircraft that Emilia Earhart attempted to complete a round-the-world expedition in 1937. Source: Mdd/Wikimedia Commons

Early and Personal Life

Kelly Johnson was born on the 27th February 1910 in Ishpeming, Michigan. Ishpeming was, at the time, a remote mining town. His parents were Swedish nationals who emigrated from the city of Malmo in Scania. In America, Johnson's father successfully set up and ran his own construction company. Johnson's love of aircraft design was clearly seen at a very young age. Appropriately enough, his birth was seven years after the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight. 

"I knew I wanted to design airplanes when I was 12 years old" Johnson would later recall. "I read every Tom Swift novel I could get my hands on. I read "Tom Swift and his Airplane"; "Tom Swift and his Electric Car" ; "Tom Swift and his Submarine" and I said that's for me." 

 Around the same time, he decided he wanted to spend his life designing aircraft. His first creation, the Merlin 1: Battle Plane, was born soon after. A couple of weeks later Kelly saw his first airplane in real life, a WW1 Jenny. This experience cemented his career decision for life. 

He later worked his way through Flint High School, graduating in 1928. Over the summers he helped his dad out with his business while working in the motor test section of the Buick Motor Car Company. By the time he graduated, he had managed to save up around $300

With his savings, Johnson attempted to get some flying lessons at Flint Airport. Sadly for him, the flight instructor refused as he was far too young.  "I've always had the greatest respect for that man," Kelly would later say. "He needed that money more than anything else in the world. But instead of taking it, he said, "Look kid.. save that money and go to school." Kelly did. 

Kelly Johnson: Life of an Iconic Aeronautical Engineer
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, Source: Stahlkocher/Wikimedia Commons

Kelly's Higher Education

After high school, he enrolled himself at Flint Junior College, now known as Mott Community College, after which he attended the University of Michigan. 

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Kelly Johnson completed his undergraduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University in 1932. He stayed on another year to complete a Master's in Aeronautical Engineering in 1933. It was during this time at University that his now famous namesake was born. It became common for his peers to ridicule his name, Clarence, often abbreviating it to "Clara".


One morning Johnson had had enough of the name calling and decided to react, physically. He reacted by tripping one boy who called him "Clara" so hard; he broke his leg. From that day forward "Clara" faded out of fashion, with a far more meaningful namesake "Kelly" being born. This nickname came from the popular song at the time, "Kelly With the Green Neck Tie". Henceforth, he was always known as "Kelly" Johnson.

Kelly Johnson later met and married Althea Louise Young in 1937. The couple met at Lockheed where Althea worked for the finance department. She sadly passed away in 1969. Two years later, he married his secretary Maryellen Elberta Meade. Maryellen was from New York and died at the age of 46 from long-term illness in 1980. Then, he married Meade's friend Nancy Powers Horrigan in November 1980

Kelly Johnson's Lockheed Career

During his Masters at Michigan, Kelly Johnson took up small teaching fellowships. He also made a more than modest income renting the University's wind tunnel for some consulting work. He ran tests for models of Indianapolis race cars, trains, and aircraft. 

"I made more money that year than any of the first 10 years I worked for Lockheed." Kelly later recalled. 

The event that changed his life was when he was asked to test Lockheed's proposed Model 10 airliner; his experiments found that the airframe design lacked adequate directional stability. Kelly's professor held the opposing view and told Lockheed his findings instead.

After completing his Master's degree in 1933, Johnson joined Lockheed as a tool designer on a salary of $83 a month (around $1,500 today). Kelly quickly showed his potential to senior staff including the Chief Engineer of the Model 10, Hall Hibbard. Hibbard was intrigued by Johnson's concerns over the aircraft's design that he agreed to send him back to Michigan to conduct more tests.

After a lot of experimentation, Johnson made some changes to the design of the wind tunnel model. This included the aircraft's later iconic "H" tail which ironed out a lot of the aircraft's aerodynamics. 

Lockheed later accepted his design changes and the Model 10 "Electra"  went on to be a commercial success. This brought the attention of the company's management, and he was soon promoted to full aeronautical engineer status. After assignments as flight test engineer, stress analyst, aerodynamicist, and weight engineer, he became Chief Research Engineer in 1938.

Kelly Moves Up the Corporate Ladder

Kelly was then appointed as Chief Engineer at Lockheed's Burbank, California planet in 1952. This plant later became the Lockheed-California Company. In 1956, he was promoted to Vice President of Research and Development. Two years later in 1958, Johnson became the Vice President of Advanced Development Projects (ADP).

In 1955, he was approached by the CIA to initiate construction fo the secret airbase at Groom Lake, Nevada. This later came to be known as Area 51 and was the location for the final flight testing of the iconic Lockheed U-2

Between 1964 and 1980, Kelly served as Lockheed's board of Directors. He eventually became Senior Vice President in 1969. Johnson officially retired in 1975 when he was succeeded by Ben Rich.

He did continue to work as a consultant at the Skunk Works too. In 1983, the Lockheed Rye Canyon Research and Development Centre in Santa Clarita was renamed after him to honor his 50 years of service to the company.

Kelly Johnson: Life of an Iconic Aeronautical Engineer
Model 10 "Electra" at Science Museum, South Kensington. Source: Hugh Llewellyn/Wikimedia Commons

The Lockheed Skunk Works

When Kelly Johnson became the Vice President of Advanced Development Projects in 1958, their first offices were, more or less, uninhabitable. They were located near to a plastic factory that created a very pungent odor indeed. The stench was so bad that one of the engineers, Irv Culver, began to answer the Intra-Lockheed phone as "Skonk Works!".

This name came from a popular comic strip "L'il Abner" by Al Capp. Within this strip, Big Barnsmell's Skonk Works — spelled with an "o" — was where Kickapoo Joy Juice was brewed. The name felt very appropriate indeed. The nickname was soon leaked out and Lockheed ordered it to be changed to "Skunk Works" to avoid potential legal problems over copyright. 

This name quickly spread through the aerospace community and became a very popular nickname for R and D offices in general. However, The Skunk Works would always be associated with the Lockheed facility. It was here at this facility that the F-104 Starfighter and infamous spyplanes the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird were conceived.

Kelly Johnson: Life of an Iconic Aeronautical Engineer
SR-71's in production at the Skunk Works. Source: Enemenemu/Wikimedia Commons

Today, Lockheed's Skunk Works is still very proud of their past and are especially fond of their founder Kelly Johnson. 

"Our purpose hasn’t changed. The Skunk Works team remains connected to founder Kelly Johnson’s vision of a place where small empowered teams created powerful solutions. What Skunk Works cared about in 1943 is what we care about today. Our customers’ missions define our purpose. We thank them for their partnership and allowing us to serve them for 75 years, and we stand ready to tackle their more important missions for the next 75 years and beyond."

Skunk Works, Lockheed Martin

Hibbard and Johnson's remarkable P-38 Lightning

The P-38 was first conceived in 1937 by Lockheed's chief engineer Hall L. Hibbard and, his then assistant, Kelly Johnson. The plane's twin boom design was revolutionary for its day. The designers also proposed some other hitherto underheard of features, two supercharged engines and a mix of four 50-caliber machine guns and 20-mm machine guns

The design was an instant hit and it officially went into production in 1940. Not only did the Lightning look the business, it also performed. The P-38 was able to climb to 3,300 feet (just over 1005 meters) within 60 seconds and was one of the first planes to reach 400 mph (644 kph).

This was 100 mph (161 kph) faster than any other fighter of its day. It also had an impressive range of 1,150 miles (1,851 km) and was capable of carrying a larger payload than early Boeing B-17 bombers

This aircraft became USAF aircraft to receive a confirmed kill in August of 1942. The victim was a Focke-Wulf FW-200 Condor bomber and it was shot down over the skies of Iceland. Each P-38 Lightning had a very distinct design, was built for speed and packed a punch. Every twin-engined fighter could unleash 409 rounds per minute from the nose-mounted machine guns. 

The P-38 would quickly earn a reputation as a versatile and formidable aircraft. It was capable of sinking shops. strafing enemy ground units, busting tanks, destroying pillboxes and defending itself in dogfights.  

They would fly over 130,000 sorties in theatres all over the world. Colonel Ben Kelsey, a P-38 test pilot, summed it up as “(That) comfortable old cluck,” he said, “would fly like hell, fight like a wasp upstairs, and land like a butterfly.”

Kelly Johnson was a Prolific Designer

Kelly Johnson, himself, let or contributed to the development of a large number of groundbreaking aircraft. In the late 1930's he helped lead the team that finally developed the fantastic P-38 Lightning. This plane would go on to be one of the most successful dogfighters of the Second World War and over 10,000 of them would eventually be built. In the summer of 1938, Johnson was sent to London to help design a new aircraft for the RAF.

He was given 72 hours to design it and pitch it to the British Air Ministry. Johnson soon had his design for the Hudson Bomber. The Air Ministry was broadly happy with it but asked for some key changes which he completed over the next few days.

They were impressed with his new design but were concerned about the young engineer's age and apparent lack of experience. Lockheed reassured them that if they had complete confidence in him so should they. This was to prove to be one of the company' most important decisions.

In 1943 USAF started to have concerns about the Nazi's development of high-performance jet fighters. Johnson would, in only a matter of months, conceive of and develop a concept jet plane, the P-80 Shooting Star. This would become the U.S's first ever operational jet fighter.

It was this aircraft that was partially responsible for the development of the "Skunk Works" facility in the late 1950's.  Kelly Johnson also helped develop the SR-71 Blackbird. This series of aircraft could fly so high and so fast that it had no equal and could not be intercepted or shot down in their day. 

Kelly Johnson: Life of an Iconic Aeronautical Engineer
Johnson helped design the iconic and highly successful P-38 Lightning. Source: Hohum/Wikimedia Commons

Johnson's Dragon Lady - The U-2

During the height of the Cold War, U.S. intelligence agencies were finding it harder and harder to penetrate the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union was enormous indeed and any surveillance aircraft sent to test their defenses were often shot down.

What the United States needed was some new eyes in the sky, ones that could see behind the curtain and return safely.  And that is exactly what Kelly Johnson and Lockheed gave President Dwight Eisenhower in their seemingly darkest hour, the U-2 Spyplane

Initial designs for this iconic aircraft came from the mind of Johnson in 1953. It was developed under a veil of secrecy at Lockheed's top secret R and D lab the Skunk Works.

Kelly envisaged a lightweight high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that was capable of flying far above any Soviet Anti-Aircraft defenses. The U-2's final form was inspired by the profile of a traditional sailplane except for being a lot sleeker, and lighter. 

The aircraft's tell-tale long tapering wing was to be a third of the mass of what was considered normal at the time. This would allow the plane to fly missions over a total of 3,000 miles (4,828 km) while carrying up to 700 pounds (318 kg) of the latest spying equipment.

Not just that but all of this at an amazing altitude of around 70,000 feet (21 km). Although working tirelessly on the design by the time a proposal was provided to U.S. officials in 1954, Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles have already agreed in principle two competing designs. Johnson would not be deterred, however.

The U-2 was Delivered in Record Time

He was convinced his U-2 was the superior aircraft. Kelly decided to formulate a deal that no general in their right mind would refuse. He offered to take on complete responsibility for the plane's maintenance and services and promised to have one in the air in 8 months.

Eisenhower smelt a good deal and signed a contract for delivery of the U-2 with Lockheed. Incredibly Johnson only missed by one month when the first U-2 took to the air in July of 1955.  

Eisenhower's administration and the American people now had the secret weapon they needed to confront the Soviet menace. The U.S. intelligence agencies were now determined to use their new toy to stop the cold war from turning hot. 

The U-2 was initially intended to have a lifespan of little over two years. It has, in fact, seen action in every American war since. They are still in service today, primarily used as aerial eavesdropping devices. U-2s were also used to survey dirt patterns for signs of makeshift mines and IEDs over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kelly Johnson: Life of an Iconic Aeronautical Engineer
Source: Nyenyec/Wikimedia Commons

Death and Legacy

Kelly Johnson died at the age of 80 at St Joseph Medical Centre, Burbank on the 21st December 1990. He had been suffering from physical deterioration and advanced senility that was caused by the hardening of his arteries to the brain. His close friend Ven Rich visited him in the hospital for a little while and watched his condition worsen over time.

He later wrote that his "eyes seemed unfocused and lifeless, and increasingly began to slip in and out of coherence. I could barely stand to visit him, and many times he seemed not even to recognize me." He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

Many factors contributed to Kelly Johnson's amazing career. No one can doubt his incredible talent for design and engineering. He is often fondly remembered for being able to quickly and accurately estimate design characteristics such as mass.

These usually require very long-winded and time-consuming calculations. Kelly was also very ambitious and, rarely enough, an excellent salesman. He could aggressively promote his ideas while simultaneously earning someone's trust. Also, Kelly Johnson created teams and a work environment where creativity and productivity could flourish.

Kelly Johnson was the man behind some of the best-loved and iconic aircraft of the 20th Century. His aircraft will forever inspire both old and young aviation enthusiasts for many years to come. 

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